Cathy Malley
Cooperative Extension Educator, Child Development
Cooperative Extension
University of Connecticut

Copyright/Access Information


  • what to expect from preschoolers.
  • that preschoolers grow and develop at their own rate.
  • some activities to enjoy with preschoolers.


Three and four-year-old children are often called preschoolers. Preschool children are making developmental strides and express an interest in the world around them. They want to touch, taste, smell, hear, and test things for themselves. They are eager to learn. They learn by experiencing and by doing. Preschoolers learn from their play. They are busy developing skills, using language, and struggling to gain inner control.

Preschoolers want to establish themselves as separate from their parents. They are more independent than toddlers. They can express their needs since they have greater command of lan-guage.

Fears often develop during the preschool years. Common fears include new places and experiences and separation from parents and other important people. You can expect the preschool child to test you over and over again, to use profanity and other forbidden words, and to act very silly. Preschoolers may still have trouble getting along with other children, and sharing may still be difficult. Because of their developing imaginations and rich fantasy lives, they may have trouble telling fantasy from reality. They may also talk about imaginary friends. Preschoolers need clear and simple rules so that they know the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

Understanding their growth and development will help you guide preschoolers through this stage. This fact sheet lists some of the characteristics of preschoolers. These characteristics are listed for three main areas: physical (body), social (getting along with others) and emotional (feelings), and intellectual (thinking and language) development. Remember that all preschoolers are different and reach the various stages at different times.



  • They walk on tip toes.
  • They stand on one foot.
  • They jump horizontally.
  • They ride a tricycle.
  • They build towers of 6-9 blocks.
  • They catch a ball.
  • They smear or daub paint. They draw or paint in vertical, horizontal, and circular motions.
  • They can handle small objects (such as puzzles, pegboards, and parquetry sets).
  • They grow about 3 inches taller in a year.


  • They have more small muscle control. They can make representational pictures (for example, pictures of houses, people, and flowers).
  • They run on tip toes.
  • They hop on one foot.
  • They gallop.
  • They begin to skip.
  • They throw a ball overhand.
  • They pump themselves on a swing.
  • They like unzipping, unsnapping, and unbuttoning clothes.
  • They dress themselves.
  • They can cut on a line with scissors.
  • They like lacing their own shoes (but not tying).
  • They can make designs and write crude letters.
  • They are very active and aggressive in their play.



  • They enjoy dramatic play with other children.
  • They begin to learn to share.
  • They need to know clear and consistent rules and what the consequences for breaking them are.
  • Their emotions are usually extreme and short-lived. They need to be encouraged to express their feelings with words.


  • They have very active imaginations.
  • They sometimes have imaginary friends.
  • They can be aggressive but want friends and enjoy being with other children.
  • They tend to brag and be bossy.
  • They are learning to take turns and to share. Games and other activities can help preschoolers learn about taking turns.
  • They enjoy pretending to be important adults (mother, father, doctor, nurse, police officer, mail carrier, etc.).
  • They need to feel important and worthwhile.
  • They need opportunities to feel more freedom and independence.
  • They appreciate praise for their achievements.



  • They can communicate their needs, ideas, and questions.
  • Their attention span is a little longer so they can participate in group activities.
  • Preschool children learn best by doing. They need a variety of activities. They need indoor and outdoor space. They need a balance between active and quiet play.


  • They are very talkative.
  • They enjoy serious discussions.
  • They ask lots of questions, including “how” and “why” questions.
  • Their language includes silly words and profanity.
  • Their classification skills and reasoning ability are developing.
  • They should understand some basic concepts such as number, size, weight, color, texture, distance, time, and position.



  • Preschoolers need time to climb, jump, and ride tricycles.
  • Let them play with blocks of different sizes and shapes.
  • Have them play with toys that have small parts (such as pegboards and puzzles).
  • Teach them to dress and undress themselves.
  • Have them help with household chores such as setting and clearing the table and watering plants.
  • Provide housekeeping toys.
  • Encourage them to count household objects as you perform household tasks (for example, count the spoons, cups, etc. as you set the table).
  • Read stories to them.
  • Sing songs and have them make up their own songs.
  • Encourage them to dance and move to music.
  • Answer their “how” and “why” questions honestly. Look for answers to preschoolers' questions in reference books with them.
  • Provide paint, crayons, chalk, colored pens, collage materials, and play dough for preschoolers to use.


  • Take preschoolers outside to play.
  • Let them test their sense of balance by walking on a straight line, a curved line, and a low balance beam.
  • Provide activities in which preschoolers sort objects (such as buttons or seeds) according to their characteristics.
  • Ask them to make up stories or make up the ending for a story.
  • Help them mix paint to make new colors.
  • Visit places in the community that are of interest to them (for example, the fire station or the library during a story or music hour).
  • Help them set up play stores, farms, or villages.
  • Help them plant seeds and take care of them.
  • Provide a box of dress-up clothes for a play corner. (See how the children play with these clothes. They may imitate people they know. You can learn a lot about children by watching them play.)
  • Make paper bag puppets. Then have a puppet show with the children. Children often express their feelings through this type of play.
  • Play simple board games with them.


*Discipline For Young Children Series* by Elaine Wilson, Cooperative Extension Service, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma 74078.

Visit your local library for books and information about how children develop and what to expect from them at various ages.

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