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Preschooler Milestones

In this guide:
  • Physical milestones
  • Psychological milestones
  • If your child's a late bloomer
  • Summary


By preschool, your child will be pretty self-sufficient: able to get dressed more or less on his own, feed himself, and say "please" and "thank you." Preschoolers also have tremendous reserves of curiosity, imagination, and enthusiasm. And with them come plenty of quirks, as their personalities take shape and they learn more skills than ever before. Here, a guide to your preschooler's major achievements.

Physical milestones

Potty training (2 to 4 years)
For almost every new milestone, the rule of thumb is "two steps forward and one step back." Just when kids seem to be making progress (telling you they need to go to the bathroom), they regress (wetting their pants). And it's okay.

It typically takes boys longer to train than girls. But regardless, your child will let you know when he's ready to ditch the diapers. Signs to look for:

  • He knows the words for urine and stool.
  • He stays dry for longer periods of time than he used to (e.g., he's dry after a nap).
  • He's physically capable of pulling down his pants and getting on and off a potty or toilet.
  • He's bothered by having on a wet or soiled diaper.
  • He likes to watch you or your husband use the bathroom, and is willing to sit on the toilet or potty.

If your preschooler seems reluctant to start training, it doesn't mean he's lagging behind. It means he needs a little more time. Potty training is a highly individualized process, one that depends on your child's temperament  -- and yours. So don't be concerned; you'll figure out what works for both of you. For more tips and strategies, see our Potty Training guide.

Buttoning, cutting, and zipping up (3 to 5 years)
As their depth perception heightens, preschoolers' motor skills do, too. Your child will become more coordinated on her feet  -- jumping, running, and hopping. And through practice, she'll hone her hand-eye coordination and master skills like buttoning jackets and zipping pants. She may not be ready to handle scissors or pencils just yet. To help your child learn these skills:

  • Have her pick up nuts and small blocks with kitchen tongs.
  • Let her string beads.
  • Roll out play clay and let her cut it with scissors. Snipping any which way builds the fine muscles in her hands. She can graduate to cutting paper strips once she gets good at it.
  • Let her copy or trace your grocery or to-do list with a pencil.

Right- or left-hand preference (3 years)
Kids first start to show hand preference around age 2, though they're likely to experiment by switching back and forth. By the time they're 3, most are fairly consistent in which hand they use to draw, pick up a cup, reach, and wave.

Handedness appears to be an inborn trait, which is why it's not wise to try to train your child one way  -- even though the world is designed for right-handed people. If you have a lefty (about 10 percent of kids are), seat him to your left so he doesn't elbow you when he eats. When he draws or writes, position paper closer to his left side so he doesn't have to hook his arm across the top to see what he's doing. He may also need help learning to write from left to right without smudging. Left-handed scissors can also be helpful.

Awareness of sexuality (3 years)
As they potty train and observe their own bodies, preschoolers discover body parts and what they do. They may "play doctor" with a pal, but most children discover their sexual organs by touching them. As disconcerting as it may be to see your child touch herself or masturbate, it's quite normal. For many kids, it stems from a need to ease anxiety. While this behavior isn't something you usually have to worry about, here's how to handle it:

Try to react calmly.

Overreacting or forbidding your child to touch herself could just make her do it even more, and there's no need for her to feel she's misbehaved.

Give her something else to do.

If the time or place is inappropriate, distract her. Suggest a favorite CD or snuggling with her favorite stuffed animal.

Talk about privacy.

It's difficult for a 3-year-old to fully grasp that activities are more appropriate when no one else is around, but you can still tell her that what she's doing should only be done when she's by herself.

Trust your instincts.

If it seems like your child is touching herself a lot, talk to your pediatrician. There may be a medical reason for it.

Brushing teeth (4 years)
Most kids should be able to brush their teeth themselves by around age 4, but you'll need to supervise for a couple more years. Until your child is able to spit into the sink, use fluoride-free toothpaste. When he's able to spit, switch to a pea-size amount of fluoridated toothpaste. You can also help your kid to floss at around age 4, or whenever his back molars are touching.

Losing baby teeth (5 to 7 years)
Generally, the earlier your child's teeth came in, the earlier she'll lose them. So if your baby started teething early, she'll probably lose a tooth or two before kindergarten. A few tips before the Tooth Fairy's first visit:

  • Kids will often wiggle a loose tooth with their tongue, but they should never pull at it (or let a friend tie a string around it and yank!).
  • As soon as the tooth comes out, have her bite down on gauze or a clean washcloth to stop any bleeding, and place the tooth in a plastic bag for safekeeping.
  • How much money the Tooth Fairy leaves under her pillow is your call, but remember that your child will be losing plenty more teeth (a $5 precedent could be dangerous!).

