Healthy living

Child development 4–5 years

This topic is about your 4 year old. You can always get a view from a hill and being 4 is like the first developmental hill from which your child can get a view of a bigger world.

Relationships, sex, different people of different race; all these big social issues become visible to your 4 year old. They are questions they explore through their play, dressing up and through asking lots of questions.

To glimpse a big world is exciting, but from such a small hill it is impossible to see where you might fit. So getting it wrong – being either too big and bold, or too small and frightened – are not uncommon extremes for your 4 year old.

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

Social and emotional development

Your 4 year old is moving out into the world and can usually play happily with other children and enjoy lots of physical games as well as stories.

  • She is learning to understand about the feelings and needs of others, and their behaviour shows that she can feel empathy for others and can share their toys and take turns, at least some of the time.
  • She may sometimes feel jealous of her parent’s relationship. Parents can help by letting her know that their relationship is important to them, and that she will also have the opportunity to find their own special partner when she grows up.
  • She often develops favourite games like ‘mummies and daddies’ and ‘superman’. These games allow him to try out various adult roles for a while. Sometimes the roles he takes may conflict with your values as a parent, but if you allow him to play without making him feel that it is wrong, he will usually let go of that role once he has worked through what it means.
  • The world can seem like a scary place to your 4 year old. She needs her parents to provide a pattern of daily living that gives her a safe base from which to explore. For example, she needs to know what happens at breakfast, what she will be doing during the day and what special things happen at bedtime.
  • She also needs to know that her parents will set safe limits to her behaviour. Even though she may seem confident, it is very scary for her to feel that her parents cannot manage her.
  • Four year olds begin to organise games and make friends. Your 4 year old may be quite bossy with other children and may still have a few tantrums when she doesn’t get what she wants.
  • She can usually separate from parents and carers without distress. This may not happen if there have been upsetting separations in the past.
  • Her sense of humour is developing and she is likely to laugh at funny situations.
  • Some of her behaviour may be ‘over the top’ – noisy, boasting, exuberant.
  • She plays quite complicated make-believe and pretend games, such as fathers and mothers.
  • Some have imaginary playmates. This is more likely if they don’t have other children to play with. This is not a sign of developmental problems.
  • She has not yet worked out what is real and what is fantasy and may tell stories (lies) in order to please parents.
  • Four to 5 year olds can go to the toilet by themselves, use toilet paper properly and flush the toilet.

Developing understanding

Your 4 year old often asks lots of questions about the world and why it is the way it is. Sometimes his questions can be embarrassing or difficult to answer; for example, questions about death or sex. He is interested in where babies come from and may experiment by looking at other children’s bodies.

Try to answer his questions as simply and honestly as you can without telling him too much more than he asks.

While telling him simply of the beliefs your family holds, help them to understand that life has different stages. People live differently and have different values, and this is all normal and part of life’s richness.

Your 4 to 5 year old can:

  • understand 2 or 3 simple things to do at once, such as ‘Get a cup of water, take it to daddy and then put the cup back on the table’
  • understand what ‘3’ means, for example ‘There are 3 motor bikes’
  • sort objects by size, and by what sort of thing they are, such as animals, or by colour or shape
  • compare 2 weights to work out which is heavier
  • understand taller, smaller and shorter but will not be able to arrange a group of things in order of smallest to biggest
  • may be able to copy their name
  • draw a person with a head, body, legs and arms
  • tell the difference between morning and afternoon
  • say numbers up to 20 and is beginning to count a few objects by touching them
  • hold a pencil well
  • cut on a line
  • name and match 4 colours
  • recognise some words he sees a lot, for example ‘STOP’ on stop signs.

By the time he is 5:

  • he can tell you his name, age and address if asked (provided he has been taught these)
  • he can copy a square, a cross and a triangle.

Physical development

Your 4 year old is developing confidence in her physical ability but, as in her emotional life, she can be too bold or too timid and need to be supervised in physical play.

Your 4 year old can:

  • walk easily up and down steps, one foot to a step
  • throw and catch, bounce and kick a ball and use a bat
  • climb ladders and trees
  • stand on tiptoe, and walk and run on tiptoe
  • run quite fast
  • jump over small objects
  • walk along a line for a short distance
  • ride her tricycle very well and may try bicycles with trainer wheels
  • stand on one foot for a few seconds and most can hop
  • thread beads to make necklaces
  • swing herself on a swing
  • dress herself providing the fastenings are not too difficult
  • manage her own toilet needs during the day, but still may not be consistently dry at night.

