I distinguish between parenting during the early years and homeschooling. Homeschooling happens when you introduce formal curricula, and for most children, that won’t happen until the kindergarten years, about age five. When you introduce formal curricula, the curricula should center on reading (decoding and read-alouds), math (with manipulatives), and developing handwriting.
I do not recommend any formal curricula or academic routines for these early years. At ages three and four, providing your child with screen-free playtime with other children is the most important task. Yes, siblings count, but children do need a larger group. Siblings can be cruel and kind in ways that other children will not be. Dress-up closets, crayons and chalk, and big cardboard boxes are all tools for learning at age three and age four.
By taking your child places, you’re exposing them to the world. When they go to a petting zoo and pet a lamb and then pet a goat, they’re learning about the sight, scent, touch, and sound of different animals. Even a trip to the grocery store, learning about all of the different foods available, helps provide background knowledge for their education. While taking young children out and about isn’t always fun or easy, doing so is hugely important for their education and future success.
These early years are a kind of critical period. Synaptic pruning is at its highest during these ages, meaning that children’s brains are learning what is important in their surroundings (“Synaptic Pruning” in Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development, Santos and Noggle, 2011.) By exposing young children to the wider world around them, you’re helping them develop new interests and future skills. Less commonly discussed, but equally important, these years are an essential time for learning social emotional skills. Understanding social rules and how to act in accordance with them is much more easily learned at four than fourteen, when academic and other factors are more complex. (“Social-emotional competence: An essential factor for promoting positive adjustment and reducing risk in school children” in Child Development, Domitrovich, 2017.).
How many people get fired for being unable to get along with their coworkers? Many. Just being good at the job isn’t enough to be hired and stay hired. By focusing on friendship, emotional intelligence, and self-regulation skills during this critical age, you’re teaching your child vital skills for their future success and happiness. (“Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship BetIen Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Illness” in American Journal of Public Health, Jones et alia, 2015.)
At age four, good social skills are more important than being able to count by 5s to 100.
In the early years, there are several key domains of child development, such as cognitive development, language development, socialization skills, self-help skills, fine motor skills, and gross motor skills. These domains tend to reinforce each other, meaning strength in one area will help the child develop strength in another area.
Because young children make drastic developmental leaps in the early years, child development is generally assessed by age. A four year old has thirty percent more life experience than a three year old—that’s a huge difference. You’re probably familiar with this idea from your visits to the pediatrician: “Wow, Claire is really talking Ill for her age, isn’t she?!” I will also use this general outline.
Three Year Olds
At this age, children learn primarily through play. While there are exceptions, most children are learning new words and gaining pronunciation skills. Generally, they will speak in simple sentences, and over the course of the year, they will correct their own grammar, moving from “runned” to “ran” and “teached” to “taught.” They’re chatty, especially about areas of interest, though not great about waiting their turn in conversation.
By the time children turn four, random adults should be able to understand their speech.
Stories and other make-believe activities are favorite pastimes, and it’s common for children to keep playing make-believe even after playtime is over. They love having their own objects and costumes, like aprons and shovels. If your child does not enjoy dramatic play, that’s a clue for a developmental difference. HoIver, children this age are often poor at phone conversations and video calls because they have difficulty understanding that the other person cannot see what they see.
Little pitchers have big ears, and will surprise you by recalling conversations they’ve overheard, stories from previous weeks, songs from church or YouTube, and poetry. Children this age love simple instruments and dancing. Encourage them to develop their skills in beat, tempo, and pitch by singing together. You don’t have to have a good singing voice for them to enjoy singing along with the chorus of your favorite song. This age is a key time for developing an understanding of rhyming words and clapping syllable segments, which lead directly to future reading skills. Nursery rhymes like “Patty Cake” are excellent for this.
Typically developing children at this age may begin to notice print in their surroundings. Their near vision is not as good as their far vision, which is why children’s board books have large print. At this age, they are beginning to understand that print in books tells a reader what to say. Many parents know their child’s favorite bedtime stories backward and forward, and this year children begin to memorize those stories, too. Children this age often begin to scribble “letters” and sometimes have fun dictating stories for adults to write.
Encourage child dictation because sequencing stories is an important skill for pattern-making, reading comprehension, and composition skills.
These are the “why?” years and parents should expect to spend considerable time explaining “who,” “what,” “where,” and “why,” especially when reading stories. Storytime at these ages is an interactive activity, critical for vocabulary development. Typically developing children this age will illustrate those stories with recognizable subjects. Daddy may be tall, the dog may be brown, etc. Encourage children to recognize letters in the environment with venerable toys like magnetic letters on the refrigerator door and alphabet blocks.
