Ages and Stages

Ages & Stages – Preschool Children

Three and four-year-old children are often called preschoolers.

Preschool children want to touch, taste, smell, hear, and test things for themselves. They are eager to learn. They learn by experiencing and by doing. Preschoolers learn from their play. They are busy developing skills, using language, and struggling to gain inner control.

Preschoolers want to establish themselves as separate from their parents. They are more independent than toddlers. They can express their needs since they have greater command of language.

Fears often develop during the preschool years. Common fears include new places and experiences and separation from parents and other important people. You can expect the preschool child to test you over and over again.

He or she might use forbidden words and might act very silly. Preschoolers may still have trouble getting along with other children and sharing may still be difficult. Because of their developing imaginations and rich fantasy lives, they may have trouble telling fantasy from reality. They may also talk about imaginary friends. Preschoolers need clear and simple rules so that they know the boundaries of acceptable behavior.


Physical Development - They ride a tricycle. They catch a ball. They stand on one foot. They build towers of 6-9 blocks. They walk on tip toes. They jump horizontally. They handle small objects such as puzzles, and pegboards. They smear or daub paint. They draw or paint in circular and horizontal motions. They grow about 3 inches taller in a year.

Social and Emotional Development - They need to know clear and consistent rules and what the consequences for breaking them are. They enjoy dramatic play with other children. Their emotions are usually extreme and short-lived. They need to be encouraged to express their feelings with words. They begin to learn to share.

Intellectual Development - Preschool children learn best by doing. They need a variety of activities. They need indoor and outdoor space. They need a balance between active and quiet play. They can communicate their needs, ideas, and questions. Their attention span is a little longer so they can participate in group activities.


Physical Development - They run on tip toes. They gallop. They pump themselves on a swing. They hop on one foot. They begin to skip. They throw a ball overhand. They have more small muscle control. They can make representational pictures (for example, pictures of flowers, people, etc.) They like unzipping, unsnapping, and unbuttoning clothes. They dress themselves. They like lacing their own shoes. They can cut on a line with scissors. They can make designs and write crude letters. They are very active and aggressive in their play.

Social and Emotional Development - They sometimes have imaginary friends. They tend to brag and be bossy. They have very active imaginations. They need to feel important and worthwhile. They can be aggressive but want friends and enjoy being with other children. They enjoy pretending to be important adults such as mom, dad, nurse, doctor, mail carrier, police officer. They appreciate praise for their achievements. They need opportunities to feel more freedom and independence. They are learning to take turns and to share. Games and other activities can help preschoolers learn about taking turns.

Intellectual Development - They ask lots of questions, including "how" and "why" questions. They are very talkative. Their language includes silly words and profanity. They enjoy serious discussions. They should understand some basic concepts such as number, size, weight, color, texture, distance, time and position. Their classification skills and reasoning ability are developing.

Special thanks to the University of Illinois Extension Pages

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Infancy | Toddlers | Preschoolers


The preschooler, age three to five years, is a child who continues to want independence, and also enjoys being with others. Preschoolers are filled with curiosity, enthusiasm, and a zest for exploring. During these years, all areas of development undergo rapid changes. Listed below are some characteristics of these children.

Physical Development

The Three Year OldThe Four Year Old
  • Growth slows but is steady
  • Walks up and down stairs using alternating feet
  • Can hop on one foot
  • Jumps in place with ease
  • Throws ball overhand
  • Holds crayon with thumb and fore fingers, not a fist as when younger
  • Enjoys building with blocks, turning pages of a book one at a time, and playing with play dough
  • Grows about 2 inches per year
  • Can walk on a straight line
  • Petals and steers a tricycle with ease
  • Climbs trees, ladder, & play equipment easily
  • Reproduces letters and shapes
  • Threads small beads onto string
  • Jumps over objects and lands on both feet
  • Enjoys running, painting and drawing

Cognitive Development

The Three Year OldThe Four Year Old
  • Attention span is increasing
  • Listens with interest to age appropriate stories - likes books
  • Interested in realistic play (feeding the cat, raking the leaves, etc.)
  • Draws shapes and puts them together to form trees, people, objects
  • Sorts objects according to color, shape, or use
  • Can name and match primary colors
  • May know numbers up to four
  • Can identify "more": cars, or dogs
  • Has some understanding of time (today, two days, nap time)
  • Can stack blocks from largest to smallest
  • Interested in letters and naming them
  • May recognize a few printed words
  • Interested in books
  • May count sets of objects up to 7
  • May rote count up to 20
  • Understands the words tallest, biggest, same, and more
  • Attention span continues to increase
  • Interested in how things grow and how things work
  • Matches a set of objects to a numeral (3 coins to the numeral 3)

Language Development

The Three Year OldThe Four Year Old
  • Talks about the actions of others, even when they are not present ("Daddy is moving the grass.")
  • Can answer simple questions correctly
  • Asks for specific objects or help
  • Remembers and tells favorite stories
  • Vocabulary is increasing and is about 80% understandable
  • May know 300 to 1000 words
  • Uses more nouns, adjectives, and verbs in speaking
  • Joins in social conversation (Please! Hi! Bye! Thank you!)
  • Enjoys talking with others
  • Understands and uses prepositions like "on", "in," and "under"
  • Speech is about 95% understandable
  • Can recite and sing simple songs or rhymes
  • Changes tone of voice when talking with others - To baby, "Milk gone?" To mother: "Did Toby drink all of his milk?"
  • Begins to use past tense verbs (Mommy closed the car door)
  • Gives first name, last name, sex, siblings name, or telephone number when asked
  • Can talk on and on and on

Social Development

The Three Year OldThe Four Year Old
  • Beginning to understand taking turns, but may not always want to
  • Talks to self, toy or pet
  • May have nightmares or fears
  • Enjoys simple games or small group activities
  • Friendly, laughs often
  • Attention span increasing: may sit for up to 10 minutes at an activity
  • May observe others children playing, join in, or just play beside them
  • Likes to be near other people
  • May still have a security blanket for comfort
  • Shows affection toward others
  • Friendly and outgoing
  • Moods can change quickly
  • May still tantrum over minor frustrations
  • Cooperates with others
  • Participates in group activities
  • Tattles on other children
  • Enjoys make believe activities
  • Establishes friendships with other children
  • Uses verbal rather than physical aggression against others
  • May not always take turns easily or share quickly
  • Exaggerates about what may have happened


Daily routines for three and four year olds are important in helping them to understand what will come next. For instance, an evening routine could be established after the dinner hour that includes playtime, snack, bath, reading a story, brushing teeth, and then bed. A fairly similar routine from day to day will help the preschooler prepare himself/herself for "what comes next." Routines can be established for eating, dressing, toileting, and play activities.

Questions Parents Often Ask About Three-Year-Olds

Questions Parents Often Ask About Four-Year-Olds




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