Your 4- to 5-Year-Old


Children in this age group are beginning to develop important life skills. You can have a huge impact on the person your child will become just by the way you parent at this critical time. 

Set limits. When children do something that is against the rules, explain that what they did was wrong and outline what the consequence will be simply and in a few words. Consequences need to be logical, meaningful and simple. For example:

  • If your child rides a bike without a helmet, the bike is off-limits for a day or two.
  • When your child won’t share a toy, that toy can’t be used for the rest of the day.
  • If he misbehaves at the grocery store, he won’t be allowed to go next time. 

Create and keep routines. Children do best when they know what to expect.

Assign responsibility. When children do everyday household chores like putting dirty clothes in the hamper or washing machine, setting the table or feeding the dog, they are really learning how to contribute. 

Encourage your child to bathe and dress himself. 

Teach simple rules about safety with adults. You want your child to respect and trust others, but you also need to teach your child to be careful, so tell him: 

  • “If you’re not sure, ask me.”
  • “If an adult asks you to do something that you’re not sure is OK, always ask me first. I won’t get mad at you for asking.”
  • “No one should ever tell you to keep a secret from me – one that might make me mad if I found out. Adults should never expect you to do that.”
  • “No adults (except parents, doctors and nurses) should touch you where you normally wear a bathing suit.”
  • “If we get separated, find a security guard or police officer. That person will help you find me.” Point out the person who is there to help if you do become separated.

Kindergarten teacher with students

Early learning

Children entering kindergarten with a range of skills and knowledge tend to be more successful in school for years to come. You can download a list of helpful skills from the Arkansas Department of Human Services Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education website at or, in Tennessee, at Although mastery of any or all of the skills identified here is not required for admission to kindergarten, they will give your child more confidence.



Your 4-year-old should be able to:

  • Speak in a way that is almost always understandable.
  • Usually count from 1 to 10.
  • Walk on tiptoes, climb a ladder and ride a tricycle.
  • Name and match three or four primary colors.
  • Know his own name.
  • Correctly use the pronoun “I.”
  • Recognize gender differences and correctly say “I am a girl” or “I am a boy.”
  • Dress and undress but may still have trouble with laces and buttons. Children this age also begin to be selective about what they wear.
  • Hold and use a pencil with good control.
  • Copy a cross, circle and possibly a square.
  • Draw a person with a face, arms and legs.
  • Engage in conversation.
  • Sing a song.
  • Talk about his day’s activities and experiences.
  • Identify emotions such as sadness, anger, anxiety and fear.
  • Enjoy the company of other children.
  • Play cooperatively and show interest in other children’s bodies.


Your 5-year-old should be able to:

  • Group of 5 year old children sitting in a fieldSkip, walk on tiptoes and jump forward.
  • Throw a ball overhand.
  • Wash and dry hands and brush teeth unassisted.
  • Cut and paste.
  • Name four or five colors.
  • State his age.
  • Speak six- to eight-word sentences.
  • Tell a simple story.
  • Dress and undress without supervision.
  • Say his own phone number, address and several nursery rhymes.
  • Copy a triangle from a picture.
  • Draw a person with a head, body, arms and legs.
  • Understand right and wrong, fair and unfair.
  • Understand games that have rules.
  • Engage in make-believe and dress-up play; may pretend to be “mommy” or “daddy.”

If you’re concerned, talk to your child’s doctor. 

As a parent, you know your child best. If your child is not meeting the milestones for his age, or if you think there could be a problem with the way your child plays, learns, speaks or acts, talk to your child’s doctor and share your concerns. Don’t wait.

Eating right

Young boy eating an appleYour preschooler has probably developed a pretty good appetite. Preschoolers act out thoughts and emotions instead of using language. That’s why they seem to be in motion all the time. All this physical movement means your child will be hungrier and not so picky about the food you serve at home.

