MadSci Network: Development

Re: What should a normal 3-1/2 year old child be able to do?

Date: Thu Nov 23 17:33:56 2000
Posted By: Chris Atherton, Grad student
Area of science: Development
ID: 972487813.Dv

Hi Marianne :)

Children of about 3 ½ years of age have mastered basic motor skills like 
walking and climbing and so on.  At this stage their brains and bodies are 
in the process of refining and consolidating what they can already do, so 
they spend a lot of time doing things over and over again while they play. 
 They can ride a tricycle, run and jump.  They can feed themselves 
(although it can still be a messy experience!) and can use the toilet (with 
some help).  They've got most or all of their baby teeth by now and are 
learning to brush them.  They may be able to dress by themselves although 
adults will need to help with fiddly things like fastening buttons and 
shoelaces. Children at this age are usually around 3-3½ feet tall, weighing 
between 25-45lbs.  Their limbs are growing longer as they outgrow the 
'squat-looking' toddler stage.

Children at this stage in their development have learned to speak quite 
well and most of what they say makes sense.  They probably know over 600 
words (they're learning more every day!) and can talk in short sentences.  
That said, they're still a long way from getting it right.  At this age 
children are in search of rules to help them make sense of the world and 
you will quite often hear a child say something like "I throwed the ball". 
 This is in fact pretty smart because they have heard adults using 
sentences like "you dropped it", so they assume that the rule for 
describing something you've already done is to add "-ed" to the end of the 
'doing word' (verb).  In this case it's wrong (the verb 'to throw' is 
irregular), but the rule will help them learn much more quickly than if 
they had to learn each example separately.

At this age, children enjoy listening to stories and can follow a simple 
storyline through pictures.  They can name colours and objects and may be 
able to count up to three things.  They enjoy singing and repeating simple 
rhymes.  A child will understand the difference between doing something 
'now' and 'later' although more complicated things like 'tomorrow' and 
'yesterday' don't make much sense to them yet and they don't usually 
remember things that have happened in the past.  They are still gaining a 
'sense of self' but already know whether they are a boy or a girl and, 
often, how old they are.  They enjoy figuring out differences and 
similarities between things like pictures or people. 

Emotional and Social
Children of around 3½ are learning that their actions can affect their 
environment, and regularly seek attention and/or approval from 
adults/caregivers.  They love to make adults laugh, especially by being 
silly.  They often copy the behaviour of adults around them, especially 
when this is centred on a particular activity like cooking or gardening.  
Although they are only playing at it, the activity is helping to improve 
the child's understanding of how the world functions.  A three and a 
half-year-old will probably have a million questions about what the 
caregiver is doing, and many of these questions will almost certainly be 
"why?", but they will also enjoy the activity for its own sake.

Children of this age don't yet play cooperatively with other children of a 
similar age although they seem to be happy playing near them.  They are 
still too young to understand that other people do not see the world the 
same way that they do (a stage the famous child psychologist Piaget 
referred to as 'egocentrism').  While in principle they will understand 
requests from an adult to "play nice", they are not yet good at sharing 
because they don't understand yet why they can't have all of the stuff all 
of the time.  This is a great source of arguments between children at this 
age ;)

Some more emotionally insecure children 3-4 years of age will experience 
'separation anxiety' when left at a crèche or kindergarten for the first 
time.   However most children soon accept this state of affairs - as their 
reasoning abilities grow, they come to realise that although the caregiver 
has gone, they will return again soon.

I think that one of the most important things to remember with all of this 
is that children develop in their own time - some children learn to walk 
later, or to talk later, than others, and this hardly ever slows them down 
in later life.  All children are unique and develop at their own pace.  If 
you have serious doubts about a child's development it would probably be 
best to discuss it with your GP - don't get scared by some of the stuff out 
there on the Web, particularly on commercial sites where there is money to 
be made by exploiting your fears that your child will not mature properly 
if you do not buy product X!    A lot of the guidelines in books or on web 
sites are just that - guidelines.

I hope this has answered your questions but many psychology texts give an 
excellent introduction to how children develop - I would recommend Vogel's 
"Developmental Psychology" which I had when I was an undergraduate and 
which is fairly easy going.

If you're looking for websites, a good place to start might be this site, 
which rates online articles about developmental milestones by how 
helpful/informative they are: 

You might also want to visit the National Network for Child Care (a U.S. 
organisation) site, which has a lot of information about developmental 
milestones for each age group:

There are a million online tests you can do - but probably best stick to 
those by reputable organisations such as the American Academy of 

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