Healthy living

Child development 3–4 years

Your 3 to 4 year old is moving out of babyhood into childhood. They are beginning to be OK about spending time away from you.

They have a rich imagination, and love to play and be physically active. However, this means they may be scared of things too, or hesitate to try new things.

All 3 to 4 year olds are different and develop at different rates. If you are worried about your child’s development or if they can’t do things they used to do, it’s important to see your doctor or child health nurse.

If there is anything wrong, getting in early will help – and if nothing’s wrong, it’s good to know that they’re developing normally.

Social and emotional

Your 3 year old is at the very beginning of learning how to get on with others. They can now control strong feelings a lot better, but will probably still have some tantrums.

They start to understand social skills like sharing and being kind, but only when they’re feeling safe and happy.

  • Three year olds often enjoy being and playing with other children. Your child is learning that other people are real and have feelings so they may be upset when other people are upset.
  • Taking turns is a skill that they’ll learn as they approach 4, but they’ll still not be able to share their own special things if they’re upset or worried.
  • They can now wait a short time for what they want, such as ‘we will go out after you eat your lunch’.
  • Your 3 year old is less likely to have kicking and screaming tantrums than when they were 2. They’re eager to please you, so with your help, they might try something else or wait a few minutes.
  • Your child may still be scared of monsters, noises, the dark or some animals.
  • They now have a sense of humour, and like to laugh at situations and repeat silly words.
  • Give your child choices but keep them limited – ‘you can wear your red shoes or your blue ones’.
  • It’s OK if they still need a dummy, blanket or other comforter when they’re tired or away from home.
  • Three year olds can have strong ideas of what ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ should be like – girls wear pretty dresses and boys are like Superman.
  • Your child is starting to take responsibility for toileting, but they may still have accidents (wet pants) during the day and be wet at night.
Developing understanding

Your 3 to 4 year old’s ‘inner world’ is very powerful. It can be difficult to sort out ‘pretend’ and ‘real’. Can a witch really put a spell on you? Can children grow wings and fly like in picture books?

Three year olds do not tell ‘lies’ as such, but sometimes imagination and reality get mixed up. Never laugh at their confusion and give them small amounts of simple information when explaining things.

Your 3 year old:

  • can now understand that their mind is separate from you and that you can’t read their mind
  • still doesn’t really understand about things like height and size. They think that a tall thin glass holds more than a short fat one – so there can be mistakes with pouring
  • shows some understanding of time and that night follows day
  • understands the meaning of tall, short, big and little
  • can say ‘she’s a girl’ (or he’s a boy) and whether other children are boys or girls, but they don’t understand that this is permanent
  • can tell you how old they are
  • may be able to draw a person by the time they’re 4. The person will probably have a big round head with eyes and a mouth, maybe with legs poking straight out of the head
A 4 year old can copy a cross and a square, and build a bridge with 3 bricks.
Physical development

In this year, your child will really enjoy physical activity to run, jump, swing, climb, dance and ride a tricycle. They might get tired and cranky if they don’t have some quiet time between ‘exercise’.

Remember, you still have to make sure they stay safe and always supervise your child. They may also become less coordinated and lose their confidence for a while between 3½ and 4.

Your child:

  • will love to splash and play with water. Some 3 year olds are afraid of the pool or sea, while others love swimming. Always supervise children around water.
  • will be able to walk along a plank because their balance is better
  • can use pedals on a tricycle
  • can roll and bounce a ball, but still find it hard to catch
  • can throw a ball using shoulders and elbow.

By 4, your child can:

  • hold a pencil correctly
  • button clothes
  • cut with scissors.
Speech and language

Your 3 year old is now talking in simple sentences. There is so much going on inside their head that often the words can’t come out fast enough to describe it all.

They might stumble when expressing themselves – it can be exhausting to listen and explain things to your child, but enjoy being able to share in their rich imagination.
  • They’ll love to be read to, but may want the same book over and over.
  • They’ll usually be able to let you know what they want in most situations.
  • Some 3 year olds speak very clearly, while others still use some ‘baby talk’.
  • Your child may stumble over some words, but this will probably clear up by itself.
  • Your 3 year old can understand 1000 or more words. They can understand ‘place’ words – under, on, beside, back, over.
  • They’ll ask lots of ‘What’, ‘Who’, ‘Where’ and ‘Why’ questions.
  • They can talk about what happened yesterday and about tomorrow.

Help them by building on what they say to you. Be patient. Don’t correct ‘wrong’ words – be positive and include the correct word in your answer.

Some children become such enthusiastic talkers that their constant questions can become annoying. Try to slow this down by asking her questions instead, or for some quiet time – at least for a few minutes.
What you can do

Give your child lots of freedom for physical activities – riding a tricycle, ball games, learning to swim. However, 3 and 4 year olds are too young for team or competitive games.

  • Allow your child as much time as you can to ‘get things right’ or do it for themselves – be patient!
  • Give them plenty of warning before they have to finish an activity and pack up their toys, or get ready to leave the house.
  • Provide simple games with turns and rules so they’re starting to learn about cooperation.
  • Children of this age enjoy rhythm – encourage this by providing music, songs and rhymes, and lids to bang on. Sing simple songs with them.
  • They’ll enjoy painting and drawing, so provide big pieces of paper and pencils, textas or paints. Talk about the story their drawing tells.
  • Provide books with pictures that tell a story – ask questions about the pictures and talk about the story.

At this age, it’s OK to let them watch a few appropriate TV programs or DVDs. Just like books, they may want to watch the same thing over and over again.

Provide lots of love, fun, approval and encouragement. But you also need to start setting limits that you can and are prepared to enforce

Toilet training

Some children are ready to start toilet training when they are two, while others will take a little longer. Children who are ‘fussy’ about getting things right are sometimes anxious about using the toilet in case it all ‘goes wrong’.

If you have another baby, your toddler may ‘go backwards’ for a short time in their toilet training.

If you are worried at all about toilet training, please talk to your child health nurse or doctor.

What to watch out for

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if your child:
  • is not speaking in a way that you can usually understand
  • is not using sentences of three or more words
  • is not interested in using the toilet or is frightened to use it
  • is scared of things for a long time
  • can’t jump with feet together
  • doesn’t seem to understand what you say to them.
Your child is unique

Every child is different and may develop at different rates. 

So, if your child does not do some of these things, they may be ‘working’ on a different area of learning and development. However, children usually follow the same pattern of development, and it’s good to feel that your child is developing normally, in their own unique way.

If you are worried about your child’s development, or if they are very different from other children, talk with your doctor or child health nurse. If there is a problem, it’s better to get help early.

More information

Local community, school or child health nurse

  • See inside your baby's purple All About Me book
  • Look in the service finder for child health centres
  • Visit your nearest child health centre

Local family doctor

Ngala Parenting Line 

  • 8.00am – 8.00pm 7 days a week
  • Phone: (08) 9368 9368
  • Outside metro area – Free call 1800 111 546 (free from land line only)
  • Visit the Ngala website (external site)

Raising Children Network

Last reviewed: 22-05-2019

Child and Adolescent Health Service – Community Health (CAHS CH)

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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