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Development guide from 3 to 5 years

How your child will develop

All children develop at their own pace. The information below is a guide so do not worry if your child takes a slightly different course.

The importance of the senses

Children learn through their senses. As well as touch, taste, sight, smell and hearing, the senses include ‘proprioception’ (body awareness) and ‘vestibular’ (balance and movement).

Your child’s development will benefit from lots of opportunity to experience a wide range of sensations.

Social and emotional development

At this age, children develop quickly, as they gain greater awareness of themselves and the world around them.


Between 3 and 4, children will usually be less rebellious than they were at 2 years. They’re friendly and helpful, have some level of self-control and use words to express what they want. Children become more independent and can follow a series of simple instructions.


Children do not usually experience separation anxiety but may still cry when travelling to preschool or nursery.  3 year olds can feel anxious or jealous for surprisingly long periods of time.


Children develop their imagination between 3.5 and 4 years and may have frightening dreams.  They fear their parent or carer will abandon them, especially at night.  Other fears include fear of the dark and spiders.


Children enjoy playing on their own. They also become more interested in other children and begin to interact more directly with them.  Children constantly move between real life and fantasy play.  They are now more likely to share toys and take turns, initiate or join in play with other children and begin dramatic play.


Between 4 and 5 years, children show more awareness of themselves as individuals.  They have a developing awareness of their own needs, views and feelings and are sensitive to the needs, views and feelings of others.  They show some understanding of moral reasoning and understand what’s right, what’s wrong and why.

Confidence and independence

Self-confidence grows and children learn to challenge authority and test the limits of their independence.  As children turn 4 years, some of the stubbornness seen at 2 years returns.  However, it’s usually less strong and has a more playful quality.

At 5, children tend to be more stable, less frustrated and  aggressive.  When angry, they may stomp their feet or slam doors. “I hate you” or “I wish you were dead” are common statements for 4 and 5 years olds.

Relationships with other children

They develop friendships, enjoy imaginative play with others and show interest in exploring gender differences. Children’s friends have a real influence on their behaviour and preferences.

Behaviour management

Distracting your child is will no longer work as an effective way of managing their behaviour.  It’s also likely that reasoning will no longer work. Older children generally understand this.

However, bargaining can be successful, for example “If you do this now, then we can do that afterwards.”

Time out chair or calm down time

This can help the child regain some self-control.  As a general guide, a child should need one minute time out for each year of their age, for example 3 minutes for a three year old.

What to expect

Find out more about the changes you can expect from your child below at each age milestone.

Big muscles and movement skills (gross motor skills)


What to expect

By 4 years most children can:

  • hop and stand on one foot for up to 5 seconds
  • go up and down stairs without support
  • kick a ball forward, throw a ball overhand, and catch a bounced ball most of the time
  • move forwards and backwards with agility.

How you can help your child develop their big muscles and movement skills

Make sure your child has plenty of play space, both indoors and out.  Provide opportunities and a safe environment for your child to experience a wide range of movements, such as swinging, spinning and hanging upside down.

Provide time to rest, as children can tire easily.

Helping your child to explore what they can do with their body can be lots of fun.  Encourage your child to make lines and shapes with big muscle movements, such as drawing in the air, attaching ribbons to sticks and painting outdoor surfaces with water.


What to expect

By 5 years, most children can:

  • stand on one foot for up to 10 seconds
  • do somersaults, hop, climb, swing and possibly skip.

How you can help your child develop

Continue with the activities for the 3 to 4 years age range above.

Allow children to take greater movement risks, while still ensuring their safety.

Some children feel ready to take part in more organised activities and lessons, such as swimming, dance/ballet, martial arts, football and tennis.

Hand and finger skills (fine motor skills)


What to expect

By 4 years most children can:

  • pick up most things with their dominant hand and have a clear hand preference
  • hold a pencil with their thumb, index and middle fingers
  • draw a person with a head and several other body parts
  • copy vertical lines, horizontal lines and circles
  • lace a threading card
  • use scissors to cut along a straight line
  • feed themselves with a spoon or fork.

How you can help your child develop

Give your child lots of opportunities for drawing, ‘writing’ and making marks.  If they see you writing, they’ll want to copy.

Let them experiment with a variety of writing implements such as pencil, crayons, chalks, washable felt-tip pens and a paintbrush. Encourage them to draw circles and lines on different textures and in different planes (up and down and sideways). Examples of different textures to use include sugar paper, chalkboard, whiteboard, bubble wrap, sandpaper, on long strips of lining wallpaper.

Allow children to use safety scissors and give them different things to cut such as paper, card, foil and fabric.


What to expect

By 5 years most children can:

  • copy lines, circles, crosses, squares and triangles
  • write some letters
  • cut out a square and a circle
  • draw a person with a body
  • dress and undress without help
  • use a fork and spoon, and possibly a table knife.

How you can help your child develop

Continue with the activities for the 3 to 4 years age range above.

Once your child feels comfortable using pens and pencils to scribble on paper, you can teach them the shapes needed for writing.

For more about what to expect and activities, see our guide on how to prepare your child for learning to write.

Visual perception


What to expect

By 4 years, most children can:

  • correctly name some colours
  • put several items in order of size
  • understand what ‘same’ and ‘different’ mean
  • copy a simple pattern of toy blocks (for example three in a row with one on top).

How you can help your child develop

Try games and activities that involve counting, sorting, colours and matching.  Play simple ‘spot the difference’ games and ask your child to find things that are the same and different.

Simple jigsaws and insert boards are good, as well as picture card games like pairs, and snap.  You could hide small toys in a sand box and ask your child to name them from touch.



What to expect

By 5 years most children can:

  • count 10 or more objects
  • put 5 or more items in order of size
  • correctly name four or more colours.

How you can help your child develop

Continue with the activities for the 3 to 4 years age range above.

When your child gets more skilful, increase the difficulty or complexity of the games and activities.