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Brain Development in Children

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3 Years Old: The Thinker

Milestone: Answer-seeking

What You're Seeing: “I can't even tell you how many times I hear ‘Why?’ in a day. I really try my best to answer every time, but sometimes I resort to ‘Ask your father.’” —Tracy Shahnamian, Framingham, MA

Why (No Pun Intended): Big-time growth in the left hemisphere of the brain, tied to language. Your child has banked 500 to 800 words and can speak three- to five-word sentences. Plus, kids “are starting to see that certain things happen consistently, but they can't understand what makes them happen,” says Dr. Nyp. So you get why-bombed.

Help Him Along: “It's hard, but try not to tune him out,” advises Susan Gelman, Ph.D., the Heinz Werner Collegiate Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, whose study on this phenomenon appeared in Child Development. “My research has shown that three-year-olds simply want to get to the bottom of things. They're not trying to monopolize your attention.” Gelman also learned that kids will keep at it if they don't get an answer to the question they asked. If she asks “How do snakes hear without ears?” and you toss off “Maybe they can't,” you'll get the question again. But if you reply “They have ears on the inside,” she'll move on.

4 Years Old: The Dreamer

Milestone: Imagination Explosion

What You're Seeing: “She's always playing these animal-family games. ‘OK, you're the mommy. And you are the baby.’ And I love that she just as easily fights off bad guys.” —Kris Iorio*, Shrewsbury, MA

Why: Your preschooler is starting to hone abstract thought, has better impulse control, and has a sense of time, which allows for short-term goal setting, says Rubin. That makes for a fun playmate who can drum up silly scenarios, share, and keep her hands to herself (usually). Pretend play is also “their way of figuring out the thoughts of others,” says Gopnik. All of that you-be-Batman-I'll-be-Joker bolsters social development, according to new research in Psychological Bulletin.

Help Her Along: Seek out nature-infused play spaces. A study out of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville found that playgrounds that incorporate natural elements like logs and flowers inspire more creative play than the metal-and-asphalt ones. While 4-year-olds do most of their pretending with sibs and pals, if you're invited to join, dive in. “When children pretend with their parents, the play is more advanced,” says Angeline Lillard, Ph.D., coauthor of the Psychological Bulletin study. But leave the director's chair for your kid. “You are like the National Endowment for the Arts: there just to ensure the show goes on,” says Gopnik.

* Name has been changed

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