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Aim

The aim of this article is to provide insight into the milestones to anticipate when your child is four years old – across all developmental domains (or informally put, types of abilities). In addition, it provides a list of signs to watch for if you suspect that your child may be struggling at this stage. In the future, this article will expand to include resources – like evidence-backed games and activities – that are designed to help you nurture your child’s growth.

Outline

Introduction
Motor skills
Cognition
Language
Social and emotional skills
What if I’m concerned about my child?

Introduction

On your child’s fourth birthday, you may be looking forward to the next slate of developmental milestones. As they grow, you’re certain that your child will in most cases become more independent – but what should you expect in terms of the other skills that they’re soon to acquire?

A four-year-old boy celebrating with family blowing out candles on his birthday cake.

What are developmental milestones

Developmental milestones are skills and abilities that are usually attained by a certain age, as compared to other typically-developing children that are the same age. Don’t worry too much if your child hasn’t reached one of the milestones below – it’s important to recognize that children all learn, grow and develop at different paces. If your child seems to be struggling – or they’ve missed more than a few milestones – it might be time to speak to your pediatrician or family doctor.

Motor: how they’re planning and carrying out movement

A young girl learning to trace.

Gross motor

Your child may be able to:

  • Stand on one foot for more than 2 seconds (up to 10 seconds the older they are)
  • Jump with two feet
  • Use door handles
  • Control big muscle movements more easily (e.g. run, pivot)
  • Log roll, do somersaults, skip and trot
  • Throw and bounce a ball
  • Jump over objects and climb playground ladders
  • Walk up and down stairs by alternating feet, and without help
  • Peddle a tricycle

Fine motor

Your child may be able to:

  • Get dressed and undressed without much help
  • Copy a triangle, circle, square and other shapes
  • Write letters or marks that look like letters (e.g. writing capital letters)
  • Draw wavy lines across a page that is meant to resemble text
  • Put together a simple puzzle
  • Begin to use scissors
  • Stack 10 or more bricks
  • Draw a person with 2-3 body parts
  • Use a fork and spoon
  • String beads or cereal to make necklaces
  • Pinch or handle clay to make recognizable objects
  • Pour, cut with supervision and mash food

Cognition: how their brain is developing

Your child may be able to:

  • Count to at least 20; and point to and count items in a group
  • Remember or predict parts of a story
  • Play “mom” or “dad”
  • Correctly name at least three colors and four shapes
  • Start sorting things by size, shape and color; and putting things in order from biggest to largest
  • Stick with an activity for 10 to 15 minutes
  • Compare and contrast by height, size or gender
  • Recognize shapes in the real world
  • Explore relationships between ideas, using words like “if” and “when” to express them
  • Start thinking more logically, like how to do something or what outcomes might be
  • Participate in board games or card games for children
  • Understand abstract ideas like “bigger,” “less,” “later”, “ago” and “soon”
  • Begin to understand the difference between reality and fantasy, but still can be confused by it
  • Better understand the concept of time and the order of daily activities (e.g. when breakfast is)
  • Demonstrate a greater attention span
  • Follow 2-3 part commands: “Brush your teeth, put your toys away and go to bed.”
  • Recognize familiar word signs, like “STOP.”
  • If they’re taught, recount their phone number and address
  • Understand the concept of “same” and “different”
  • Know about everyday items in the home

Language: speaking, listening and writing

Your child may be able to:

  • Speak clearly, using more complex sentences
  • Recognize some letters
  • Write and recall their own name
  • Understand around 2,500 when they turn 4; and an estimated 5,000 at 5
  • Sing silly songs from memory, make up goofy words and starts rhyming
  • Follow simple, unrelated directions
  • Change speech patterns depending on who they’re speaking to (e.g. speaking to a younger child)
  • Pronounce most words correctly, but have trouble with s, w and r sounds
  • Ask for the definition of unfamiliar words
  • Make up and tells longer stories
  • Argue, even if the argument is illogical
  • Know some basic rules of grammar, like using “he” or “she” correctly or using future tense

Social and emotional skills: relating to others and themselves

Mother playing with her young child.

Your child may be able to:

  • Enjoy playing with other children and pleasing friends
  • View themselves as whole people, with a mind and body
  • Become aware that they can be hurt physically
  • Become interested in doing new things
  • Demonstrate creativity in imaginative play
  • Talk about what they’re interested in
  • May have their own “best friend” or imaginary friend
  • Start tattling and acting bossy
  • Tell small lies to get out of trouble
  • Act defiant to see the reaction
  • Look to a trusted adult when help is needed
  • Share, take turns and cooperate; be more aware of others’ feelings
  • Understand the rules of a game and be more focused on winning when playing
  • Understand and obey the rules (but may be demanding and uncooperative)
  • Express a broad range of emotions, including jealousy, excitement, anger and fear
  • Demonstrate more independence and parts with parents more easily
  • Express anger verbally, rather than physically

What if I’m concerned about my child?

Parental instinct can be a powerful ally in any caregivers’ toolkit. Still, it’s quite important to consider that children may miss a milestone – and that (may) be perfectly alright. Every child grows and develops at a different speed – so it’s impossible to say when a child will reach a given milestone with absolute certainty. If you do feel that your child is struggling, or if they’ve missed more than a few milestones, it might be time to speak to a professional.

You have reason to be concerned if your child:

  • Is extremely afraid, shy or aggressive
  • Is extremely anxious when separated from you
  • Cannot retell a favorite story
  • Is easily distracted and unable to focus on a task for more than five minutes
  • Ignores other children and potential friends, or doesn’t respond to people outside the family
  • Has a limited amount of interests
  • Rarely engages in fantasy play or make-believe
  • Cannot distinguish the difference between fantasy and reality
  • Seems unusually passive
  • Often seems unhappy or sad without expressing a wide range of emotions
  • Is unable to build a tower of more than 8 blocks
  • Resists or has trouble eating, sleeping or using the bathroom
  • Resists or has trouble undressing, brush their teeth or washing hands without help
  • Doesn’t use plurals or tenses correctly
  • Doesn’t tell stories or talk about experiences during the day
  • Cannot provide their first and last name
  • Cannot jump in place
  • Has trouble holding a crayon or scribbling
  • Doesn’t follow 2-3 part commands
  • Doesn’t use “me” and “you” correctly
  • Doesn’t understand “same” and “different”
  • Speaks unclearly
  • Loses the skills they once had