By age four, about half of children can name a double handful of letters. Another third of three year olds will know more than half of the uppercase letters by the time they turn four. About one in five will be able to name all the uppercase letters. (“How Many Letters Should Preschoolers in Public Programs Know? The Diagnostic Efficiency of Various Preschool Letter-Naming Benchmarks for Predicting First-Grade Literacy Achievement”, Piasta et alia, 2015)
Many children this age enjoy puzzles up to 16 pieces in size, taking a complicated shape apart and putting it back together again. A typically developing child this age can classify and sort objects (and in fact shape sorters are often a favorite toy). Identifying objects as the same or different is a key skill for this age—“No, that’s not my Tigger!”—even though that skill may exasperate parents. Most children this age can count objects to five. “One block, two blocks, three blocks, four blocks, five blocks! Daddy, I have five blocks!” This skill is called “one to one correspondence” and is an important skill for later mathematics ability. (“Preschoolers’ use of number words to denote one-to-one correspondence,” Becker, 1989) A few children may recognize zero and understand that it means “none.”
If your child has difficulty with puzzles, this might be a fine motor issue, or it might be a sign of an issue with cognitive development, or it might be vision issues.
Help children practice one to one correspondence by asking for items. “Tommy, can you hand me three cans of beans?” This is a slowly developing skill, so have patience. Most children cannot count to ten at this age, but you can help them learn by asking, “What comes after four? Good! What comes after five?” and so on. Some children can learn prepositions like “first” and “last,” “over” and “under,” “in front” and “behind.” You can help by including them in your daily conversation: “Tommy, Elsa gets to go out the door first. Wait for Elsa!”
Adding and subtracting within five with manipulatives like cans of beans or candies is a skill that some children can learn this year. “If Tommy has three blue cars and Sarah gives Tommy two more cars, how many cars does Tommy have? Let’s count!” Bathtime is a fabulous time to learn about different sized containers and discuss “big” and “small,” “tall” and “short,” and “heavy” and “light.” Stacking sorting cups with various patterns of holes in the bottom are inexpensive, excellent toys for this skill. Patterns such as night following day or red/green/red/green tiles are skills that some children can learn this year.
Developmental assessments look for the ability to string beads in a given order, assemble two-dimensional shapes, and put shapes on peg boards, so you should help your child practice those skills.
Short term memory increases, and most children this age can follow multi-step directions. “Take off your coat, hang it on the hook, and then go fetch me a diaper for your sister.” “Claire, take your sister’s hand and go stand on the porch.” “Sally, pick up the red blocks and put the plushies in the basket.” (Short-Term Memory, Working Memory, and Executive Functioning in Preschoolers: Longitudinal Predictors of Mathematical Achievement at Age 7 Years, Bull et alia, 2008)
In terms of attention, typically developing children this age move from parallel play (playing separately next to each other) to cooperative play (playing pretend phone conversations with each other, offering to trade toys). (“The Strategic Use of Parallel Play: A Sequential Analysis,” Bakeman and Brownlee, 1980)
Physically, their bodies are starting to catch up to their heads, making them less top heavy. They might not be able to raise their hands above their heads and touch their palms together, hoIver. In terms of gross motor skills, typically developing children this age can usually run, climb stairs, jump with both feet, hop on one foot, march with knees up, and gallop. Children this age have improved coordination and can often ride tricycles. On swingsets, they can learn to pump on a swing to go higher. They can also kick balls, though not usually with any great accuracy. Most children this age can catch gently passed balls.
Fine motor skills are improving too, allowing them to use tools like wrenches, screwdrivers, and flashlights. They can hold crayons with their fingers and shape balls and snakes with PlayDoh. All those cookie making sessions are excellent practice. Much to parents’ dismay, children this age can become experts at quickly undressing without assistance. Unfortunately, doing up zippers, tying shoe laces, and buttoning buttons are still tricky skills. Children should practice all of those this year. (The bunny ear method is your friend.)
Most children this age can use safety scissors and punch holes in paper. Use your best judgment, because they can and will use staplers and hammers with good effect. Many can also draw at least three basic shapes: a circle, a triangle, and a square. All children should be able to visually recognize the shapes without prompting. Right and left handedness will become clear this year.
If your child does not display a dominant hand, this is a clue about atypical development.
At this age, children can make deep, lasting friendships, although they still need familiar adults nearby. Arguments that turn physical are still common and adults can help them navigate those issues. “We use our words when we’re upset.” Typically developing children this age can recognize why they, or another person, is upset and will offer help to others who are upset. Children this age are also sensitive to the pitch and tone of speakers. If your child has difficulty understanding that someone is angry or sad without being directly told, that might be a clue about atypical development. Three-year-old meltdowns will happen, though appropriate emotional support from adults makes them rare, perhaps three times a week for less than 15 minutes at a time, and often less frequently than that. (Early Signs of ADD and Emotional Dysregulation, Buzanko, 2022) As your child gets older, these outbursts should be reduced in frequency and intensity.
