Healthy living

Child development 4–5 years

Four is when your child starts getting a ‘big picture’ view of the world.

Differences between people – relationships, sex, race – these social issues become visible to your 4 year old.

They’ll explore these through play, dressing up and asking lots of questions.

The big world seems exciting, but it can be hard to work out where they fit. So getting it wrong – being too big and bold, or too small and frightened – are not uncommon extremes for your 4 year old.

Social and emotional

Four year olds are moving out into the world. They can usually play happily with other children, and enjoy lots of physical games as well as stories.

  • Your child is learning to understand about other people’s feelings and needs. They can feel empathy for others, and can share toys and take turns, at least some of the time.
  • They may sometimes feel jealous of your relationships with other people, such as your partner.
  • They may have favourite games like ‘mummies and daddies’ and ‘superman’. These games allow them to try out various adult roles.
  • Sometimes these roles may conflict with your values, but if you allow them to play without making them feel that it’s wrong, they will probably ‘let go’ of that role once they’ve worked through what it means.
  • The world can seem scary to a 4 year old. 
    • They need you to provide a daily routine that gives them a safe base to explore from. For example, they need to know what happens at breakfast, what they’ll be doing during the day, and what special things happen at bedtime.
    • They also need to know that you will set safe limits to their behaviour. Even though they may seem confident, it is very scary for young children to feel that their parents cannot manage them.
  • Your 4 year old will begin to organise games and make friends.
  • They can be quite bossy with other children, and may still have a few tantrums when they don’t get what they want.
  • They can usually separate from you without getting upset, although not if there have been upsetting separations in the past.
  • They’re developing a sense of humour, and will laugh at funny situations.
  • Some of their behaviour may be ‘over the top’ – noisy, boasting, exuberant.
  • They’ll play quite complicated make-believe and pretend games – daddy and mummy.
    • They might have imaginary playmates, particularly if they don’t have other children to play with. This is nothing to worry about.
    • They still haven’t worked out what is real and what is fantasy, so may tell stories (lies) in order to please you.
  • Your 4 or 5 year old can go to the toilet by themselves, use toilet paper properly and flush the toilet.
Developing understanding

Your 4 year old will ask lots of questions about the world and why it is the way it is.

Sometimes their questions can be embarrassing or difficult to answer, such as questions about death or sex. They may be interested in where babies come from and may experiment by looking at their own and other children’s bodies.

Your 4 year old can probably:

  • understand 2 or 3 simple things to do at once – ‘Get a cup of water, take it to Daddy and then put the cup back on the table’
  • understand what ‘3’ means – ‘There are 3 motor bikes’
  • sort objects by size, colour or shape and type (animal, car)
  • compare 2 things to work out which is heavier
  • understand taller and smaller, but not be able to arrange 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 they see a lot – ‘STOP’ on stop signs

By the time they are 5, your child can:

  • tell you their name, age and address (if you’ve taught these to him)
  • copy a square, a cross and a triangle.

Children’s sexual behaviour

Try to answer their questions as simply and honestly as you can without telling them more than they asked.

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

Physical development

Your 4 year old is developing confidence in their physical ability but, as with their emotions, they can be too bold or too timid, and still needs to be supervised during active play.

Your child can:

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

Your 4 year old will probably love to have conversations and talk in detail about all sorts of things. They need to find out about all aspects of life, and talking is an 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 – says ‘th’ for ‘s’, or ‘w’ for ‘r’
  • asks ‘Why’, ‘When’ and ‘How’ questions, and asks what words mean
  • tells long stories which may be partly true and partly made up
  • is interested in questions, and can argue and give their own ideas about things
  • talks about what might happen or what they’d like to have happen
  • knows a few nursery rhymes which they can say, repeat or sing.
What they enjoy

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

Your 4 year old may enjoy:

  • jokes (especially toilet jokes). They will laugh at and say nonsense or silly words.
  • books and stories with interesting rhymes and words. They may make up rhymes.
  • playing with other children
  • physical activities
  • simple computer games.

Ignoring toilet jokes, or giving them an alternative word if they keep using words you don’t like is often the best way to help them through this stage.

If your child says ‘You’re a poo’ to everyone they meets, try suggesting an interesting, alternative word – ‘I know another good word. Why not say “You’re a banana?”’

Activities

The main thing your child needs from playing with you is to have fun. It’s important not to turn play into ‘lessons’. Try and provide an interesting environment and enough time to play, and follow your child’s lead.

  • Talk to your child about what they do and where they’ve been. What did they do and see? Listen with interest when they talks to you and join in conversations.
  • Read books to your child. Talk about what’s happening in the pictures – let them act out the story.
  • Tell stories about when you were a child.
  • Your 4 to 5 year old is learning to sort things into groups, so play sorting games – sort spare buttons into shapes and colours, play animal lotto.
  • Give them the chance to learn to ride a tricycle or a bicycle with trainer wheels.
  • Make time for outdoor physical activity such as walks in the park, ball games or visiting playgrounds.
  • Give them the materials for painting and drawing.
  • Praise and encourage them when they’ve considered or played well with others, and help them to think about how others feel.
Starting kindy

Your child may start kindy (kindergarten) this year. It may just be like an extension of child care for both of you, or it may be the first time you’ve been separated.

How they react to separation will depend on their personality and if they’re used to being away from you. If you have a new baby at home, your 4 year old may feel they’re ‘missing out’ by going to kindy and needs to know that they will still have ‘special time’ with you.

It will help your child if you:

  • celebrate their start of ‘school’ in some small way
  • go to kindy with them at least twice before they start
  • stay a while if you have time
  • buy them a new bag or lunch box even if they don’t need one
  • listen to their stories about the experience.
Your child is unique

Every child is different and may develop at different rates.

So, if your child does not do some of these things, they may be ‘working’ on a different area of learning and development. However, children usually follow the same pattern of development, and it’s good to feel that your child is developing normally, in his own unique way.

If you are worried about your child’s development, or if they are very different from other children, talk with your doctor or child health nurse. If there is a problem, it’s better to get help early.

Alert

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

  • your child’s understanding and skills go backward for more than a short time
  • they don’t speak clearly enough to be understood by other people
  • they can’t hear a whisper or keep asking people to repeat things – says ‘What?
  • they’re not interested in other children and what is happening around them
  • they’re behind other children of the same age in some areas
  • they screw up their eyes to see some things, or has trouble seeing them, or their eyes are looking in different directions
  • you have any worries or concerns about your child’s development.

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


Acknowledgements

Child and Adolescent Health Service – Community Health (CAHS CH)


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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