Child Development: 2s, 3s and 4s


Director of early childhood programs at The Learning Exchange, a non-profit organization specializing in supporting teachers. Dana is a former elementary school teacher.

A former assistant editor at Parenting Magazine in New York, Emily is now a freelance writer and editor for various national publications. She works from her home in Princeton, N.J.

Formerly an editor at BabyTalk Magazine, Dawn is now a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband Josh, her daughter Ariel, and her dog Edgar.

2 year old

They’re captivating, cunning, inspiring and exuberant, but they’re also stubborn, selfish, pesky and exasperating. Perhaps that’s why the year between two and three is considered both the best of times and the worst of times. But as cantankerous as a 2-year-old can be, she’s sincere in her desire to please. And ultimately, that gives you the upper hand. So, be firm, be patient, and by above all, maintain a sense of humor. With the right attitude, the “terrible twos” really can be terrific.

2 year old: Language Skills

If you don’t want your 2-year-old privy to adult conversations, it’s time to start spelling. Even if she starts the year with only 50 or so words in her vocabulary, by year’s end she’ll understand most of what you say to her. In fact, according to some experts, between the ages of two and six, children learn the meanings of an estimated eight new words per day.

If she hasn’t said her first two-word sentence yet, she will soon. And shortly after that, she’ll graduate to three words sentences, followed by four, five and possibly even six-word narratives.

Just by listening and repeating, your child will begin to pick up basic rules of grammar. For example, instead of referring to herself by name, she’ll begin to use pronouns like “I” and “me,” but not necessarily in the proper syntax. Other pronouns such as “we,” “they” and “it” also will surface with increasing regularity.

Her pronunciations also are getting clearer. It still may be hard for strangers to catch all of what your toddler has to say, but by the time she arrives at that third birthday, she should be able to speak and be understood more than half the time.

It’s estimated that about one out of every 10 to 15 children experiences trouble with either language comprehension or speech. If your pediatrician suspects there may be a problem, he may refer you to a speech and language specialist. Early intervention — which can begin now — can help prevent problems in other areas of learning. Of course, keep in mind that some children are just more talkative than others, and a child of few words does not necessarily have a speech problem.

2 year old: Social Skills

Your 2-year old’s world is still primarily “me” centered. But awareness of others thoughts and feelings is growing, and occasionally you will see glimmers of empathy and altruism.

Between 2 1/2 and 3 years old, you may see the beginnings of cooperative play. Instead of knocking down another child’s block tower, he may try to help him build it higher. He may continue to fight with other children over toys in a play situation. But if encouraged to take turns, he may occasionally comply.

Although your toddler still sees himself as the center of the universe, he’s much more interested now in imitating other people’s mannerisms and activities. This pretend play will help him learn how to act in future social encounters.

His ability to play make-believe has evolved. He no longer needs a toy car to simulate driving. Now he can turn stationary objects such as chairs, pillows or boxes into sports cars, SUVs or mini-vans.

2 year old: Emotional Development

Laughing one minute, crying the next, often for no apparent reason. That’s what you can expect from your emotionally fragile 2-year-old. These seemingly bizarre mood swings are simply the result of your toddler’s struggle to take control of his actions, impulses and feelings.

Your toddler wants to learn how everything works. However, he still lacks many of the skills necessary to accomplish this task without inflicting harm on himself or others. As a result, the bulk of his exploration time is spent testing limits — yours, his and the environment’s.

Although it may not seem that way often, slowly but surely, your 2-year-old is learning self-control. But don’t be surprised if he saves his worst outbursts for you. Your baby-sitter may report that your child rarely acts up for her. It’s not because she has a better rapport than you do. Quite the opposite. Your toddler doesn’t trust other people the way he trusts you, so he waits until you arrive to push the envelope.

2 year old: Physical Changes

Your toddler will continue to add inches as well as pounds, but at a slower rate than before. What will, however, speed up is the miraculous metamorphosis of baby to child. The most appreciable change will be that of proportions. Continuing a process that began between one and two, your child’s arms and legs will grow to better match her trunk and head size.

Your child’s baby fat also will continue to disappear. Arms and legs will grow more slender, and her face less round. Even the pads of fat under her feet will begin to vanish.
Your child may seem to be continually on the move. And, for the most part, she is. This yearlong energy spurt helps strengthen the body and hone coordination

In the months that follow, your child’s gait will become less stiff and more adult-like. She also will learn to: direct the motion of a ball using her foot, climb up and down stairs unsupported, and even pedal a tricycle.

Hand and finger skills also will improve. She will learn to grip a crayon well enough to make rudimentary vertical, horizontal and circular strokes. She also will begin screwing and unscrewing lids from jars, cranking rotating handles and zipping and unzipping large zippers.

