In the 1920’s and 1930’s, Arnold Gessell and Jean Piaget may have invented much of what we know about ages and stages. What’s interesting to me is that terrible twos are not a global phenomenon. Most other cultures don’t refer to this age as terrible at all. Jennifer Traig, author of Act Natural, A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting , recognises that in modern Hebrew it’s called “the soft age”.
The good news (or the bad news, depending on how life has gone for your child and you so far) is that toddler years are not really any better or worse than the preschool years, which is where we’re spending our focus below. Children have a slightly lower number of tantrums in their preschool years then their toddler years. But… those tantrums tend to be bigger and harder to handle because the child is bigger and harder to handle. And they have a pretty good idea of what they’re doing.
Our children’s pre-school years are associated with enormous psychological leaps that coincide with increased physical capabilities and accelerated social development. The explosive brain cell proliferation of the first few years slows down but connections continue to expand and be refined.
Most interesting of all, we begin to see our little babies growing into actual people. They’re walking, talking, expressing themselves, and getting curious about the world around them. Here are the central milestones of the preschool years:
Our children’s growth spurt slows from 2.5cms per month during the first year of life to about 6-8 cms per year between two years and six years of age, and each year they also gain around 3kgs. Boys tend to be a little bigger and taller than girls through this period.
By the time they’re preschool age, children have developed gross motor skills and strength that allow them to run, throw, kick, climb, skip and be generally active in new ways. And their fine motor skills mean that they can start to help in the kitchen, do up zips and buttons, and take care of personal hygiene effectively.
Summary of motor skill development from age 3—6
|AGE||GROSS MOTOR & LOCOMOTOR SKILLS||MOTOR COORDINATION SKILLS||FINE MOTOR & MANUAL DEXTERITY SKILLS|
Runs easily but doesn't stop and turn easily
Climbs on furniture and playground equipment and trees without help
Kicks a ball forward
Pushes large toys around
Can jump forward around 30 cms
Stacks blocks, turns pages, picks up small objects
Can start, stop, and turn while running
Can hop on one foot for up to six steps
Can pedal/steer a bike
Can jump forward around 60 cms
Can hold a pencil and draw with it
Cuts paper with scissors, though not necessarily on the lines
Can descend a staircase without help, and while alternating feet
Can hop for 5 metres on one foot
Walks on tiptoe
Can catch a ball
Swings on a playground swing without assistance
Can copy a square or triangle with a pencil
Threads beads on a string, threads a needle
One of the coolest things to happen during the preschool years is hemispheric lateralisation. This is the process whereby each side of the brain acquires different specialities - and how we end up left- or right-handed. The brain is incredibly malleable throughout life, but this period is particularly important. The brain can impact behaviour, but behaviour (and the environment) can also impact the brain. This bi-directional relationship means that the way we parent, and our children’s environment, can either enrich or diminish our children’s brain development.
Our kids have short attention spans at this age. The brain simply has not developed the ability to regulate, but the process begins around now and continues as they mature. Up until this stage our children have little control over what grabs their attention. Conscious control of attention increases as the brain develops from this point on.
You’ll also note that children don’t remember much from their toddler years, but by the time they’re in preschool those memories start to take shape and stay in place. That’s because the hippocampus starts to develop in a more advanced way. It’s the place memories are built/consolidated. (If you’ve noticed that it’s hard to remember anything prior to your preschool years, this is why. Developmentally our brain is not wired for recall of things that happened in our early years).
Theory of Mind
One of the abilities that makes us human (according to Sir Simon Baron-Cohen, a celebrated psychologist and cousin of Sacha Baron-Cohen… or Borat) is theory of mind . It’s a fancy psychological term that means we can infer mental states, understanding, intentions, and so on in other people - and importantly, we can use them to predict how those people will behave. Historically theory of mind has been assessed by using false belief tasks. (See this video to understand how that works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6SniaiSbx7o ).
Children who have not developed theory of mind think everyone sees, feels, knows, and acts like them. Children with theory of mind understand that others perceive things differently to them and know how to reconcile that.
Researchers have typically thought that theory of mind develops at around the age of 5 years. More recent research has cast doubt on this, suggesting it might be a few years later (which explains why tantrums continue and sharing remains difficult).
