What Child Care Providers Can Expect in Preschoolers' Social and Emotional Development

Children holding hands

Between ages 3 and 5, young children gain a better understanding of their own feelings and emotions, and become more competent at interacting with other children. They may be able to talk about their feelings, respond appropriately to others’ emotional signals, and regulate their emotions. They begin to understand how others feel, start learning how to negotiate and take turns and practice social problem solving when playing with others. Here are some common social and emotional milestones child care providers may recognize in preschoolers.

At Age 3, Most Preschoolers…

  • Can accept suggestions and follow simple directions
  • May sometimes show preference for one parent
  • Enjoy helping with simple tasks such as setting the table and cleaning up
  • Can make simple choices between two things
  • Enjoy making others laugh and being silly
  • Enjoy playing alone, but near other children
  • Spend a great deal of time watching and observing
  • May enjoy playing with other children briefly, but still do not cooperate or share well
  • Enjoy hearing and telling stories about themselves
  • Being role-playing by playing “house”
  • Enjoy imitating others
  • Can answer the question, “Are you a boy or a girl?”
  • Like to please parents and teachers

At Age 4, Most Preschoolers…

  • Can take turns and share, most of the time
  • May be a little bossy when talking to others
  • Understand and obey simple rules, most of the time
  • Change the rules of a game as they go along
  • Like to talk and carry on elaborate conversations
  • May persistently ask “why?”
  • May name call and tattle frequently
  • Enjoy showing off and bragging about possessions
  • May be scared of the dark or monsters
  • Begin to understand danger, and might get fearful
  • Have trouble separating pretend and make believe from reality
  • May begin to lie in order to protect themselves or friends
  • May not understand the concept of lying because imagination gets in the way
  • May try to shock others by using “forbidden” words
  • Might still throw tantrums over minor frustrations
  • Can express anger verbally rather than physically
  • Expand pretending far beyond “playing house” to more elaborate settings like fire station, school, shoe store and ice cream shop
  • May love to tell jokes that make no sense to adults

At Age 5, Most Preschoolers…

  • Invent games with simple rules
  • May be able to organize other children and toys for pretend play
  • Can still confuse fantasy with reality sometimes
  • Can take turns and share, but may not always want to
  • May just want to play with best friends and may exclude other children from play
  • May use swear words or “bathroom words” to get attention
  • Can sometimes be very bossy
  • Like to try new things and take risks
  • Like to make their own decisions
  • Notice when another child might be angry or sad
  • Likes to feel grown up
  • May boast about themselves to younger children who cannot do as much as they can
  • Have a very basic understanding of right and wrong
  • Understand and respect rules, often ask permission before doing something
  • Understand and enjoy both giving and receiving
  • Enjoy collecting things
  • Sometimes want to be alone

For More Information

To learn more about preschoolers’ development, and to find activities and materials that support preschoolers’ development, take a look at the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles:

If you are looking for specific activities to use with preschoolers, check out the Hands-on Activities for Child Care searchable database.