2 year old: Challenges

At some point during the next year, your child probably will be ready to give up diapers. In fact, the average age for toilet training is 2 1/2. However, keep in mind, that some kids don’t train until well after their third birthdays. This can be problematic if you’ve enrolled your child in a preschool that requires your child be toilet trained prior to admission. But be forewarned: trying to toilet train a child before he’s physically and mentally ready may actually prolong the process.

Temper tantrums will continue to be a problem. In fact, they probably will occur with greater frequency than in the previous year. Your child is also stronger, which means his outbursts will be more violent. If his anger has risen out of frustration — for example, a playmate doesn’t understand what he’s saying — help him articulate himself. If his wants are unreasonable — he demands cake before dinner — explain that eating sweets before dinner will spoil his appetite. He still may choose to throw a tantrum, but unlike a 1-year-old he does have the capacity to understand basic logic.

Your child may begin to resist sleep. With so much to do and see, resting is just plain boring. He also may be experiencing lingering separation anxiety. Left alone in a crib, your 2-year-old may protest by howling or possibly even climbing out of his crib to come and find you. The same thing may happen should you switch your toddler into a youth bed. The solution: Walk him back to his room, put him in bed and tell him to go back to sleep. If you reward his behavior by giving him something to eat, or staying with him until he falls back asleep, he’ll be more likely to repeat the behavior night after night.

As your child’s knowledge of the world increases, so may his fears. A growing imagination, expanding memory and a lack of life experience can make even the mundane seem terrifying. Common fears among 2-to-3-year-olds include toilets, the dark, people in costume (particularly clowns), imaginary creatures, baths and, of course, strangers. Most of these fears will diminish as your toddler matures into a more confident preschooler.

2 year old: How to Help

Living with a 2-year-old can be frustrating at times. But keep in mind that all that negativism is a normal stage of development. Until she grows out of it, lower your expectations. If safety or respect aren’t an issue, you don’t always have to fight her demands.

Whenever possible, encourage and reward good behavior. If you see your child doing something right — like sharing a toy or waiting her turn — praise her. By showing approval, you build self-esteem and encourage her to repeat the behavior.

Always keep your child’s developmental capabilities in mind when setting limits. Your 2-year-old, for example, cannot be expected to control her impulse to touch that, which interests her. So, if you bring her with you to an antique shop, don’t punish her for swatting at expensive knick-knacks.

Remember that “do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t work at this age. You are your child’s best role model. If you regularly lose control in stressful situations, how can you expect your child to do any differently?

If your child does need to be disciplined, recognize that her attention span is still short. Time-outs should be kept brief — say two minutes — otherwise she’ll forget why she’s been removed from the situation. Also, remember that a time-out is not meant to be a punishment. The point of this exercise is to help an out-of-control child, or one that has begun doing something wrong, think about her actions in a calm, quite place.

2 year old: Skill-building Activities

Two-year-olds have boundless energy. You can burn some off — and teach him a thing or two about ecology — by planning regular nature hikes. Point out different types of flowers, trees and wildlife along the route.

Line up half a dozen plastic soda bottles, or other similarly weighted objects and show your toddler how to knock them down using a large ball. Count the number he knocks down before resetting the “pins.”

Chalk, play-dough, and bright tempera paints are great mediums for novice artists. These simple supplies will give your child the chance to experiment with color and form.

3 year old

When your child turns 3, something miraculous happens. He becomes the offspring you’ve always dreamed about. Because his body is more cooperative and capable, he exudes confidence and generally feels more at ease. Occasionally, he may have setbacks, but for the most part, 3-year-olds are friendly, talkative and downright helpful. Oh, and yes, they want to see and do everything.

3 year old: Language Skills

At 3, your child should have a speaking repertoire of at least 300 words. He can use his burgeoning vocabulary to speak in sentences of up to six words long. Some 3-year-olds will even use sentences containing more than one verb. Instead of “I want milk,” you may hear, “I want the milk you drinking.” He will continue to experiment with pronouns, but don’t be surprised if he still gets confused by concepts such as “I,” “me,” “mine,” and “you.”

By the end of this period, your child’s speech should be clear enough to be understood by strangers. Don’t, however, expect accurate pronunciations.

3 year old: Social Skills

Your child will begin to interact more directly with her peers. Her play will often take the form of group fantasy. She may begin to act out elaborate scenes, using both imaginary and household objects as props.

At 3, she is far less selfish than she was in the previous year. Skirmishes between playmates occur with less frequency. As her ability to empathize grows, you’ll notice her engaging in more cooperative play. In small group settings, she can be expected to share toys and take turns. During the first half of this year, however, you will probably still need to prompt her into this type of teamwork.

Should an altercation occur between playmates, your child may sometimes — but by no means always — work out a solution without adult intervention.

