Pre-schoolers come in all shapes and sizes, but pre-schooler development at 3-4 years typically has a few things in common. Here’s what your pre-schooler might be doing, how you can help and when to see a child health professional.

Child development at 3-4 years: what’s happening


This is an important time in your child’s emotional development.

During this year your child really starts to understand that their body, mind and emotions are their own. Your child knows the difference between feeling happy, sad, afraid or angry.

Your child also shows fear of imaginary things, care about how others act and affection for familiar people. And as your child gets more confident, they’ll also get better at handling their emotions.

Playing and learning

Play is important because it’s how your child learns and explores feelings.

Your child is now more interested in playing and making friends with other children. Your child might start to play more cooperatively in small groups. Sharing gets easier beacuse your child understands the concept of ‘mine’ and ‘yours’.

Your child is becoming more imaginative during play – for example, your child might play pretend games with imaginary friends or toys, like having a tea party with toys. Your child might also try different roles – for example, they might pretend to be a doctor or a dad. And at this age, it’s common for pre-schoolers to have imaginary friends, although your child can probably tell the difference between real and fantasy.

By 4 years, your child might enjoy tricking others and describing what happened – for example, ‘Mum thought I was asleep!’ At the same time, your child also worries about being tricked by others.

Your child might be very curious about bodies – their own and other people’s. For example, you might find your child looking at their​ own and other children’s genitals. A combination of natural curiosity and role-playing is usually a normal part of childhood sexual behaviour.

Although sex play is normal at this age, if you’re concerned about a child’s sexual behaviour, it’s a good idea to talk with a General Practitioner (GP), a paediatrician or another qualified health professional.


Your child’s language will develop a lot this year.

Your child will learn lots of new words by listening to you and other adults and also by listening to stories. Your child shows more interest in communicating and might like to tell stories and have conversations.

Your child understands most of what you say and might guess the words they doesn’t know. Generally, your child understands many more words than they can say.

Around 3 years, your child will use sentences of 3-5 words, or even more. Other people will understand what your child is saying most of the time. Your child also points to parts of pictures – for example, the nose of a cow – and name common objects.

By 4 years, your child speaks in longer sentences of around 5-6 words or more. Other people will understand your child all the time. Your child also understands most things you say and will follow instructions with 2-3 steps, as long as they’re about familiar things – for example, ‘Close the book, and give it to Mum’. Your child understands adjectives like ‘long’ or ‘thin’, and use ‘feeling’ words like ‘happy’ or ‘sad’.


Your child is fascinated by the world around them and will ask lots of ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions. When it comes to understanding, your child knows about opposites like big/small and more/less and concepts like ‘on’, ‘in’ and ‘under’.

Your child’s memory is developing – for example, your child can remember nursery rhymes and might even repeat them back to you. Your child is also starting to point out letters and numbers that he remembers and name them, and can count up to four objects and sort them by colour and shape.

Everyday skills 

Your child loves eating family meals together. And your child understands your family routine and appreciates special events, like birthdays.

Your child is also becoming more independent – for example, your child can feed themselves, put on shoes that don’t have laces, undo buttons and do a bit more when they're getting dressed.

Your child is probably toilet trained, and they might be able to do some daily hygiene tasks on their own, like going to the toilet, wiping poo from their bottom and washing their hands and face. But your child still needs your help and supervision with tasks like brushing teeth.


Your pre-schooler loves moving and being active. He’s better at walking up steps, riding a tricycle, throwing, catching and kicking a ball, running, climbing, jumping, hopping and balancing on one foot.

When it comes to using her hands, your pre-schooler might be able to draw a circle or square, build big towers using blocks and use child-safe scissors. She’ll love using crayons, pencils and paintbrushes, which is great because drawing and painting build your child’s imagination.

At this age, your child might also: 

  • unscrew a lid from a jar

  • know his own gender and age

  • know the names of some shapes and colours

  • hold a pencil to write and by four years, copy some letters

  • dress and undress himself.

Helping child development at 3-4 years

Here are some simple things you can do to help your child’s development at this age:

  • Give your child lots of playtime: play helps pre-schoolers express feelings like joy, excitement, anger or fear. Your child might like messy play – in sand or mud or with paints – play with puppets or toys, or outdoor play with plenty of running, tumbling and rolling.

  • Make time for creative and artistic play: this might be painting, drawing or dress-up games. Musical play is another idea – your child might like to dance, jump around or make music with simple instruments.

