Development milestones in your pre-schooler

by | Jun 28, 2020

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Child development can be exceptionally detailed and overwhelming. This is the first in a three-part series to demystify child development and milestones by educator Kerry McArthur.

Child development is a process every child goes through. This process involves learning and mastering skills such as sitting, walking, talking, skipping, and tying shoes. Children reach these developmental milestones, during usually predictable time periods.

The main thing to remember is that every child is different, every child will develop at their own pace and as long as consistent development is seen, then allow them to grow and explore.

Milestones develop in a sequential fashion. This means that a child will need to develop some skills before they can develop new skills. For example, children must first learn to crawl and to pull up to a standing position before they are able to walk. Each milestone that a child acquires builds on the last milestone developed.

Children develop skills in five main areas of development: cognitive development, social and emotional development, speech and language development, fine motor skill development and gross motor skill development.

We will start this series by looking at cognitive development and language development.

Cognitive Development

This is the child’s ability to learn and solve problems, such as a two-month-old baby learning to explore the environment with hands or eyes, or a five-year-old learning how to do simple math problems.

Some examples of how your child explores

1 – 2  years old

  • Understand and respond to words
  • Identify objects that are similar
  • Tell the difference between “me” and “you”
  • Imitate the actions and language of adults
  • Can point out familiar objects and people in a picture book
  • Learn through exploration


2-3 years old:

  • Your child will understand simple stories.
  • Their imagination will become more vivid. Imaginary friends will make an appearance along with pretend play with dolls and stuffed animals.
  • Your child also will learn to match familiar items to pictures of those items.
  • They may enjoy simple puzzles (three to four piece puzzles are great for two-year-olds) building up to 12-15 pieces.
  • Your child will be able to name pictures of objects and identify familiar activities in books.
  • Your child will learn to count to three and understand what those numbers mean.


3-5 years old

  • Your child should be able to answer questions like: “What do you do when you are sleepy or hungry?”
  • Beginning to learn and understand different basic shapes and colours.
  • Your child will, by age five, know how to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end.
  • You will begin to teach your child the difference between right and wrong.
  • Your child will have a difficult time knowing the difference between reality and fantasy during this period.
  • Playing pretend will ready your child for reading. If a rock can “be” an egg, then a group of letters can stand for a word.


How can you help?

As parents we tend to focus on what we see as intellectual development. Most children are eager to learn, but education will soon become a huge part of their life. In the preschool years a close family relationship and good examples from caregivers should have more focus than formal learning.

You can encourage cognitive development by helping your child make sense of the world. When they show interest in an object you can help them touch and explore the item and explain what it is and how it can be used.

Actively encourage your little one to explore the world. Have patience with them and don’t rush the process of learning.

Language development

Language development is the child’s ability to both understand and use language, such as a 12-month-old baby saying his first words or a two-year-old naming parts of her body.


12-18 months

Children at this stage will start saying their first words with meaning, for example “out” or “no” will be said in the correct moment. More and more vocabulary will be added to his vocabulary. You will often think (rightly so) that he can understand more than he can say.

They will understand gestures and basic instructions, e.g., run, dance, etc.


18 months to 2 years

Your toddler’s vocabulary is growing and she will start to put words together into short ‘sentences’. She will understand most of what you are saying and you will be able to understand more and more of what she is saying, even if it is mostly garbling.

Language development varies hugely, but your baby should have a few words by 18 months. If not, talk to your health professional.


2-3 years

Your child can speak in longer, more complex sentences now, and is getting better at saying words correctly. He might play and talk at the same time. He will still confuse time and space but his understanding of how words interact with his environment and how to use them correctly will be growing. Strangers or family members will be able to have more meaningful discussions and they will be able to understand most of what is said.

A full range of vocabulary will initially be between 200 and 300 words with being able to follow a string of two- or three-part instructions. By age three, up to 1 000 words will be understood and used.


3-5 years

You can expect longer, more abstract and more complex conversations now. For example, your child might say things like, “Will a tree grow in my tummy because I ate a seed?”

There will still be confusion between present, past and future tense but this is getting clearer. She will want to start discussing a wider range of topics and her vocabulary will be quite varied.

Up to 1 500 words are being used and by five you will experience sentences made up of four or five words with correct placement of nouns, verbs, pronouns etc.

Always remember, every child is different and will develop at their own pace, so don’t rush them. Consistent development is important, so as long as this can be seen there is little reason for concern, but at any point that development halts or slows down, please chat to your clinic nurse or paediatrician.

Enjoy your little one for as long as possible. Remember they are only little for short time and before you know it, they will be going off to school.