However, your child may be asking for fast food. Kids’ menus at these restaurants are seldom in line with your nutritional goals for your child. Fast foods are generally especially high in fats, salts and sugars, increasing the potential for weight gain and risk for diabetes. Find healthy alternatives to fast food.

Do children really need vitamins? No.

Nutrition experts have been saying for some time that most children do not need vitamins at all. The amount your child needs to eat to get enough vitamins and minerals from food alone is probably much smaller than you think. There are actually very few instances where a child’s diet will leave him deficient. 

Here are the facts:

  • It doesn’t take more than a very few selections from each of the basic food groups for children to get their recommended daily dose.
  • Many vitamins are stored in the body, so your child doesn’t have to eat each and every one every day.
  • Many foods these days are fortified with vitamins and minerals. Classic examples include vitamin-D fortified milk, margarine and pudding, and the calcium contained in kid-friendly foods such as orange juice, cereals, breads and even toaster waffles.

Oral health

  • Supervise brushing twice a day with a small amount of toothpaste.
  • Take your preschooler to the dentist again this year and follow up as recommended by the dentist.
  • If your child is a thumb sucker, ask the dentist how to discourage this habit. 
  • No more pacifiers by this age.
  • Give a fluoride supplement if your drinking water is not fluoridated. Ask your dentist how long to continue giving fluoride supplements.
  • Learn how to prevent dental injuries and what to do in case of a dental emergency, especially the loss or fracture of a tooth.

Breaking the thumb-sucking habit:

  • When you see your child thumb sucking, gently remind him he wanted to stop. Never make fun of your child or criticize him; that’s cruel. It also may teach him that he can “get to you” by sucking his thumb.
  • Praise your child or provide small rewards – such as an extra bedtime story or a trip to the park – when he isn’t sucking his thumb. 
  • Encourage your child to do something else, like squeeze a pillow or stuffed animal, when he feels the need to suck his thumb.

Parents sometimes try to break the habit by making their child’s thumb taste bad or putting a bandage, sock or glove on his hand. These techniques almost never work and cause undue stress to your child. 



Bedtime routine

Young girl sleeping in a bedPreschoolers sleep about 10 to 12 hours during each 24-hour period. A bedtime routine is a great way to ensure that your preschooler gets enough sleep and develops good sleep habits.

To establish a bedtime routine:

  • Set fixed times for going to bed, waking up and taking naps.
  • Include a winding-down period 30 minutes before bedtime.
  • Give your child a warning 30 minutes and again at 10 minutes before bedtime.
  • Keep consistent playtimes and mealtimes.
  • Make the bedroom quiet, cozy and conducive to sleeping.
  • Use the bed only for sleeping – not for playing or watching TV.
  • Limit food and drink before bedtime.
  • Tuck your child into bed snugly for a feeling of security.

A note on naps

Most preschoolers are very active and still need naps during the day. Even if your child can’t fall asleep, try to set aside some quiet time during the day for relaxing, which will be good for you, too.

The tips for establishing a bedtime routine also apply to naps. Usually, an hour is long enough to get the benefits of a good nap, but if your child has been going full tilt, he may take a longer one.


Night terrors

Young boy having a nightmareThere is a difference between simple nightmares (when children wake up crying and afraid) and night terrors. Night terrors are when your child is in bed and appears to be awake and terrified, but he won’t respond to you because he is not awake. Night terrors are a mysterious and distressing form of sleep behavior common during the preschool and early school years. These events are much more unsettling for parents than for the child having them. Typically, the child falls asleep without difficulty but wakes up a few hours later in a state of panic and fear. He may point to imaginary objects, kick, scream, call out and be inconsolable. The only things you can really do are:

  • Hold and protect your child from hurting himself. 
  • Reassure him.
  • Keep the lights dim and speak softly. 

After 10 to 30 minutes, he’ll go back to sleep and won’t remember a thing about it in the morning.