  • Read with your pre-schooler: reading together, telling stories, singing songs and reciting nursery rhymes all encourage your child’s talking, thinking and imagination.

  • Do some cooking with your child: this helps your pre-schooler to get interested in healthy food, learn new words and understand maths concepts like ‘half’, ‘1 teaspoon’ or ‘30 minutes’. You can give her simple things to do, like tossing a salad or putting together sandwiches.

  • Play games with your child that involve learning to share and taking turns. When you play, say things like, ‘Now it’s my turn to build the tower, then it’s your turn’, or ‘You share the red blocks with me, and I’ll share the green blocks with you’. Sharing is still hard for children at this age, so give your child lots of praise when he shares.

Parenting a pre-schooler at 3-4 years

Every day you and your pre-schooler will learn a little more about each other. As your pre-schooler grows and develops, you’ll learn more about what she needs and how you can meet these needs.

In fact, as a parent, you’re always learning. Every parent makes mistakes and learns through experience. It’s OK to feel confident about what you know. And it’s also OK to admit you don’t know and ask questions – often the ‘dumb’ questions are the best kind!

Your own physical and mental health is an important part of being a parent. But with all the focus on looking after a child, lots of parents forget or run out of time to look after themselves. Looking after yourself will help you with the understanding, patience, imagination and energy you need to be a parent.

Sometimes you might feel frustrated or upset. But if you feel overwhelmed, put your child in a safe place or ask someone else to hold him for a while. Take some time out until you feel calmer. You could also try going to another room to breathe deeply or calling a family member or friend to talk things through.

Never shake a young child. It can cause bleeding inside the brain and likely permanent brain damage.

It’s OK to ask for help. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your toddler, talk to your spouse, a family member, friends or seek professional help. 

When to be concerned about child development at 3 years

You know your child best. So it’s a good idea to see your child and family health nurse or GP if you have any concerns or notice that your 3-year-old has any of the following issues.

Seeing, hearing and communication

Your child:

  • doesn’t look you in the eye

  • has trouble seeing or hearing things

  • isn’t using 3-word sentences

  • doesn’t understand 2-part instructions – for example, ‘Get your shoes, and put them in the box’

  • is often hard to understand when talking to you, family or friends.

Behaviour and play

Your child:

  • finds it difficult to separate from their primary caregiver

  • isn’t interested in other children

  • doesn’t pretend during play – for example, doesn’t pretend to go shopping or ride on a bus.

Movement and motor skills

Your child:

  • is clumsy – for example, trips over a lot when walking or running

  • finds it hard to handle small objects – for example, a pencil or crayon

  • isn’t drawing simple shapes.

When to be concerned about child development at 4 years

It’s a good idea to see your child and family health nurse or GP if you have any concerns or notice that your 4-year-old has any of the following issues.

Seeing, hearing and communicating

Your child:

  • has trouble seeing or hearing things

  • doesn’t use sentences of more than 3 words

  • can’t understand 2-part instructions like ‘Put the doll down, and pick up the ball’.

Behaviour and play

Your child:

  • has big tantrums over very small things or clings and cries when you leave

  • doesn’t seem to show empathy – for example, doesn’t try to comfort others who are hurt or sad

  • doesn’t pretend during play – for example, doesn’t pretend to be a grown-up or have a tea party

  • seems very afraid, unhappy or sad a lot of the time.

Movement and motor skills

Your child:

  • is clumsy – for example, trips over a lot when walking or running

  • finds it hard to handle small objects – for example, a pencil or crayon

  • has trouble drawing shapes – for example, a circle or square

  • has difficulty dressing themselves or using the toilet.

You should see a child health professional if at any age your child experiences a noticeable and consistent loss of skills she once had.

You should also see your paediatrician or GP if you notice the signs of postnatal depression in women or postnatal depression in men in yourself or your spouse. Symptoms of postnatal depression include feeling sad and crying for no obvious reason, feeling irritable, having difficulty coping and feeling very anxious.

Children grow and develop at different speeds. If you’re worried about whether your child’s development is ‘normal’, it might help to know that ‘normal’ varies a lot. But if you still feel that something isn’t quite right, see your paediatrician or GP. 

Video: Connecting and communicating with preschoolers

Watch this video and learn the importance of communicating with your preschooler, and how it helps her learn and develop.

Video: Play and learning with preschoolers (3-5 years)

Watch this video and learn tips on how to engage and play with your preschooler.

© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission

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