Tying shoelaces (5 to 6 years)
By kindergarten, most kids have the motor skills and depth perception to tackle their shoelaces. To help yours get started:

1. Using a string, show him how to tie a half-knot. He can carry a string with him to practice on.

2. Have him try tying a big shoe, off his foot. Face it away from him, on the correct side of his body.

3. Use imagery: Teach him to make the first loop, then tell him that it's a tree and the thumb holding it in place is a rabbit. The other hand wraps the remaining lace  -- a fox  -- around the tree, then pushes the rabbit farther into its hole.

4. If this is too difficult, for the time being teach him to make two loops (one from each end of the lace) and use his half-knot to tie them together. Have him add a second half-knot for security.

Psychological milestones

Increased vocabulary (3 to 5 years)
A preschooler's vocabulary snowballs from ages 3 to 5  -- from about 900 words to 2,500 to 3,000 words. To help build your child's vocabulary:

  • Ease up on the baby talk. Your child can start to handle big-kid explanations.
  • Have conversations. Take a few minutes to chat and listen, and take it slow so that your child has a chance to express herself.
  • Play. Whether it's dance or playing with blocks, all dynamic and imaginative types of play are brain-boosters.

Emotional growth (3 to 5 years)
Kids at these ages are able to manage their feelings better, which helps them deal with frustration, disappointment, and anxiety. And as they begin preschool, their social skills blossom as they forge relationships outside the home. Some of the touchstones of your child's emotional life:


From patting his little sister's boo-boo to saying he's sorry (without being told to), these are signs your preschooler's beginning to see the world through other people's eyes.

Fictional playmates.

It's completely normal and healthy for kids to have imaginary friends. Such play-acting can improve their social skills, and these friends can provide an outlet for exploring the world, including things that may be new or upsetting. They also show that your child is capable of entertaining himself, and in turn, developing self-sufficiency. If he won't tell you what his imaginary friend says (however left out you may feel), it means he understands his thoughts can be private.

Acting differently around other people.

Yes, it's a good thing that he saves his worst behavior for you. Treating different people differently is a sign that he's developing a good social sense.


It may feel slightly suffocating to live with a 4-year-old who talks only about dinosaurs, airplanes, or trucks, but passions for such stuff are healthy and to be expected. Your child's intense focus on one thing show he's honing his tastes, and becoming an individual.

Writing (6 years and up)
You've sung the ABC song zillions of times; preschool's the time when your child will begin to learn to write the alphabet. Come kindergarten, she may be more interested in practicing penmanship if you have her write her own name or record her own stories (bath crayons in the tub are always a great way to get her writing!).

An important step in developing penmanship is to be sure your child holds her pencil properly: check that her thumb and forefinger don't overlap and that they form a loose "o," with the pencil resting on the third or fourth finger. Her wrist should be neutral, not crooked at an angle (especially common among lefties). Short pencils are easiest for kids to hold  -- they balance better and aren't as awkward as long or thick ones.

As she starts to make her letters, encourage her to use downward strokes  -- it's less sloppy than working her way from the bottom up. Vertical and horizontal lines are easier to write than diagonals or curves, so capitals like E, F, and T will be simpler at first than A or M.

Reading (5 years)
The parts of the brain that control visual, auditory, and memory information all need to be able to communicate effectively with each other before a child can learn to read. Most kids are ready by age 6. By reading together, your child learns:

  • Specific words make specific sounds
  • Words are made of letters
  • The words on the page are related to the pictures
  • Facts about their favorite things

Just remember that like with any other skill, each child learns at his own pace. So read together, but don't push. Making reading enjoyable is key to helping your child grow to love books.

If your child is a late bloomer

Kids have all kinds of quirks, and no child develops in a linear, even progression. But you should consult your doctor if:

* Your child has difficulty learning nursery rhymes, mispronounces sounds consistently, uses a lot of baby talk, or uses the wrong word even when he knows the right one (elevator instead of escalator). This could suggest dyslexia.

* Your child has trouble learning how to get dressed and tie her shoes, or is extremely sensitive to being touched or to textures (such as the tag on a shirt), loud noises, or visual stimulation, all of which are signs of dyspraxia or sensory integration disorder.For other signs of possible delays, see our Speech Delays guide.


Your child is becoming his own person during his preschool years. As he enters school and learns more about the world beyond his family, things may be challenging at times. But with your help, he'll adjust and triumph, and acquire all the skills he needs.

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