Portrait of a preschooler

A parent's primer on kids from ages three to five

What a breathtaking transformation occurs between the third and sixth birthdays — the years we lump together as the “preschool stage.”

A two-year-old is still mostly a baby. Diapered or barely out of them, just discovering the possibilities of speech, ham-fisted with her toys and her friends, she is a charming dynamo but still dependent on adults for nearly everything. Now look at the same child at six: Coordinated and competent, she can manage a day at school or an afternoon at a friend’s without you; she can turn a somersault or play a soccer game; sign her name, draw a cat, build a Lego set and set the table. That’s what the preschool years accomplish!

But these years are not just about an end result. They are a fascinating journey in their own right. And like any journey, it’s more enjoyable if you can appreciate the stops along the way. So here it is: your travel guide to the preschool years.

Say goodbye to that tubby toddler posture! Though your preschooler’s growth rate is slower than in the first two years of life, the physical changes are still dramatic. His legs and trunk grow proportionately longer and his belly flattens out. Add in the slimming effect of giving up diapers and a more upright posture, and the child that emerges looks much more like a “little big kid” than a baby.

There are invisible changes going on too. Your child’s breathing becomes slower and deeper as his lungs grow. His heart, which galloped along at 120 or more beats per minute when he was an infant, is slowing down too. By the end of the preschool stage, it will beat around 90 times a minute, and by age 12 his resting heart rate will be 70 to 80 — almost as slow as an adult’s.

Physical skills are blossoming in this time period. But don’t expect them all to progress evenly or at the same rate as your child’s friend. All children mature at their own speed and even at this young age, your child’s interests and temperament play a big role. A child who is physically a bit timid may not climb as high or graduate to a two-wheeled bike as soon as his rambunctious, adventurous neighbour. And the little daredevil on the climber may still be clumsy when it comes to using scissors or fitting together interlocking blocks. That’s OK! Offer your child opportunities to practise all kinds of motor skills, and in time he’ll master the skills he needs.
What can you do to support your child’s physical development? Here are some starting places:

• Give your child many opportunities to enjoy and explore using her body. Climbers and trikes are fun, but so are all kinds of less structured activities: chasing each other across a park, jumping in the leaves, dancing to music.

• Provide balls of different sizes to kick, bounce, catch and throw.

• If you introduce your child to lessons (swimming, gymnastics) or team sports, be sure the program is preschooler-friendly. At this age, the emphasis should be on fun and basic skills — not competition and drilling.

• Play active games that can be adapted to any skill level, such as follow-the-leader, obstacle courses and moving like different animals.

• Provide a variety of play materials that require fine-motor control but are not too difficult for your child to enjoy: Arts and crafts materials, puzzles, lacing or stringing activities (such as stringing penne into a necklace), playsets with small figures and accessories, and construction sets all use fine-motor skills. Playdough combines a relaxing sensory experience with modelling.

• Dress your child in clothes that are easy to get on and off, and give her unhurried time to manage the parts she can do alone. Give just as much help as is needed: Maybe you need to start the zipper but she can pull it up.

The scenario: Walking on the balance beam at a preschool gymnastics program

The three-year-olds are using a low beam placed a couple of feet off the ground. Carefully, they make their way across holding the instructor’s hand. A couple make it most of the way across on their own. When it comes time to try walking backwards, though, the instructors keep two hands firmly around the kids’ middles.

The four-year-olds step across briskly and without hesitation. They can dip alternate feet down as they walk, crawl across on their hands and knees, and do a forward roll guided and helped by a teacher. They all enjoy the “jump off” at the end, though some want a hand to hold as they jump.

The five-year-olds have different skill levels depending on how much gymnastics they have taken. Some are beginners; others are already on a team, doing things most adults would have trouble with. They jump off the beam and land with a finish, arms in the air. They look like budding gymnasts!