Your child may begin to identify with her own gender. When playing house, for example, girls tend to adopt the role of Mom, and boys assume the part of Dad. Despite growing gender awareness, boys and girls this age still play well together.

3 year old: Emotional Development

By now, your child’s separation anxiety has probably abated. Still, that doesn’t mean he won’t dissolve into tears when he first sets off for preschool. It is normal for children, as well as adults, to react with trepidation when adjusting to a new environment.

Your child’s vivid fantasy life will take him to many new and exotic destinations. It will also help him come to terms with a wide range of feelings, from love and dependency to anger, frustration, rebellion and fear.

He may invent invisible playmates. This companion may be a special someone or a menagerie of fantasy friends that change from day to day. Make-believe friendships can also be forged with a favorite stuffed animal or doll. Imaginary friends help a child try out different activities, behaviors, emotions and dialogues.

Your preschooler will move continuously between real life and fantasy play. Some days he may insist that you address him as His Majesty. On other days he may prefer that you call him by his given name.

An inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality gives rise to a new set of fears. Monitor your child’s media consumption closely. Even a G-rated movie can sometimes be frightening to a 3-year-old.

3 year old: Physical Changes

Some preschoolers add inches quicker than they can put on pounds. As a result, they begin to look quite lanky. But gradually, as her muscles grow more developed, your child’s frame will fill out.

Over the next year, the average 3-year-old grows 3-1/2 inches and gains 5 pounds.
The length of her skull will also increase, but only slightly. Meanwhile, the lower jaw will grow more pronounced, and the upper jaw will begin to widen to accommodate permanent teeth.

Running, jumping, walking and climbing quickly are now second nature. Other physical feats, such as standing on tiptoes or balancing on one foot, still require a child’s full concentration.

Finger and hand movements are also more precise. She will begin to grasp a crayon more like an adult — with the thumb on one side and fingers on the other. By the time she turns 4, she will probably be able to trace a square or circle, draw a person with two to four body parts, and control a pair of scissors with relative accuracy.

3 year old: Challenges

For roughly 1 in 20 preschoolers, stuttering becomes a problem. Boys tend to be more susceptible than girls. The condition is most likely to emerge when your child becomes anxious, tired, ill or overexcited. As parents, the best approach is to ignore the problem. Listen as he speaks, but don’t call attention to his mistakes. Meanwhile, you can help him by slowing down the rate at which you and other household members speak. If the problem is severe, your pediatrician may recommend speech therapy.

Your 3-year-old is still learning to get a handle on anger and aggression. Testing parents to the point of reaction is one of the ways that he learns which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. As a result, he may continue to experience temper tantrums much like those of the previous year. If you’ve been consistent about not rewarding this sort of behavior, however, he may soon conclude that tantrums aren’t worth the effort.

Many families choose to space their children around three years apart. If there’s a new baby in the house, your 3-year-old will need some time to get used to the idea. Until he adapts, you can expect a few behavioral disturbances, including regression (particularly in the area of toilet training), resentment, night waking, increased tantrums and general negativity. You can minimize these problems by making sure you spend plenty of alone time together, and allowing him to air his feelings of jealously. He may also feel less displaced if you encourage him to get involved with the new baby’s care.

3 year old: How to Help

Although preschool gives children the opportunity to try out new skills such as pasting, cutting and counting, the main objective is socialization. Many parents make the mistake of treating this as the beginning of a child’s scholastic career and thus push too hard. The best way for your 3-year-old to learn is through play, observation and conversation. Hold off on flash cards and worksheets. A child forced into academics too early may later develop an aversion to school.

Children — especially young children — crave routine. Your child will function better if she knows when to expect playtime, when to expect mealtime and when to expect bedtime. Before embarking on a new adventure — whether it’s the first day of school, or a play date at a new friend’s house — brief her ahead of time on what to expect. This approach makes new situations less intimidating.

At 3, your preschooler is proud of her independence. She will want to make decisions for herself. Talk to her. Hear what she has to say. And show her that you value her opinions. Whenever possible, allow her to make choices. You can keep her from making bad decision by narrowing her options. In other words, don’t read her every item on the menu. Instead, ask her if she would prefer grilled cheese or chicken sticks.

4 year old

They move at the speed of light, racing up stairs, dashing off on bikes and trikes and sprinting from one end of the house to the other. Your relatively calm 3-year-old has grown into a firecracker. On occasion, his demeanor — boisterous, bossy and belligerent — may remind you of those turbulent toddler years. But fear not. This difficult period is usually short-lived. And by the time he arrives at his fifth birthday, he’ll be calm, collected and brimming with self-confidence.

4 year old: Language Skills

Your 4-year-old’s vocabulary now includes an average of 1,500 words. By his fifth birthday, that number will expand to include 2,500.

He can communicate elaborate stories by stringing up to eight words together at a time. His narratives will not only be about things that have happened to him, but also about dreams and fantasies.