Our children’s minds start to expand wildly in the pre-school years but there are still big gaps (... actually, most of their mind is still a gap). This stage is where kids start to ask “why”. All. The. Time. Preschoolers are intrigued by everything. They are more mentally involved in life, more morally aware, and more engaged with those around them. But they don’t really understand what’s going on quite well. Their leaps of logic don’t cross the chasm of critical thinking. They actually can’t think critically. And they don’t make sense to us, but they make perfect sense to themselves. At this age our children get frustrated when we don’t understand their idiosyncratic ideas. The huge leaps in understanding are getting closer, but children need to work through this phase first.(Piaget called this the preoperational stage.)
Self-awareness develops at this age too. Preschoolers know their name, their gender, and their interests. They also love to talk about themselves!
From around age three, children start to learn to regulate their emotions. They begin to develop an understanding of patience. They commence developing the capacity to pay attention. But it’s a slow process and it depends on their hunger, tiredness, level of connection, and environmental conditions. (A bit like many adults, really.)
Preschool-aged children learn to identify emotions in others, and we start to see genuine (rather than reflexive) displays of empathy in response to distress. Studies show that when parents talk about and name emotions, children develop this capacity sooner. They also resolve relationship ruptures better, even at preschool level, because they understand causes and consequences of emotional upset.
At a little under a year, babies will engage with one another on a playmat. Maybe they’ll fight over a toy or poke one another. It’s rudimentary social development. By around 18 months they might take turns or copy one another. Again, it’s basic interaction. Most early social play is parallel. Kids don’t interact much. They cry about who has what toy and they engage in basic, repetitive behaviours like digging or rolling a ball or spinning something. As language and brain function increase, so does social interaction.
Theory of mind affects a preschooler’s ability to really engage in high quality social play and interaction. Not understanding how another person sees the world as a big impediment. Struggling with illogical, idiosyncratic, egocentric thinking is another. Combined with a general level of unwillingness to share (related to the points above), social play can be tricky.
But… most typically developing children crave interaction. They learn together. They develop concepts together. And their interactions often centre on pretend play which is a rich experience for language development, creativity, emotional understanding, and the mastery of the cognitive skills that set the foundation for friendships in the next stage of their lives.
Milestones from age 3 to age 5 (summary)
Physical and motor skill
- A typical 3 year old can ride a trike, draw with a pencil, and paint with a brush. They love picking things up and putting them down.
- By age 5 skills like catching and throwing, hitting a ball with a bat or racquet, and threading beads on a string should be achievable with some practice
- The child’s ability to recognise and name feelings picks up pace at this age, particularly when helped by parents who actively name emotions and respond positively to them.
- Empathy and a desire to assist someone who is distressed also become common, particularly when practiced at home.
- The preoperational stage kicks off representational cognition, where a child can use a stick as a hammer, gun, or phone.
- Children remain pre-logical, although their thinking makes sense to them.
- Theory of mind begins to develop towards the end of this stage.
- Capacity for self-awareness and self-control increase at this age.
- By around age 3, children have moved from 2-3 word sentences and telegraphic speech to using longer sentences with more appropriate syntax and grammar. But they still over-extend prefixes or suffixes, and overgeneralise until later preschool.
- Understanding of past, present, and future tense, plurals, and other grammatical rules increases.
- Through the preschool years, children begin to enjoy socialising with others. They usually love their siblings (though fighting is common) and enjoy friendships outside the family.
- Peer interaction increases which usually teaches positive social skills. Communication increases as does assertion of opinions and expectations.
- Children begin to identify their gender.
- Erik Erikson suggests that children experience conflict between personal initiative and guilt. Parents help them by teaching moral values and offering autonomy. Children develop a sense of who they are through this process.
What you can do for your preschooler
The list of things your preschooler needs from you is simple - but tiring. Let’s take a quick look:
- Read, read, read, read, read. And ask your child about what you are reading, particularly around the emotions that the characters in the story display.
- Slow down your talking and really focus on your child when you interact.
- Smile at them.
- And when you speak, use proper grammar.
- As your child moves through preschool it’s time to encourage less baby talk and more regular speaking.
- During play dates, let your child solve her own problems with friends, but be nearby to help out if needed.
- Give your child toys to build imagination, like dress-up clothes, kitchen sets, and blocks.
- Play your child’s favorite music and dance with your child. Take turns copying each other’s moves.
One more important thing: if you haven’t already, now is a good time to talk to your child about safe touch and body safety more generally. There are lots of resources online to help, but in short, help them know that no one should touch “private parts” except doctors (with a parent nearby) during an exam or parents when they are giving their child a bath.
Your Growth Guide
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM BIRTH TO ADULTHOOD