Growth & Development in Preschoolers

The preschool years are a time when the child’s unique personality begins to emerge more dramatically—which can include willful and contradictory behavior. A youngster may vacillate from clinging demands for attention to rebellious independence, testing a caregiver’s limits and patience. Children are learning new rules of behavior and modes of self-expression and widening their social universe. So many changes are occurring that it may be very difficult to know whether your toddler is progressing normally or encountering stumbling blocks in his development. Talk about any concerns openly during regular visits with your doctor.

The rate of physical growth slows during these years. On average, a child gains about five pounds and grows about three inches each year. Your child’s appetite may decrease, which should not be a source of alarm. Children normally regulate their nutritional intake. They may eat a lot one day and little the next, but from one week to the next their intake should remain relatively stable. Forcing or withholding food is discouraged; not only is it unlikely to produce healthier eating habits, but it can also lead to eating disorders in adolescence.

The need for sleep also decreases somewhat. Two-year-olds who were sleeping 13 or 14 hours a day (including a nap) may sleep only 11 hours a day without a nap by age five.

Toilet training is another milestone at this age. It’s generally best to wait until a child is able to stay dry for several hours at a time and remain dry after a nap before teaching him to use a potty. Training may take until age three and a half or later, and once a child has learned to use a toilet during the day, he may still wet the bed at night for another six months or so. Remember that bed-wetting accidents are normal in young children. If bed-wetting remains a persistent problem beyond age five, however, you should consult your pediatrician.

Interest in the genitals and masturbation, which is universal among children, will often become increasingly apparent during this stage of development. Although in the past children were often routinely punished or humiliated for genital activity, it is completely safe and natural. Unless the practice becomes obsessive, parents shouldn’t be concerned by it. Most children begin to acquire a degree of modesty with respect to their genitals between the ages of four and six, depending on family practices and cultural traditions.

These years are marked by dramatic strides in communication skills. From the ages of two to three, youngsters progress from knowing roughly 100 words to up to 1,000, and they pepper their conversations with endless questions about their surroundings. Language acquisition emerges as an important gauge of intellectual and emotional progress. Delayed speech in a two-year-old, for example, may be the first indication of a learning disability or a medical problem like mental retardation. Language can also be an important emotional outlet for children. Encourage your child to express his feelings, rather than acting them out, by teaching him the meaning of words like “afraid” or “angry.”

Despite your best efforts, children will have times when they lose emotional control. Temper tantrums, which may begin toward the end of a child’s first year, tend to peak between the ages of two and four. Children use tantrums in part to maintain a sense of control and to test their parents’ limits. Tantrums can also occur when children are overly tired or fearful, or if an ailment is causing discomfort. They may become entrenched if parents give in to them. Tantrums that last more than 15 minutes or that occur more than three times a day may be a sign of a medical or an emotional problem.

Children’s thinking is sometimes described as “magical” during these early years. Reasoning tends to center around the self, and there is a lot of fantasy play. This is normal and healthy. Irrational fears of the dark or of monsters may also arise. You can best deal with these by talking them through with your child. Not until age five or so will a child truly begin to distinguish fantasy from reality.

Concurrently, your child will be developing a moral sense that helps in adapting to an expanding social world. A three-year-old may have a hard time understanding what it means to share, but by age four or five she will be taking turns at the playground. Children this age will also begin to comprehend concepts like honesty as they interact more with other youngsters. Solitary play, so common in a child of one or two, gives way to true group play in a favorite pastime such as playing house, in which each child assumes a different role.

The child’s entrance into kindergarten at age five marks a major milestone for parents and child alike. Seeing a child board a school bus for the first time can bring tearful joy to a parent. Children are also often simultaneously anxious and eager to begin a new social and intellectual adventure. And by this age, they have indeed grown up considerably. They have a greater command of their emotions and are able to focus on immediate tasks without being unduly distracted by diversions. These skills all help to set the stage for success in the upcoming school years.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 24 Aug 2010

Last Modified: 06 Nov 2014