For the most part, his speech is quite clear. However, “f,” “v,” “s,” and “z” sounds may still give him trouble until midway through his fifth year. Likewise “sh,” “l,” “th,” and “r” can take even longer to perfect.

Grammatical errors occur less frequently. “No, go there,” for example, becomes “Don’t go there.” And “Where my shoes?” turns into “Where are my shoes?”

He asks questions using “how” and “where,” and can even answer many of your “why” questions.

4 year old: Social Skills

Your child interacts regularly with friends and acquaintances. She may even have chosen a “best friend.” Usually — but not always — the chosen child will be of the same sex.

Your child’s peers will begin to have a real influence on her behavior. If, for example, her new friend has possessions or privileges she doesn’t — like, say, cool sneakers, or more TV time — don’t be surprised if your 4-year-old starts demanding the same.

Most of the time, your preschooler can be counted on to share and take turns. She understands simple rules and, when playing in a group setting, usually obeys them.

Make-believe play grows more sophisticated. Instead of just acting out “house,” your 4-year-old may opt to play “fire station,” “candy store” or “circus.”

When playing in a group situation, one child usually emerges as the leader. She will assign roles to the rest of the kids — usually saving the best parts for faithful followers.
4 year old: Emotional Development

Your child’s fantasy life will continue to be quite active. But his ability to distinguish between fact and fantasy will improve dramatically.

When you order your 4-year-old to pick up his toys or clear his plate, he may occasionally tell you to “shut up” or assault you with kiddie profanity (“No way, poopie face.”) Sassing off — although difficult to hear — is actually a good sign. It means your child is learning to challenge authority and test the limits of his independence. Still, it’s important to reprimand your child when he shows disrespect.

Self-confidence is growing. Listen to the way he converses with adults. In the past, he may have been clingy or shy. But now he looks people in the eyes and implores them to listen.

Your 4-year-old is becoming more aware of sexuality. He may begin to ask questions about the differences between boys and girls, explore his genitals and express curiosity about other children’s private parts.

4 year old: Physical Changes

Your 4-year-old will gain an average of 4-1/2 pounds and 2-1/2 inches this year. Her lower jaw will continue to grow more pronounced; her upper jaw, wider. As a result, her face will appear larger and her features more distinct.

By the end of this year, coordination and balance will be similar to that of an adult’s. She can stand on her tiptoes, hop on one foot, turn somersaults and maybe even skip. Tasks like brushing her teeth, getting dressed or lacing her shoes can now be accomplished with little assistance from Mom or Dad.

Her ability to participate in art projects has also improved. By year’s end, she will probably be copying simple geometric patterns, printing some letters, cutting and pasting, as well as painting with a paintbrush.

4 year old: Challenges

This year, you will have an important choice to make regarding education. Should your child begin kindergarten when the new school year begins, or wait until the following year? This topic can be particularly vexing for parents of children with summer or fall birthdays. Keep in mind, however, that age isn’t the real issue. Children mature at different rates, and just because a child is technically “old enough” doesn’t mean he’s emotionally, socially or physically prepared. If you decide to hold off, consider transitional kindergarten — a program specifically designed for children not quite ready to make the leap to grammar school.

Your 4-year-old’s newfound confidence also has a downside. He may now become boastful and show off by misbehaving intentionally — especially while in the presence of his peers. If you need to discipline your child when his cronies are around, pull him away from the group before speaking to him about his transgressions. If you reprimand him publicly, he may be tempted to continue his misbehavior out of embarrassment.

Children this age love to tell tall tales. They’re not always lying, just indulging their imaginations. But sometimes kids lie to get out of trouble or simply to get their way. Parents should understand that children are not born with a moral sense of right and wrong, and that lying is a normal part of intellectual development.

4 year old: How to Help

It’s important to help preschoolers deal with anger and express it in a way that doesn’t inflict injury on themselves or others. Encourage your child to talk about her hostile feelings rather than acting them out. You can also provide an acceptable place for her to channel her negative energy. For example, you might want to purchase a miniature punching bag. Let her pound it while you encourage her to voice her feelings.

Some children are more successful in social relationships than others. And, inevitably, certain children will be left out, passed over or otherwise ignored. To help these preschoolers sharpen their social skills, try to arrange play dates with one or two schoolmates outside the classroom. The children may feel a greater kinship if they play together in a different setting.

Monitor your child’s TV viewing carefully. Used properly, television can be a valuable teaching tool. In fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, preschool children who watch educational television do better on reading and math tests than children who don’t. But too much television (more than one to two hours a day, including video games and video cassettes), or the wrong kind of television, can be detrimental to your child’s well-being. Exposure to too much violence, for example, may make your child more aggressive.


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Zero to Three Foundation: National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families, 734 15th Street NW, Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005.