Since some children have night terrors when they’re overtired, try putting your child to bed about 30 minutes earlier than usual and see if that helps. In any case, they’ll disappear naturally as the child grows older. It’s unusual for night terrors to happen often or over a long period of time. In cases of very frequent night terrors, talk with your child’s doctor, but the best strategy seems to be to wait them out. 



Preschoolers (ages 3–5) live in a place somewhere between fantasy and reality. They have “real” imaginary friends, make up stories about places they have never been and hang out with superheroes. They also may have poor memories for accidents (spilled milk) or misdeeds (pinching the baby) that happened earlier in the day. In short, they do not have the ability yet to understand the difference between lying and telling the truth. 

You can teach your child the difference between lying and telling truth.

Help them learn the ground rules. At this early age, fibs and misdeeds are learning opportunities. Don’t accuse your child of a misdeed by asking “Did you do this?” It’s better to simply say what the rule is and offer a solution. “We have a rule that we only draw on paper. So let’s get some soap, and you can help clean this up.” Then you can praise your child when he cleans up the mess he obviously made. In this way, he learns what is expected of him. 

Gently help them see the difference. Creativity is in high gear during this period.

You can help nurture your child’s imagination and still teach him the importance of honesty. Gently remind children that what they are saying isn’t really true, then turn the discussion into a “what if?” For example, if your child talks about a fictitious trip to Disneyland, you can say, “Well, you know we haven’t been to Disneyland yet, but if we did go, what would you want to do?”

Pay attention. Preschoolers often stretch the truth to get your attention. 

Be positive, don’t judge. As the author of The Self-Aware Parent put it, “You have to bust out your child in a nice way.” Tell him you know it’s hard to admit doing something wrong but telling the truth is important.


  • Lies, Truths and Your Preschooler, Jennifer Soong, WebMD Feature.
  • The Self-Aware Parent, Fran Walfish, PsyD, 2009.

Resolving conflicts

Mother talking with young boyRemember that children do what they see others do. You are your child’s most important role model. Be sure that every day in every way you are showing your child a healthy way to deal with anger.

Help children understand conflict. Let them know that people get into fights when they are angry, when they get teased a lot or when they are encouraged by people around them. Remind your child that: 

  • Fights don’t solve problems – they make new ones.
  • When they get mad but don’t fight, they have really won. 
  • Sometimes, getting along with other kids is just hard. 

If your child is being bullied

Bullies target children they think are weak, shy or are smaller, and want to control them. They torment them verbally or physically, undermining confidence in the victim. The victim may not want to go to school or play outside for fear of being hurt.

Here are some things your child can do, with your help, that will make him safer:

  • Tell your child not to react to the bully, particularly by giving in to demands. Your child should try to keep calm and simply walk away.
  • If your child’s attempts at disregarding a bully’s taunts aren’t effective, he should become assertive with his harasser. While standing tall and looking his tormentor in the eyes, he should clearly and loudly make a statement like, “I’ll talk to you, but I’m not going to fight. So put your fists down now.” Drawing the attention of peers to the bullying situation can embarrass the bully. If your child isn’t used to reacting assertively, help him rehearse what he will say if he is confronted.
  • Encourage your child to form strong friendships. A youngster who has loyal friends is less likely to be singled out by a bully, or at least he’ll have some allies if he does become a target. 
  • If you suspect you child is being bullied, you need to take action to ensure your child’s safety and well-being. Talk to your child’s teacher, the principal of his school or the child care facility manager.
  • Let the school authority figure talk to the bully when he sees the inappropriate behavior taking place. This is generally a more effective approach than having you speak with the child or his parents. 

It’s normal to get mad. Anger doesn’t usually last a long time, but it is a very strong feeling when it happens. Talk to your child about what they should do when they’re angry.