Milestones to watch for

From Putting both feet on each step
To Climbing stairs using alternate feet
To Walking downstairs with alternate feet without holding the handrail

From Balancing on one foot for a few seconds
To Hopping on one foot
To Balancing on one foot with eyes closed

From Trying to catch a ball with arms fully extended (trapping it in “the basket”)
To Catching a bounced ball
To Catching a thrown ball using hands more than arms

From Needing help with all clothing fastenings
To Doing up buttons
To Mastering zippers, lacing shoes and maybe even tying bows

From Being ambidextrous
To Favouring one hand
To Being clearly left- or right-handed

From Scribbling
To Drawing rudimentary figures (a face with stick arms and legs)
To Drawing a figure with a body and some detail 

Thinking skills are not as obvious as physical skills, but they are every bit as important and interesting. Huge breakthroughs occur in the preschool years, and the mastery of language is one of the biggest. “Language makes it easier to think and thinking begs for language,” writes child psychologist Penelope Leach.

The ability to comprehend and use symbols, which develops gradually from age three, is another giant step. Researcher Judy DeLoache, of the University of Virginia, points out that we use symbols so commonly, it’s hard for adults to realize very young children can’t understand them. In her research, she shows a child a scale model of the room they are in. Then she “hides” a miniature toy in the model room, observed by the child, and tells her that the larger real toy is in the “same place” in the room itself. “The 2½-year-olds don’t understand the relationship between the symbolic room and the actual room,” DeLoache explains, “and most have no idea where to find the large toy. Parents are amazed when their children fail this task.” By contrast, the three-year-olds “understand immediately that the model is a symbol for the actual room” and have no trouble finding the toy.

Memory, attention span and the ability to sort and classify are all improving over these years. Add to that a preschooler’s insatiable curiosity about how her world works, and you’ve got a pint-sized scientist on your hands!
How can you encourage your child’s budding brainpower?

Language is a critical foundation for reading, logical thought and so much more. Make your child’s environment rich in language by reading stories and poems together, and by singing and talking with your child. Remember to listen and respond to what he has to say.

According to your child’s ability, count, match, sort and order things together. He can sort the socks out of the laundry, count if there are enough glasses on the table for dinner, or pile up the pots from largest to smallest.

Let your child help you cook. It’s a fun chemistry lesson!

Take his questions seriously. No, it’s not easy explaining how a toilet works, but give it your best shot.

Ask questions that engage his curiosity, imagination and ability to predict. “What happens next in this story?” “What if there were no cars; what would we do?”

At some point in this stage, most children enjoy starting to learn about letters, numbers, colours and shapes, especially if it’s woven into everyday life in a meaningful way. Let your child’s interest guide you.

The richest learning comes through play. Your child uses play to discover new ideas and to “put together” concepts he is starting to understand. Make sure your child has plenty of time for open-ended play: It promotes virtually every cognitive skill from problem solving to concentration to imagination.

The scenario: Preschool soccer camp

The counsellors are setting up a game of frozen tag. They explain the rules to the children, and then say, “OK, go!”

Most of the three-year-olds just stand there. Some run around aimlessly with the older kids, but they don’t stop when tagged and it’s clear they don’t understand the game. Their language and cognitive skills are not ready for something this complicated.

The four-year-olds — most of them — take off eagerly. They freeze in place when tagged. They are able to understand the rules and remember them, and they can play the game.

The scenario: A child care centre

A teacher asks a five-year-old to put a broken shovel in the garbage “because it’s not safe.”

The boy adds, “Because it could pinch you.” He has added to the thought, predicting a consequence

Milestones to watch for

From Doing very simple jigsaw puzzles
To Looking at the puzzle before placing the pieces
To Completing simple puzzles quickly “What’s that?” “Why?” “How does it work?”

From Scribbling pretend messages
To Recognizing and writing a few letters (initials or first name)
To Knowing the letters of the alphabet and printing name

From Liking to make people laugh, but not really “getting” jokes
To Making up her own silly (and often nonsensical) jokes
To Understanding some simple “standard” jokes

From Wanting the same stories told repeatedly
To Remembering what comes next in a familiar story
To Reciting some or all of a favourite book 

Children come a long way in these years toward understanding feelings — both their own and other people’s. The realization that others don’t always feel the same as you do is a huge step — suddenly all those lessons in sharing, taking turns and not hurting make sense! That’s part of the reason why five-year-olds can often play together for long stretches of time, while three-year-olds still need a lot of adult help in getting along.

