Healthy living

Child development 3–4 years

This topic is about your 3 to 4 year old.

  • In the course of this year children are moving out of babyhood into childhood.
  • They have rich imaginations, they may have strong fears, they love to play and they enjoy physical activity.
  • They are beginning to be more comfortable spending some time away from their usual carers.
  • Sometimes they are timid about trying new things.

All 3 to 4 year olds are different and they may develop at different rates. If you are worried about your child’s development, or if he can’t do things that he used to do for more than a short time, it is important to see your doctor or child health nurse. If there is anything wrong, getting in early will help. Otherwise it is good to know that your child is developing normally in his own special way.

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn – please change to suit your child's sex.

Social and emotional development

Your 3 year old is at the very beginning of learning how to get on with others. He can control his strong feelings somewhat better than he did at 2 but he is still likely to have some tantrums. He starts to understand social skills like sharing and being kind, but he can only practise these skills for a short time when he is feeling safe and happy.

  • Your 3 year old often enjoys being with other children and they now begin to play together more. He is learning that other people are real and have feelings. This means he can be upset when other people are upset.
  • Taking turns is a skill that he will learn as he approaches 4, but if he is upset or worried he won’t be able to share his own special things.
  • He is starting to be able to wait a short time for what he wants, such as ‘we will go out after you eat your lunch’.
  • Three year olds are less likely than 2 year olds to have kicking and screaming tantrums. Your child is eager to please you. With your help he might be able to try something else or wait for a few minutes.
  • He may still have fears of noises, the dark, animals, monsters etc.
  • Three year olds are developing a sense of humour and like to laugh at and repeat silly words and situations.
  • He will like to have choices but he usually can cope best if the choice is limited, such as ‘you can wear your red shoes or your blue ones’.
  • He may still need a dummy, blanket or other comforter when tired or away from home.
  • Three year olds can have very definite ideas of what ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ are like, such as girls wear pretty dresses and boys are like Superman.
  • He is starting to take responsibility for his own toileting. He may have accidents (wet his pants) during the day and be wet at night.

Developing understanding

Her own inner world is very powerful for your 3 to 4 year old. Sometimes it is difficult for her to sort out what is ‘pretend’ and what is ‘real’. For instance, whether witches really can put a spell on you or whether children can grow wings and fly like the pictures in her book.

Three year olds do not tell ‘lies’ as such but sometimes the inside and outside reality gets mixed up. She will love to talk to you about these important things. Never laugh at her confusions, and give them small amounts of simple information when explaining things.

A 3 year old:

  • can now understand that her mind is separate from those of her parents, and that they cannot read her mind
  • still does not really understand about things like height and size. She will think that a tall thin glass holds more than a short fat one – so there can be mistakes with pouring
  • shows some understanding of time and understands that night follows day
  • understands the meaning of tall, short, big and little
  • can say whether she is a boy or a girl and can tell you whether other children are boys or girls, but she does not yet understand that her sex is permanent
  • can tell you how old she is.

By the time she is 4:

  • she may be able to draw a person. Her person will probably have a big round head, with eyes and maybe a mouth and straight out of the head will poke the legs
  • she can copy a cross and a square and can build a bridge with 3 bricks.

Physical development

In this year your child will delight in physical activity and will love to run, jump, climb, dance, ride his 3-wheeled bikes and swing. He is not very good at pacing himself and may get tired and cranky if he doesn’t have some quiet activity between his bouts of energetic activity. Of course it is important that he can do these things safely and with supervision.

At 3 and a half to 4 he sometimes loses co-ordination and confidence for a time.

  • He loves to splash and play with water. Some 3 year olds are afraid of the pool or sea and others delight in swimming with an adult. (Always supervise children around water.)
  • Since balance is better, your 3 year old can walk along a plank.
  • He can use pedals on a tricycle.
  • He can roll and bounce a ball but catching it is still quite difficult.
  • He can throw a ball using shoulders and elbow.
  • By 4 a child can hold a pencil correctly.
  • He can button clothes.
  • Between 3 and 4 he will learn to cut with scissors.

Language

By 3 she is now talking in simple sentences and there is so much going on inside her head that often it seems as though the words can’t come out fast enough to describe it all. She often stutters and stumbles when trying to express herself. It can be exhausting to listen and explain things to her but exciting to be able to share in her rich imaginings. She loves to be read to and may want the same book over and over again.

  • She can get across what she wants to say in most situations.
  • Some 3 year olds speak very clearly, while others still use some ‘baby talk’.
  • She may stumble over some words but this will probably clear up by itself within the year.
  • The average 3 year old can understand 1000 or more words.
  • She can usually understand ‘place’ words such as under, on, beside, back, over.
  • She asks questions beginning with ‘What’, ‘Who’, ‘Where’ and ‘Why’.
  • She can talk about what happened yesterday and tomorrow.

You can build on what your 3 year old says to you. Don’t correct her unsuccessful efforts at words but respond positively with the correct word in your reply. Try to be patient. Ask her questions. Some children become such enthusiastic talkers that their constant ‘what’ can become irritating for parents. Most will respond to your request for you to have some quiet time from their questions – at least for a few minutes.

Child care and kindergarten

It may be that you begin to use child care in this year or you may well have used it long before. You will probably be choosing a kindergarten and planning for your child to start.

