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Back to basics
What it’s like to be a preschooler


The preschool years are marked by increasing competence across all developmental domains. Steadily, brain function, language, motor skills, perceptions, interpersonal relationships, and a sense of self reflect the ever-increasing self-regulation and decision-making skills that contribute to a child’s autonomy and independence.

Preschoolers continue to construct knowledge through hands-on experiences with materials and responsive interactions with people. Consider these characteristics and developmental milestones of a child’s preschool years.


At 3 years
I ask lots of questions; a favorite word is why.
I like to make decisions when offered simple choices.
I can identify relationships between objects (balls have rounded sides while blocks have flat sides, for instance) and people (like family members, class mates, and friends).
I recognize differences and sometimes ask blunt question about another person’s color, shape, or ability in order to better understand the ways in which all people are unique.
I can understand and follow simple, one-step directions like, “Put the green cubes into this bucket.”
I can feed myself with a fork or a spoon but sometimes don’t think I’ll like the food I’m offered. Give me time to discover new tastes, textures, and food preferences.
I think about things, even when I can’t see them.
I can grasp, hold, and effectively use writing tools like pencils, markers, crayons, and paintbrushes.
I have a vocabulary of a few hundred words but sometimes get stuck finding the right one. I need you to be patient as I find the right way to express myself.
I make marks on paper—sometimes with meaning and sometimes just to enjoy the process. I’ll tell you if I want help labeling my artwork.
I don’t have a good concept of time so it’s frustrating and confusing when you tell me to “Wait a minute” or that I’ll go home in an hour.
I can run across the playground without tripping and like to test my muscle strength and balance by climbing. Make sure the environment is safe so that I can test my own skills, in my own way, at my own pace. Comparing me to what another child can do isn’t helpful to me.
I need to know you’re standing by to offer assistance when I’m unable to solve a problem or negotiate a conflict by myself.
When I’m afraid or upset, I sometimes go back to sucking my thumb, wetting my pants, or whining instead of talking.


At 4 years
I need (and sometimes demand) lots of opportunities to express my ideas and feelings.
I like to practice writing my own name—and trying to copy other words too.
I can relate cause to effect, interpret actions, use many symbols, and generalize information. I need lots of time to experiment with objects in the physical world to build knowledge through experience.
I like to identify my best friends for daily play but these friends can change frequently.
I get upset or sad when I’m teased or ignored.
I need you to help me consider different solutions to everyday problems.
I have the muscle coordination and strength to serve myself at mealtime. I like having a friend hold my cup so that I can pour without spilling.
I can listen and respond to stories, songs, poems, and books.
I’m beginning to recognize and understand that other people have needs and feelings—that may or may not be the same as mine.
I can skip, pump a swing, and catch a ball. I like to practice standing on one leg, walking backward, and hopping.
I like to help, especially when I’m doing a grown-up task like setting the table, sweeping the floor, or folding clothes.
I can respond to clear two- or three-step directions like, “Wash the paint off the brush before you put it back in the brush tray.”
I sometimes need quiet time to think, look at a book, rest, or just watch others.
I like to collect things and often have my pockets filled with interesting things like feathers, coins, or rocks.
I like to know what’s happening next. Changes in routine and schedule—like when there’s a fire drill or field trip— can upset and frighten me.
I can use the toilet independently and reliably—and usually remember to wash my hands without a reminder. When I do have an accident, please help me get cleaned up without shaming or embarrassing me.
I can share detailed information about things I know and like. I’m keen to retell stories, to act them out, and to sometimes direct the action.
I’m usually able to regulate my own behavior and generally recognize and heed the differences in behaviors that are acceptable at school and those for home.