Meltdowns more than 3x per week and/or longer than 15 minutes at a time, with sustained frequency and intensity, should be discussed with your pediatrician.
Four Year Olds
One of the most striking features of watching a group of four year olds is how dedicated they are to their pretend play. They can have long play sessions that continue over days or weeks as they develop their imagination, self-control, and friendships. They will also argue fiercely about these ongoing stories, certain that they are correct. This is an important developmental stage, and parents should support that imaginative play.
Four-year-olds typically have clear, expressive speech with complex, compound sentences and a wide vocabulary. They’re able to understand explanations for concepts and procedures that are not immediately in front of them, such as why the sky is blue. (The sky is blue because the gasses in the air scatter the electromagnetic radiation from the Sun, a bit like a rainbow, and the blue end of the spectrum is scattered more than the red end of the spectrum because the blue waves are shorter, so it shows up more.)
On average, four year olds understand 3,000 to 5,000 words. (The Word Gap: The Early Years Make the Difference, Colker, 2014)
Part of that imaginative play shows up in the beginning of an ability to understand figurative speech such as “float like a butterfly” or “swim like an eel.” Another part shows up in speech regulation, using speech with typical volume, tone, and inflection. Imaginative play helps children learn to tell stories in sequence. If children have vocabulary problems, during imaginative play they might use simple words for more complex terms: “the bones in your body” instead of “skeleton,” for example. (Interventions for children’s language and literacy difficulties, Snowling and Hulme, 2012)
Four-year-old children who have difficulty with vocabulary, figurative speech, story or direction sequences, or speech regulation should be assessed by a professional.
As tired parents know, four-year-olds usually ask many questions. Typically developing children are chatty and often friendly, interested in what other people have to say. They compare themselves to others, including differences in opinions. “Sally wants to swing but I don’t.” They’re better able to understand the give and take of casual conversation, including when it is and is not appropriate to share certain stories. However, frequently embarrassed parents can attest that four-year-olds don’t have the best judgment about it.
Because four-year-olds are so curious, they often want to know what words around them say, like the “stop” on a stop sign. By the time they turn five, many children will understand that letters represent sounds and begin to associate certain letters with sounds. “P makes puh! P is in my name!” Most four-year-old children can take that sound and make four to five rhyming words: “Pop, hop, lop, bop!” Obviously, the larger their vocabulary, the easier this is. You can enlarge their vocabulary by exposing them to the wider world, engaging in interactive story times, and watching carefully screened videos together and talking about what you’re watching.
Generally speaking, four-year-olds can hear the beginning and ending sounds in words and form words by blending two sounds together: “P- and -at make Pat! C and -at make Cat!” Consonant blends are still tricky, though (“fl-”, “pl-”, “cl-”, etc). (The Development of Phonological Skills, Moats and Tolman, 2009) Practice makes the difference here, and parents should encourage children to write the alphabet, one oversized, shaky letter at a time. Drawing materials should be available at all times, and washable markers and crayons are invaluable. Baby wipes can often remove pencil marks.
Over half of four year olds will know more than half of the uppercase letters and a handful of lowercase letters. About a third of four year olds will know all of the uppercase letters and many lowercase letters. Some four year olds can write some legible letters, and will know that writing goes from left-to-write and top-to-bottom (How Many Letters Should Preschoolers in Public Programs Know? The Diagnostic Efficiency of Various Preschool Letter-Naming Benchmarks for Predicting First-Grade Literacy Achievement, Piasta et alia, 2015).
Most children this age can also understand how books work: how to hold them right side up, how to page through them, that authors and illustrators are not the same, that I read from left to right. Some four year olds may even recognize a handful of sight words and write a few more, usually their name, “no” and so on.
Problem-solving skills increase remarkably this year as four-year-olds use their logical reasoning skills to solve problems. “Mommy, if you set down the baby, you can carry me.” Their increased language skills mean that typically developing children can compare and describe the world around me. “Tommy is short, but I am tall.”
Problem solving skills also show up in drawing: building, copying, and describing circles, squares, and triangles with tangrams and other manipulatives. Using simple maps, like the free ones you use at the zoo, is within the skill level of a typical four year old. Ordering by size or other attributes are other common four-year-old skills. “The littlest bear sleeps in this bed.” Developmental assessments often ask children to copy those shapes with a pencil or crayon.