In these years, you are likely to see stretches where your child is mostly cheerful, co-operative and confident, interspersed with periods where he seems balky, defiant, fearful or just generally turbulent. Four is often a more difficult age than the years before and after — but it’s all part of the normal process of growing up.

Most preschoolers manage well at daycare, nursery school or kindergarten as long as the program is geared to their developmental needs. But following rules, being away from mom and dad, and playing nicely with other children is hard work at this age! Don’t be surprised if your child needs to take a break from being so grown-up when he gets home. He may act tired, babyish or over-the-top silly. It’s just his way of decompressing after a long day. Here are some ways to nurture your preschooler’s emotional development:

Give your child the words for her strong feelings: “I can see you are sad about going home.” “Are you worried about Tyler’s big dog?”

Take her feelings seriously, even if they seem silly to you.

Tell your child how her behaviour affects another person: “When you knocked your brother down, it hurt his arm. And now he’s angry at you.” Don’t forget the good parts — positive reinforcement is very important for preschoolers: “That was kind of you to share with Kelly.”

Teach your child some words to help negotiate conflicts: “Can I have it when you’re done?” “Can I have a turn?”

Help “decode” other people’s behaviour: “Nick’s crying because he fell and hurt his knee. He’ll feel better soon.”

Help your child to feel important, worthwhile, competent and loved. Give her your affection and approval freely, but also give her chances to be independent, to help you with meaningful tasks, and to try new things at a level she can manage.

The scenario: Negotiating for a toy

A three-year-old boy at a child care centre wants a toy that another child has. “I need this one, so you can have that one,” he offers.

“I need this one too,” replies his friend, clutching the toy firmly. It’s lucky the teacher is there to help because that’s as far as they can get on their own.

Four-year-old Linna was playing with some party balloons that hadn’t been blown up. She disobeyed her mom, and gave some to her baby brother, so Mom took the balloons away. How to get them back? Linna says, “I’ll help you clean up for the party and you’ll feel happier, and then you’ll give me the balloons back.” She realizes that how other people feel is a factor in getting what she wants.

Five-year-olds Sophie and Jenna are playing with bubbles. Sophie tries to trade wands. “No thanks,” replies her friend. Says Sophie, “But this one makes lots of bubbles.” Says Jenna, “I don’t like the moth-shaped one.” Sophie makes one last try, but Jenna sends a firm but polite “back off” message: “I’ll tell you when I’m finished, OK?” Sophie backs off.

Milestones to watch for

From Playing mostly beside other children
To Playing with others with a fair bit of conflict
To Sustaining long periods of co-operative play

From Expressing feelings primarily non-verbally
To Naming some of own feelings
To Describing a range of different feelings

From Thinking only about own feelings
To Realizing that others have feelings
To Imagining what others’ feelings might be

From Little understanding of social rules
To Knowing some rules but not the reasons for them
To A beginning sense of right and wrong and the reasons for rules 

Time to brush up on your positive discipline skills! In the toddler years, behaviour management is largely a matter of containment. Now, you want your child to begin to contain himself.

The timing is right: Your preschooler has better memory than a toddler and is developing the cognitive ability to begin applying rules to different situations (for example, don’t touch the stove at Grandma’s house, either). His self-control is improving too. But don’t expect too much, too fast: Self-discipline is a long-term goal that your child will be working on all through his growing-up years.

There will be new challenges too, from whining to outright defiance, from backtalk to ignoring you. There will be good days when your child is cheerful and co-operative (and so are you) and not-so-good days when everything is a struggle. That’s normal. Development is a two-steps-forward, one-step-back sort of process.