You may not have many choices but if you have you may be choosing either home or centre-based care, whichever suits you and is available to you. It is most important that, if you have any choice, you are satisfied with the carers and feel that you can talk easily to them, and of course that your child is comfortable and happy.

The way in which you and your child respond to the separation will vary greatly according to your personalities and life experiences but childcare and kindergarten should feel like positive experiences for both you and your child after the initial adjustment period. If it is not, talk to the carers about your concerns.

For more information visit Parenting WA (external site).

What to watch out for

Talk to a doctor or a child health nurse if your child:

  • is not able to be understood most of the time
  • is not using sentences of 3 or more words
  • is not interested in using the toilet or is frightened of using the toilet
  • has big fears that go on for a long time
  • can't jump with 2 feet in place
  • doesn't seem to understand what you say to him.

Speak to your doctor or child health nurse if you are worried.

What you can do

  • Allow him plenty of physical freedom, for example riding a tricycle, ball games, learning to swim. However 3 and 4 year olds are too young for team or competitive games.
  • Allow him as much time as you can to ‘get things right’ or do it for himself.
  • Give him plenty of warning before he has to finish any activity and pack up his toys, or get ready to leave the house.
  • Provide simple games with turns and rules so that he can begin to learn cooperative games.
  • Your 3 or 4 year old will enjoy rhythm and you can encourage this by providing music, songs and rhymes, allowing him to bang on lids and singing simple songs with him.
  • He loves to paint and draw. Provide big pieces of paper, textas or paints. Talk about the story that his drawing tells.
  • Provide picture books and story books that can be followed in the pictures and ask questions about the pictures.
  • He may enjoy appropriate TV programs and also enjoy videos that do not go too fast and that can be repeated over and over.
  • Provide lots of love, fun, approval and encouragement and begin to set limits that you can and are prepared to enforce.

Toileting

Some children will be progressing with toileting at the beginning of their third year and others will not. If your child is a perfectionist by nature or ‘fussy’ about getting things right, he may take longer to develop confidence in managing it himself.

If you have had another baby your toddler may ‘go backwards’ for a short time in his efforts to toilet herself.

If you have any concerns about your child’s progress, you may want to ask for advice and support from a health professional.

Summary

Social and emotional development

During this year your child begins to:

  • be able to play cooperatively with other children some of the time
  • learn about sharing and taking turns (but still cannot manage competitive games)
  • separate from parent more easily in familiar surroundings
  • become more independent and resistant to help from parents
  • show care for other children who are distressed
  • be involved in complicated make believe play.

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if your child:

  • does not yet interact with other children or with adults through play
  • is excessively aggressive or withdrawn with other children
  • plays in repetitious, stereotyped ways.

Motor development

During this year your child begins to:

  • climb ladders and trees
  • stand, walk and run on tiptoes
  • ride a tricycle skilfully, turning safely
  • stand on one foot for several seconds
  • show improving skills in ball games.

 Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if your child:

  • is not doing these activities as well as other children of the same age.

Daily activities

During this year your child begins to be able to:

  • eat well with a spoon and fork
  • be reliable with toileting, though she may still have ‘accidents’ when stressed, tired or if they ‘forget’ to go to the toilet (she may have been too busy). Many children will still wet the bed
  • enjoy helping adults with daily activities.

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if your child:

  • does not become toilet trained and reliably dry during the day by the end of this year
  • starts wetting again after becoming dry during the day.

Speech and language

During this year your child begins to be able to:

  • talk in complex sentences that are largely grammatically correct
  • have speech that is clear enough for most people to understand most of what she is saying (although there are often sounds which she cannot yet manage such as s, r, z, th, v, f)
  • enjoy stories and jokes
  • ask lots of questions.

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if your child:

  • still speaks unclearly or is not talking in sentences
  • is unable to follow verbal instructions
  • is not talking during play.

Children are different and may develop at different rates

If your child does not do all the things in this topic, it may be because your child is working on some different area of his learning and development at present.

Children usually follow the same pattern of development and it is good to have reassurance that your child is developing normally in their own unique way.

If your child is very different from other children, you are worried about your child's development, or if your child’s development seems to go backwards, you should talk with a health professional about your concerns. If there is a problem, getting help and ideas early will help. Remember that what matters is to support your child in moving forward from where they are now.

More information

Local community, school or child health nurse

  • See inside your baby's purple All About Me book.
  • Look in the phone directory under child health centres.
  • Visit your nearest child health centre.

Local family doctor

Ngala Helpline

  • 8.00am – 8.00pm 7 days a week
  • Phone: 9368 9368
  • Outside metro area – Free call 1800 111 546 (free from land line only)
  • Visit the Ngala website (external site)

Raising Children Network

Kidsafe WA

  • 8.30am – 5.00pm (Monday to Friday)
  • Phone: 9340 8509
  • Outside metro area – Free call 1800 802 244 (free from land line only)
  • Visit the Kidsafe WA website (external site)

Red Nose

  • 9.00am – 5.00pm (Monday to Friday)
  • Phone: 9474 3544
  • Outside metro area – Free call 1800 199 466 (free from land line only)
  • Visit the Red Nose (external site)

© Women’s and Children’s Health Network, reproduced with permission. The South Australian Government does not accept responsibility for the accuracy of this reproduction.


Acknowledgements
Child and Adolescent Community Health

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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