When children are angry, they should:

  • Breathe deeply, count to ten or just walk away.
  • Stay alert, stand tall and keep a safe distance from the other person. 
  • Notice changes in their bodies.
  • Express their anger by putting their feelings into nice words.
  • Listen to what the other person is saying, and ask, “What does this person really want?”
  • Not hit anyone, break things or say hurtful things.
  • Blow off steam by running or exercising.
  • Think and talk. With a little guidance from you, your child can be the one to stay calm when someone tries to start a fight. 

If your child is still having trouble getting along with other kids, talk with his doctor.

Learning to read

There are a lot of tools out there (like educational television programs, games, songs, video games and DVDs) that will help your child learn to read when he’s ready. None of those tools will be as important as your attention and your involvement. 

Mother reading with child

The most successful approach to early learning: 

  • Let your child set his own pace and have fun at whatever he’s doing. 
  • Don’t drill your child on letters, numbers, colors, shapes or words. Instead, encourage his natural tendencies to explore on his own. 
  • Make learning fun. 
  • Present him with educational experiences, but make sure they are entertaining.
  • With your preschooler sitting with you, print the letters of his name on paper and say each letter as you write it. Make signs for special places, and let him decorate them. 
  • Teach your child “The Alphabet Song” and play games using the alphabet. 
  • Watch educational videos, DVDs, CDs and TV shows with your child.
  • Place alphabet magnets on your refrigerator or other safe metal surface, and encourage your child to assemble his name and make other words.

Remember that learning to read is a process. If done lovingly, it will open a world of wonder for your child that he will carry with him for the rest of his life. 

Exercise and activity

Young girl swinging on ropeChildren need exercise. Being active at least one hour a day will help your child:

  • Feel less stressed. 
  • Feel better about themselves and be more ready to learn in school. 
  • Keep a healthy weight. 
  • Build and keep healthy bones, muscles and joints. 
  • Sleep better at night. 

Children need to stay active so they keep developing their bodies and their brains. They aren’t designed to be couch potatoes. Young children should not be sitting around for long amounts of time. A good rule is no more than one hour – unless they are sleeping. And school-age children should not be sitting around for longer than two hours at a time. 

Parents need to limit TV, video games and computer time for their children. They also need to set a good example by being active themselves. Being active together can be fun for everyone. 

Playing team sports, walking or riding a bike to school, dancing, swimming, bowling or yoga are all great ways to stay in shape. 

Your child’s safety begins with you  

Family riding bikesAccidents continue to be the principal cause of death in children in this age group. As your child becomes active outside the house, you have more things to think about in keeping him safe. Download the Arkansas Children’s Hospital’s child safety checklist. Look for safety issues that might put an on-the-go preschooler or kindergartener in particular danger. Go to and scroll to the bottom of the page. 

  • Know where your child is at all times. Children ages 4 and 5 are too young to be roaming the neighborhood alone.
  • Trampolines are not recommended because of the risk of serious injury.
  • Insist that your home and car be smoke-free.
  • Electrical tools, firearms, matches and poisons should be locked up and kept out of reach.
  • Your child should not have unsupervised access to, or ride a bike in, the street. Supervise all street crossings.
  • Teach your child his full name, address and phone number as well as the first and last names of family members.
  • If bicycling, teach safety rules and insist he wear a helmet.
  • Continue to use a car seat or booster seat secured properly until the child weighs at least 60 pounds or his head is higher than the back of the rear seat. 
  • Always walk behind your car before backing out of the driveway.
  • Many 4- and 5-year-olds are fairly good “swimmers,” but knowing how to swim does not make your child safe around water. Make sure that your child wears a life vest if boating.
  • There’s no such thing as waterproof or sweat-proof sunscreen. Reapply sunscreen often, and teach your child the importance of using it even when you’re not around. When possible, avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
  • Advise your child to be careful around strange dogs, especially ones that are eating.
  • Teach your child not to talk to strangers or accept food from strangers. 

For more tips on keeping your child safe, download the Home Safety Checklist from or visit the Tennessee Department of Health at


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