Speech and language development

Four year olds are often great conversationalists and love to talk about the details of all sorts of scientific and important subjects. Your child needs to find out about all aspects of life and talking about things is a very important way of understanding how the world works.

Your 4 year old:

  • speaks clearly on the whole, but may still not use some sounds correctly, for example he may say ‘th’ for ‘s’ or ‘w’ for ‘r’
  • asks ‘Why’, ‘When’, ‘How’ questions and ask what words mean
  • tells long stories which may be partly true and partly made up
  • is interested in questions and can argue and give his own ideas about things
  • talks about what might happen or what he would like to have happen
  • knows a few nursery rhymes which he can say, repeat or sing.

What they enjoy

Children have their own unique personalities and things they enjoy and it is important to support them in their own interests.

The following are some things that your 4 year old might enjoy.

  • Jokes (especially toilet jokes). She will laugh at and say nonsense or silly words.
  • Books and stories with interesting rhymes and words. She may make up rhymes.
  • Playing with other children.
  • Physical activities.
  • Simple computer games.

Ignoring toilet jokes or giving her an alternative word if she is using words that you don’t like is often the best way to help them through this stage. For example, if she to everyone she meets ‘You’re a poo’ you could try saying something like, ‘I know another good word’. You could say ‘You’re a banana!’ If you suggest another interesting word she is quite likely to enjoy that just as much.

What you can do

The main thing children need from play with parents is to have fun with them. It is important not to turn play into ‘lessons’.

  • The best way to play with him is to provide an interesting environment, have time to play and follow his lead.
  • Talk to him about what he does and where he has been. Ask him what he did and what he saw. Listen with interest when he talks to you and join in conversations.
  • Read books to him. Talk about what’s happening in the pictures, let him act out the story.
  • Tell stories about when you were a child.
  • Four to 5 year olds are learning to sort things into groups, so you can play games for sorting objects, such as sort your spare buttons into shapes and colours, play animal lotto.
  • Give him opportunities to learn to ride a 3-wheeled bike, or 2-wheeled bike with trainer wheels.
  • Make opportunities for outdoor physical activity such as walks in the park, ball games, visiting playgrounds.
  • Provide materials for painting and drawing.
  • Praise and encourage him when he considers others and plays well with others and help him think about how others feel.

Starting kindergarten

Your child may be starting kindergarten (kindy) in this year. It may just be like an extension of childcare for both of you or it may be the first time you have been separated. Different personalities respond very differently to separation and it also depends on what separations you have had in the past and how well they have gone. If you have a new baby at home your 4 year old may feel that they are ‘missing out’ by going to kindy and need to know that they can still have some ‘special time’ with you.

It will help your child if you:

  • celebrate her entry into the formal education system in some small way
  • go with her to the kindergarten on at least 2 occasions before she starts (if it is not where she has been going for childcare)
  • stay for a while if you have the time
  • buy her a new bag or lunch box even if she doesn’t need one
  • listen to her stories about the experience.

What to watch out for

You should have your child checked by a health professional if:

  • his understanding and skills go backward for more than a brief time
  • your 4 year old:
    • does not speak clearly enough to be understood by other people
    • cannot hear a whisper or constantly asks for things to be repeated (says ‘What?’)
    • does not take an interest in other children and what is happening around him
    • is very much behind other children of the same age in some areas
    • screws up his eyes to see some things or has trouble seeing some things, or the pupils in his eyes do not always seem to be looking the same way
  • you have any worries or concerns about your children’s development.


Social and emotional development

During this year your child begins to:

  • learn lots about the world and how it works, and about people and relationships
  • make friends (often short-term) and plays group games
  • need structure and a routine to feel safe
  • need you to set limits and bring her back to earth without making her feel bad when her behaviour is ‘over the top’.

Developing understanding

During this year your child:

  • asks lots of questions; some difficult and embarrassing
  • learns about differences between people
  • remembers more than a single thought at one time
  • still cannot always tell the difference between what happened in her head and what happened in reality
  • likes to make up his mind very slowly sometimes.

Physical development

During this year your child:

  • loves to throw and catch a ball
  • loves to ride their trike
  • is developing confidence in their physical ability
  • easily misjudges their physical capacities.

Speech and language development

Your 4 year old:

  • can make conversation about lots of different topics
  • loves silly jokes and ‘rude’ words.

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 service finder for child health centres
  • Visit your nearest child health centre

Local family doctor

Ngala Helpline

  • 8.00am – 8.00pm 7 days a week
  • Phone: (08) 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: (08) 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: (08) 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

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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