Remember too that preschoolers are still very young and their grip on their own behaviour is still precarious. Deteriorating behaviour can be a sign of stress: Kids who are hungry, tired, bored, cooped up, over-pressured or nervous lose their ability to control themselves. Sometimes a snack and a cuddle is all that’s needed to restore your child’s equilibrium. Now he’s ready to put away those toys.

Growing up is not a race! As parents, we’re all eager to see our children master new milestones, but pushing them does more harm than good. Instead, we need to give kids the opportunity to fully explore the stage they are at right now, says Marc Battle, an ECE professor at Red River College in Winnipeg. “Wherever a child is developmentally, he needs to stay there until he masters what he is learning.”

Whatever your child is exploring right now, he will revel in your interest, admiration and support: “He is seeing where he fits in the world around him and he wants to tell his story about it,” says Battle. “He needs to draw, to build, to tell stories and lies, to make and lose friends, to dress up and pretend, to show off what his refining muscles can do. He is beginning to find out who he is.”

And so are you.
Kids do need more than cuddles to learn how to behave. Here are some of your best tools for disciplining preschoolers:

1 Set a good example. This is the foundation that everything else is built on. Your child looks to you, more than anyone else, to show her how to live.

2 Catch her being good. Nothing breeds success like success, and preschoolers thrive on their parents’ approval. Unfortunately, it’s easier to notice our children’s mistakes. So watch for those times when she does the right thing, or even tries to, and let her know you’re proud of her.

3 Keep it simple. A few important, simple, easily understood rules will serve you better than a long list of bylaws. She’s only little. Don’t make it too complicated to figure out what you want and why. And try to be reasonably consistent about your rules. There can be an exception for a special occasion, but most of the time the rules shouldn’t change.

4 Use routines to encourage good behaviour. Routines help a preschooler understand her world. When she knows what comes next, she feels more in control and it’s easier for her to co-operate. Routines are especially helpful for those transition points: getting ready for daycare, bedtime and so on.

5 Offer a choice. Everyone likes to have a little say in her own life, and young kids don’t control very much. Encourage your child to comply on the big non-negotiables (like going to bed, washing her hands or coming home from her friend’s house) by offering her a choice over the details: “You can choose three stories.” “Which soap would you like to use?” “Would you like to watch a DVD when we get home or help me make lunch?”

6 Use “Grandma’s Rule.” We don’t know who coined this name, but the idea is to tie something your child wants to something you want. It’s not bribery; it’s a sound life principle. First you fulfill your responsibilities, then you get the fun. So: “We can go to the park as soon as you hang up your backpack.”

7 Make it a game. Nobody said doing the right thing has to hurt! You can shoot “hamper baskets” with dirty clothes, race to get the books on the shelf, or sing a shampoo song to get through the dreaded hair wash. And by the way, it often helps if you help. Preschoolers aren’t that great at working all alone.

8 Describe the behaviour, not the child. When you do need to correct misbehaviour, be sure to focus on the behaviour itself. “Bad girl!” is just mean name-calling. Instead, be specific: “That hurt Bobby! You are not allowed to hit your brother.” Now she knows what’s wrong with what she did, and you can teach her a better way to let Bobby know she’s mad.

9 Use consequences that make sense. Sometimes the consequence happens without you lifting a finger — if Sarah refuses to wear her mittens, she’s going to have cold hands. (Of course you will tuck her mittens into your pocket for when she realizes she needs them.) Other times you will need to think of a consequence. The consequence should be meaningful and, for a young child, immediate. If she snatches a child’s toy, she has to give it back. If she takes it again, maybe she’ll need to sit on the couch for a while, so her friend can play in peace.

10 Take a break: time out and time in. Your preschooler is still impulsive, emotional and easily overstimulated. There will be times when she can’t stop herself, not as long as she is still embroiled in the situation that triggered the misbehaviour in the first place. That’s where a brief time out can help. Use time out to create a break in the action, help your child cool down or get her away from a bad scene. Whether it’s a few minutes in a chair, a quiet story together in the bedroom or getting her involved in a different activity in another room, time out can help your child regain her self-control.