The pre-school child – Physical development

The years from four to six are a marvellous time to watch. It is when a toddler begins to develop into a unique personality. His physical co-ordination becomes more sophisticated, his play grows increasingly adventurous and he becomes capable of group activity for the first time. The nursery-age child’s capacity for bodily, verbal and creative self-expression and communication advances rapidly alongside his fascination with the world around him, making these years truly a voyage of discovery.


The pace of physical growth, which was so rapid during the first two years of life, has slowed down by the third and fourth years. Eventual height is largely genetically determined. Regardless of sex, most four-year-olds range between 93cm and 109cm in height, and weigh between 13kg and 21kg. By the age of six, height may be 108-124cm, and weight 16-27kg. Provided a child is well and happy, and both weight and height gain are consistent, slight deviations in growth patterns from average norms are of little significance. Socio-economic and environmental factors generally account for any flattening out on the curve of the growth chart. Growth may be temporarily delayed by the stressful emotions connected with family crisis or short-term separation between child and parent. Growth may also be delayed by illness. Once any disturbance in the rhythm of daily routine has passed, there is usually a growth spurt to catch up with norms.

Shortly before the age of six, the first of the temporary or ‘milk’ teeth may begin to loosen, caused by the permanent, or ‘second’ teeth pushing through. This often coincides with better co-ordination in handling the toothbrush, but parents may find their child reluctant to practise the skill, for fear that the loose tooth may fall out.

Co-ordination and play

A child’s development depends on the maturation of the nervous system which, by the age of four, is near-ing completion. Having mastered the basic skills of locomotion – walking, running and climbing – there is a quest for new adventure to develop greater abilities. Four-year-olds become increasingly active in a variety of ways. They are now ready to tackle climbing-frames, slides, swings and tricycles. Children will, at this age, unless held back by fear or insecurity, enter wholeheartedly into all physical activities and push themselves to the limits of their abilities. They should be encouraged to try all kinds of physical activities because each provides the brain with more information about the incredible range of activities possible from the human body. This helps a child to discover his or her own limitations: ‘How fast can I run?, How high can I jump?, How far can I throw?’. They experiment with features of their environment; for example, they learn to swim in water and learn to use gravity effectively, by jumping from heights or using a rope to swing between two points.

Much of a child’s participation in sporting activity must be controlled by adults with consideration towards a child’s stage of development. This is in the interests of the child’s safety because a young child’s judgment of factors such as speed and distance are not sufficiently developed.

By the age of four the self-sufficiency of pre-nursery play is replaced with a social awareness and responsiveness to peer groups. There is a greater enthusiasm for group play, although from time to time there are also conflicts in learning when the child is required to mix and share with others. Each child at this age will watch and copy his peers.

As the months pass, the nursery-school child becomes increasingly interested in new forms of self-expression. He finds drawing, painting, writing and various crafts attractive, and the child makes a great effort to improve each particular skill: moulding a recognizable animal with plasticine, or crayoning without going over the edges. Equally, there is a growing need to gain adult approval for anything the child himself is pleased with. Each small success at this stage increases the child’s impetus to advance even further. By the age of six years, most children can hold a pencil well, and write quite evenly.


The amount of sleep required by each child differs from birth. Some four-year-olds choose to sleep each afternoon for a short time, right up until commencing school. Alternatively, they may keep up continuous activity throughout the day, and fail to settle even by 10 pm. The more active a child’s brain at bedtime, the longer it takes him to settle. A nursery-age child regularly sent to bed at 6 pm or 7 pm may continue to play in his bed until engulfed in tiredness, but may also wake during the early hours and resume playing, looking at books or chattering to a favourite toy. Some four-year-olds suddenly take a dislike to going to bed, or prefer to remain with their parents; they may be anxious not to miss anything or anybody, or simply prefer not to be alone. Sleep patterns are frequently disturbed at this age and dreams or nightmares are common; at such times a child may seek his parents’ company, or try to put on a light for reassurance. Parents who feel anxious about the amount of sleep their child is getting, or who are worried about reluctant or disturbed patterns of sleeping, could allow a dim light to remain on during the night, and toys or books close by to reassure the child. Hunger, or extremes of temperature, can also disrupt sleeping patterns. An emotional upset or confrontation shortly before bedtime may mean a delay in settling. It is not unusual to hear children talking to a < The motorskills of a pre- favourite toy or teddy bear about problems; they are good listeners and can keep secrets.

Speech development

Most four-year-olds are vocally articulate. They have an increasing vocabulary, which during the next two years reaches about 5,000 words. Many children of this age seem never to stop talking; sometimes they stammer and stutter in a bid to communicate their excitement or enthusiasm. This is normal in children and will pass as the vocabularly expands, provided parents are willing to listen patiently, without trying to constantly correct or criticize. During this time a child is continually developing a feeling for words. This is essential for tearing how to express emotions. Acquire further knowledge and understand how a magical world really works. At this stage children often begin to bombard their parents with questions: ‘how?’, ‘why?’, ‘what?’, ‘where?’ and ‘when?’. Parents are expected to have all the answers until children begin school. After then, there is competition from teachers. Contact with peer groups, and greater awareness of people beyond family and friends, may result in the introduction of undesirable vocabulary. This is another transient phase, and will pass provided parents do not make too much of it. Children enjoy adult audiences, whether approving or not.