Your 4-Year-Old: Development and Milestones

Congratulations, you are the parent to a four-year-old! Four-year-olds live life to the fullest, making the most of every opportunity to learn, play and grow. As with every year before it, the fifth year in your child's life is filled with a host of learning and development physically, emotionally, socially, and more. This list encompasses some of the more common developments that a four-year-old will undergo.

Parenting a 4-Year-Old

Your four-year-old child is ready for an adventure every day! Here's what to expect.
Your four-year-old child is ready for an adventure every day! Here's what to expect. Andrew Rich

It is important to note, while these are guidelines, every child develops differently and at their own pace. There is a host of different factors when it comes to how and the rate that a child develops, from the number of siblings to how often a child socializes with others, to life experiences. If you have any questions or concerns about an area of your child's development, contact your pediatrician, preschool teacher or daycare provider, or other trusted early childhood development expert.

Social and Emotional Development in 4 Year Olds

The social and emotional development of a four-year-old
The social and emotional development of a four-year-old involves more "real" friendships and opportunities for learning about their own feelings and those around them. Jordan Siemens

You will start to notice your four-year-old is starting to mature both socially and emotionally, although it is important to remember that she is still trying to get a handle on her emotions. Temper tantrums are becoming less and less frequent as your child has learned coping mechanisms, but a major life event, such as a move, a divorce, or the birth of a sibling can definitely affect your child's moods and behaviors. Keep that in mind if you notice any changes in your child's disposition. While trusted adults (mom, dad, grandparents), still are the primary source of your child's interactions, the opinions of friends and peers are starting to become more important.

Here's what else you can expect in terms of social and emotional development from your 4-year-old:

  • Has a greater understanding of his own emotions, that others feel them too, and that someone else's feelings on a situation might be different from his own. 
  • While some four-year-olds are not thrilled about the idea of separating from a parent or caregiver, they can usually control their distress.
  • Almost all instances of parallel play (two or three children playing side-by-side rather than with each other) are gone. Cooperative play with other children is fully incorporated.
  • Becomes better at problem-solving and has a good handle on how to incorporate a solution that will appease everyone (or at least tries to).
  • Establishes real friendships, may even have a "best friend."
  • Develops empathy, and will attempt to console someone who is upset.
  • Still looks to a trusted adult to help when needed.

Cognitive Development in 4 Year Olds

four year old cognitive development
To help your four-year-old develop cognitive skills, it is important to set a good example from the very beginning. Take advantage of a four year old's natural curiosity!. Morsa Images

Like a 3-year-old, cognitive development in a 4-year-old isn't just about learning facts and academic basics. Learning for children this age also envelops learning about learning -- how to ask questions and how to process information into understanding. Your 4-year-old likely has a lot of questions that you may or may not know the answer to. The important thing is to remember that you are your child's role model, so even if you don't know something, demonstrate to your child that it is important not to give up and explain that you can try to find the answer together. ​

Here's what else you can expect in terms of cognitive development in your 4-year-old:

  • Language development explodes. Your 4-year-old should know about 2,000 words and adds about four to six new words a day. 
  • An increase in focus. Your child should be able to sit still longer and focus on what is being said -- especially if it is something that interests them. 
  • Can set goals for herself -- ride a two-wheeler, learn to pump a swing, etc.  
  • Wants to make decisions on his own, and they are usually appropriate, such as picking out his own clothing or choosing a snack.
  • Expresses an interest in trying something new, whether it is something they witnessed, read about in a book, or saw on television.
  • May become engrossed in a singular topic where they have to learn every single thing about that topic, and then switch to something new.
  • Starts to show an interest in learning letters and identifying those in her name.
  • Asks for help if needed, but also may have a good idea of what the solution should be.
  • Can rhyme words.
  • Can retell with fairly good accuracy a favorite story.
  • Shows an interest in learning in general.
  • May be able to form letters and in some lower case letters.
  • If a child writes out words, there are usually no spaces between them.
  • Can write left-to-right, and top-to-bottom, although if the child runs out of the room, letters will be written wherever they fit.
  • Understand the difference between letters and numbers.
  • May be able to sound out letter sounds.
  • Can most likely count to 10, and may be able to identify numbers out of sequence.
  • Understands the concepts of numbers -- that the number four represents four flowers or four balls. 
  • Be able to match objects that are the same size and shape.
  • Complete a 20-piece puzzle.

Physical Development in 4 Year Olds

Your 4 year old's physical development is growing by leaps and bounds.
Your 4 year old's physical development is growing by leaps and bounds. susan k.

As a 4-year old develops physically, he not only grows taller, but he is getting a better handle on his gross and fine motor skills. A 4-year-old is continuing to learn about how to control his body and is more likely to try new things as they succeed.

Here's what else you can expect in terms of physical development in your 4-year-old:

Motor Skills

  • Has great balance and control when walking, running, jumping, hopping, skipping, and marching.
  • Is more aware of her place in space and is less likely to bump into others while moving.
  • Can catch a large ball.
  • Can dribble a soccer ball.
  • Has improved eye-hand coordination, which results in an ability to complete puzzles, stringing beads and more.
  • Can cut a line with scissors.

Overall Physical Development

  • Understands and follows (without being asked) safety rules such as, "Don't touch the stove, it is hot!" or "We need to hold hands in the parking lot."
  • Can dress self.
  • Can wash her own hands.
  • Can brush her teeth with supervision.
  • Is right- or left-handed.
  • Can use utensils without help.

Language Development in 4 Year Olds

Four year old language development
Four year olds make huge developments in language and communication, learning on average, 2,000 new words a year. Hero Images

Four-year-olds are definitely known for being chatterboxes, as their language develops (what they say and what they understand) at an astounding rate. Your 4-year-old should have about 2,500-3,000 words that she understands by her fourth birthday. By her fifth birthday, it will balloon to over 5,000. ​

To help your four-year-old continue on this path, just keep talking! Answer any questions (even if you don't know the answers), read, and get your preschooler thinking about words by asking her questions about what you are seeing and doing. 

Here's what else you can expect in terms of language and verbal development in your 4-year-old:

  • An average four-year-old learns four to six new words a day.
  • Learns words by hearing them in context and then applies that word in their own conversation.
  • Also acquires words from hearing books read aloud.
  • May start to understand time in broad terms -- the days of the week and the months of the year
  • Can follow multi-step directions -- "Go into the kitchen, get your shoes, and bring them to me."
  • Uses appropriate volume when speaking.
  • Can tell a complete story that makes sense.
  • Doesn't interrupt as frequently. 
  • Understands the rules of conversation (wait to talk until the other person has stopped speaking), and is able to follow them. 
  • Can stay on-topic in a conversation, but frequently turns the conversation to self.
  • Does well conversing on the telephone.
  • Has a pretty good handle on sentence structure -- can speak in complex sentences.