Generally, children this age can count to ten and recognize the numbers zero through ten when they’re written down. Children this age can begin subitizing within five: counting how many items are present with only a glance. “I have four red socks!” With manipulatives like blocks and popsicle sticks to help, almost all four-year-olds can add and subtract within ten. “If Sarah has eight popsicles, and I eat one, look! There are still one, two, three, four, five, six, seven left!” Some can add and subtract within ten without touching or looking (Short-Term Memory, Working Memory, and Executive Functioning in Preschoolers: Longitudinal Predictors of Mathematical Achievement at Age 7 Years, Bull et alia, 2008).
An important skill this year is “counting on.” This skill shows up as: “If Tommy has three Tootsie Rolls, and I give him two, then Tommy will have four, five Tootsie Rolls.” The child did not have to start counting from the beginning, but counted onward from the last number. This skill is invaluable during later math learning. Most four year olds can tell you what comes after a number between one and nine, and sometime during the year, many will be able to tell you what number comes before a number between one and nine (What Children Know and Need to Learn about Counting, Ginsburg, 2022).
Children this age can learn to recite the days of the week, the months of the year, and the seasons by rote, but they rarely “get” how it works. If your family has strong routines, like “Daddy is always home on the weekend” or “Tommy goes to preschool on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday” then they might develop an understanding earlier. If you use cash for most of your purchases, they might be able to identify coins and bills on sight, but usually not. Generally, typically developing four-year-olds cannot tell time, but they do look forward to future events.
Physically, four-year-olds become skillful at walking, climbing up stairs with alternating feet, jumping repeatedly on both feet, hopping on one foot, skipping with alternate feet, marching in time to music, and galloping. Four year olds are learning to throw balls, catch balls with both hands, kick balls towards something, and bouncing balls with both hands. Don’t expect them to dribble a basketball or be competent soccer players, however. Typically developing children can stand on one foot for several seconds, walk on balance beams, and do a forward roll. Generally speaking, four-year-old children need to get up and move around to play at least once an hour. They should have a minimum of 30 minutes of aerobic exercise (heart rate at 80% of maximum) per day (Developmental Milestones: 4 to 5 Year Olds, American Academy of Pediatrics, 2009).
An important new skill this year is walking down stairs using alternating feet. If your child has trouble with this skill, that is a clue about atypical development.
Tripod grips—gripping objects with the thumb, index, and middle fingers—begin this year, allowing for fluid writing, painting, and other skills. They can also do more advanced puzzles (typically up to 48 pieces). New this year, most can play with toys that have smaller parts, such as Legos. Now, they can undress without assistance and dress themselves, including buttons. Don’t expect them to be as fast as an adult. Most four-year-olds cannot neatly tie their shoes, but they’re getting there. Children this age can cut and paste with some skill, which helps build hand strength for handwriting. They can also brush their teeth under careful supervision, wash their face and hands with soap and a washcloth, brush their own hair, and toilet independently (Developmental Milestones: 4 to 5 Year Olds, American Academy of Pediatrics, 2009).
Most children this age adore music, easily recognizing changes in pitch, tempo, loudness, and length. Four-year-olds often make up their own songs and frequently sing memorized ones. “Daddy shark, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo…” They often have favorite genres of music, and associate music with certain routines, like a clean-up song. Dance can grow more complex this year as four-year-olds are better able to imitate others. In terms of drawing, four-year-old art is more realistic, often using letters and numbers. (Developmental Milestones: 4 to 5 Year Olds, American Academy of Pediatrics, 2009) They can learn more complex techniques, like basic printing, simple braiding, and paper weaving. This is the earliest time for formal music lessons, typically in the Suzuki method.
Parents can assist children with emotional intelligence at this age, helping four-year-olds learn that others may perceive the same situation but think differently about it. “Christy didn’t mean to break your toy, sweetheart. It was an accident.” In that vein, children this age can learn coping mechanisms for anger, frustration, and sadness, like drawing their angry feelings or figuring out how to make up with friends. Typically developing children can easily slide into group play, show sympathy to people in pain, and suggest ways to resolve conflicts. “Would you like my doll instead?” Children this age also commonly imitate adults and normally miss their adults when the adults are not present.
If your child has difficulty with group play, difficulty with appropriately expressing sympathy, and difficulty in resolving conflicts, those are clues about atypical development (Evidence-based milestone ages as a framework for developmental surveillance, Dosman et alia, 2012).
By not emphasizing the importance of play, we suck the joy out of being little. Young children are almost always delighted by the beauty and wonder of the world around them. Simply allowing them to be gleeful about rainbows and butterflies helps both them and us, their caregivers.