School-age children come in all shapes and sizes, but child development between 5-6 years typically has a few things in common. Here’s what your child might be doing, how you can help and when to seek help if you need it.
School-age child development at 5-6 years: what’s happening
Playing and learning
Even as your child gets older and starts school, play is important. It’s still how your child learns and builds social, emotional and thinking skills.
Your child’s pretend play is more complex now, filled with fantasy and drama. You might also notice that your child can play with others to achieve a common goal – for example, working together to build one big sandcastle. And your child might understand if another child doesn’t want to play a particular game and agree to play something else.
Your child is becoming more social and prefers to play with friends rather than on their own. Your child can share, although they might find it hard to share favourite toys and other things.
Games with rules sometimes challenge your 6-year-old, and your child might even accuse others of cheating sometimes.
At this age, children can express feelings, although they might need help and time to identify and talk about tricky emotions like frustration or jealousy. They often have much better control over feelings too and might have fewer unexpected outbursts of anger and sadness.
You might see more patience, and your child might even be open to reasoning with you. This means there could be fewer disagreements in the future.
Although your 6-year-old loves to be independent, your child still needs your love and attention. Connecting with you and family is the most important thing in your child's life. Your child is proud of their own achievements, wants your approval – and probably doesn’t take well to criticism.
Your child’s growing understanding of the world around might lead to some fears – for example, some children might be afraid of supernatural things (like ghosts), criticism or tests, failure, or physical harm or threat.
Your child’s attention span has increased and she can pay attention for longer. She understands simple concepts like time (today, tomorrow, yesterday), knows the seasons, recognises some words by sight and tries to sound out words. She might even read on her own.
Your child is better at seeing other people’s points of view, which helps him to make friends and meet new people.
And if your child sometimes comes across as if she ‘knows everything’, she’s not alone!
Talking and communicating
At this age children talk a lot, sometimes even when nobody is in the room.
You’ll hear your child using full and complex sentences and having adult-like conversations, although they might still find it hard to describe complex ideas or events. Your child understands and usually enjoys jokes and riddles – jokes about poos and wees are particularly funny. Your child also enjoys the opportunity to do ‘show and tell’ at school.
Your child understands more words than they can say, and they’re learning as many as 5-10 new words each day. Vocabulary growth is so rapid at this age that your child’s brain often thinks faster than your child can speak.
At 5 years, children are more coordinated and love to show off new physical skills – you’ll often hear shouts of ‘Look at me!’
Your child can learn how to ride a bike, jump rope, balance on one foot for a short period of time, walk downstairs without needing to hold your hand, skip and catch a large ball. Many 6-year-olds will also be interested in playing team sports like soccer.
Does it seem like your 6-year-old can’t ever keep still? Wriggling while watching TV, at the dinner table or even while sleeping is quite common.
Your child’s fine motor skills are improving, which leads to more independence with things like tying shoelaces, using zips and buttons, and brushing hair. Your child might still find it hard to cut up food with a knife but enjoys the chance to practise.
Daily life and behaviour
At this age, children are becoming more independent and love making small decisions, like what clothes to wear or what to eat for lunch.
Starting school opens up a whole new social world – which comes with a whole new set of rules. This might be demanding or challenging for your child. School can be tiring for children so don’t be surprised if he’s a little moody or easily upset, especially after a long day. On these days you might want to try and keep your child quiet at home after school and aim for an early bedtime.
Whether your child is feeling worried about starting school or bursting with excitement, a bit of planning and preparation can ease the transition.
At this age, your child might also:
copy simple shapes with a pencil
copy letters and write their own name
say their full name, address, age and birthday
draw more realistic pictures – for example, a person with a head with eyes, mouth and nose, and a body with arms and legs
read simple picture books
understand the importance of rules, and the simple reasons behind rules
Helping child development at 5-6 years
Here are some simple things you can do to help your child’s development at this age:
Encourage physical activity: play different sports and do recreational activities together or with others. These teach social skills like taking turns, cooperating, negotiating, playing fairly and being a good sport.
Include your child in simple household chores: setting the table or helping you to put clean clothes away develops moving and thinking skills, while also teaching cooperation and responsibility. These skills are important for school.
Play with your child each day, even if it’s just for 10 minutes. Play gives you the chance to enter your child’s world and find out what he’s thinking and feeling. It also shows your child that you care about him and want to spend time with him. Practise classroom behaviour: for example, you could give your child small tasks that keep her attention or that need her to follow simple rules or instructions. Have conversations about her favourite animal or sport and encourage her to listen, respond and question. This all helps your child get ready for school.
Arrange playdates: spending time with other children, especially if they go to the same school, helps your child’s social skills and gets him used to being apart from you.
Talk about your child’s feelings: you can help your child work out why she’s feeling something and help her put words to these feelings. This will help her form friendships and show empathy.
Parenting a school-age child
Every day you and your child will learn a little more about each other. As your child grows and develops, you’ll learn more about what he 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 somewhere safe or ask someone else to look after her for a while so you can take some time out until you feel calmer. Try going into another room to breathe deeply or call a friend or family member to talk things through.
Never shake or hit a child. You risk harming your child, even if you don’t mean to – for example, shaking can cause bleeding inside the brain and likely permanent brain damage.
It is okay to ask for help. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your child, talk to your spouse, a family member, friends or seek professional help.
When to seek help with child development
See your General Practitioner (GP) if you have any concerns or notice that your child has any of the following issues at 5-6 years.
Communicating and understanding
is difficult to understand or isn’t speaking in full sentences
can't understand multi-step, complex instructions like ‘Please put the soccer ball away, wash your hands, and sit down for dinner’.
Behaviour and play
has tantrums whenever they don’t get their own way
doesn’t show empathy – for example, doesn’t try to comfort others who are hurt or upset
shows no interest in letters or trying to write their own name
is very withdrawn, worried or depressed or gets very upset when separating from you
doesn’t interact well with others – for example, is aggressive or shows no interest in interacting with other children or adults.
still wets or soils his pants during the day (night-time wetting is typical up until the age of 6-7 years, especially for boys)
has difficulty falling asleep at night or staying asleep.
You should see a child health professional if at any age your child experiences a noticeable and consistent loss of skills she once had.
Children grow and develop at different speeds. If you are 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 is not quite right, see your GP.
© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission