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Your child at four years old

Four is a time of real change. This is the year when your often-at-home, dependent pre-schooler starts school and begins to find her own way in the world

By Mumsnet HQ | Last updated Jul 15, 2021

Four-year-old child

There's still a lot of that, erm, 'set in his ways' (a rude person might say 'stroppy') pre-schooler about her. At least one in 10 four-year-olds will still have one or more tantrums a day.

However, there's change afoot now and that comes as she learns the concept of guilt. She might still have the tantrum but afterwards she will feel a sense of shame and regret at having done wrong. Don't expect a box of Milk Tray and a heartfelt note of apology but know that it's there in spirit.

She's becoming more aware of other people's feelings this year. She can share, take turns and understand and obey rules. She also enjoys the concept of having friends and doesn't want to upset them.

Now, as well as understanding and showing empathy for those around her, she can do the same for people who aren't there. So she might want to make a card if you phone Granny and find out she has a cold, or ask to send 'poor children' her toys when she hears about Christmas charity donations. It won't happen regularly but does make a pleasant change from the snatching and shouting 'MINE', that's for sure.

That curious toddler streak is still there, too, and will continue to confound you as she asks questions such as: 'Why can you only get money out of some walls, Mummy?' Sorting out all the new information she's getting leads her to learn to 'generalise' – eg 'all lions roar', 'all cats are scared of dogs', 'all mothers need a long lie in on Saturdays.' She might not be accurate but generalising allows her to organise her view of the world, which would seem like a chaotic place otherwise.

Receiving lots of praise is still really important to her and she will bask in the glow of your positive comments but she's also learning to feel proud of her own achievements. When she manages something for the first time, whether it's riding a bike or getting to the top of the climbing frame at the park, she will shout it from the rooftops (and the top of the climbing frame).

But while, on the one hand, she is becoming very confident and her own best cheerleader, on the other, she will still be completely crushed when things go wrong.

If the painting she was doing doesn't turn out exactly as she hoped, you can still expect paintbrushes to fly, and a broken toy will feel like the end of the world to her. She also gets quite competitive and for the first time will find herself in competition with other children (who don't let her win at everything like you do) and this can be a source of enormous disappointment, too.

Whatever you do, don't try to shield her from this. She's going to have to deal with it sooner or later, so you'll be doing her no favours. Acknowledge the disappointment, make clear that it is no reflection on her, move on. Thus: 'It's always upsetting when you don't come first. But you did really well. Ooh look, a badger!' Simple.

Physical development at four years old

By four, you'll notice your child's face and body shape change as they strengthen and seem to 'stretch out', so she loses the rounded look she had as a toddler and develops a more defined face shape and longer, leaner limbs.

Four-year-olds are growing in both strength and dexterity, too. She can now skip and hop, as well as jump, with some proficiency and even do somersaults (we're talking roly poly type things on the carpet here, rather than back handsprings and aerial cartwheels). Do ensure you applaud every single one. She can peddle a trike and steer at the same time and can stand on one leg for up to nine seconds and stack 10 blocks, so her balance is much improved all round.

Her physical dexterity is allowing her more and more independence. She can get dressed without getting her head stuck in the armholes of a T-shirt, though she may well still have trouble with fiddly things like buttons and zips. She will enjoy picking out her own clothes but do try not to comment on her choice of outfit. As long as she's basically in weather-appropriate clothing you might have to put up with being tailed by the fashion police for a while.

She's also probably going to the loo by herself now and can wash and dry her own hands and face with no trouble – though that doesn't mean no puddle of water and soggy towel strewn on the bathroom floor just yet.

How can I encourage my child's physical development at four?

Her wish to be independent is a good way for you to encourage physical skills, so let her get dressed by herself but help her out by making sure shoes are Velcro rather than lace-up and undoing any stiff buttons before you put her clothes out so the items are easy for her to put on by herself.

Same goes for meal times – she's capable of using a knife and fork alone and drinking from an open cup, so get her some nice chunky cutlery and crockery – perhaps with characters on that she likes and put them in a low cupboard so she can even 'lay the table' by herself.

It's wise to still help her with tooth-brushing so you know it's done properly but once you've had a good go at it, try setting an egg timer and encouraging her to brush by herself for two minutes.

How much should my four-year-old sleep?

You're likely out of the naps stage now, though she may well still fall asleep in the car after a big day or occasionally conk out on the sofa in the late afternoon.

At night, she should still be getting a good 11-12 hours' sleep, however, so try to stick to a sensible bedtime of about 7pm to ensure she's regularly getting enough.

As well as stopping them getting crabby, four-year-olds need to sleep to grow, so keep up a bedtime routine that gets them winding down in the evenings and asleep by a decent hour, especially once they start school and may be more tired than usual.

Cognitive development at four years old

As your four-year-old becomes a more cognitive being, understanding how things relate to each other, and becoming less about 'me, me, me' all the time, so her understanding of the world improves.

She now understands time in terms of there being a future, so is less likely to kick off at being told something will happen 'later'. She begins by getting the hang of times of day (morning, afternoon and night) but will soon catch onto the idea of days and then weeks.

Although she has a sense of the order of things, she's not sure how long they really last so will still ask repeatedly whether 'we are nearly there' when you've just set off on a four-hour journey in the car, and will often ask 'how long is that?' when told something is happening in 'five minutes' or 'half an hour'.

A good way to explain this is in terms of something she's really familiar with – 'It's as long as an episode of Octonauts', or as long as 'the walk to school.'

Her judgement about other concepts of measurement has also improved. She could tell you whether a tower of three blocks or five blocks is taller and even if one block were heavier than another. What she is still unable to grasp is that bigger and heavier isn't always best (unless you're talking about a biscuit) and that good things can come in small packages.

Speech at four years old

By four your child can understand most adult conversation – unless it is conducted in French or is about the rise in interest rates. She can remember bits of a story and recount them and is able to understand and use the future tense properly.

There is a vocabulary explosion at four and she's learning between four and six new words each day. Her sentences are quite complex, with adjectives and multiple clauses, and she'll astound you by using long and detailed sentences such as 'I think it would be better for Auntie Agnes to go out with someone who doesn't drink as much as Ian does' – usually in front of the people in question.

Her grammar is surprisingly good and she's picking up interesting turns of phrase. She can put together sentences of at least five words and often many more, and can repeat words of four syllables back to you (if you know any four-syllable words to tell her).

She knows the names of lots of animals, colours, characters in books and on TV and has a vocabulary of around 1,540 words.

Reading and writing at four years old

Some four-year-olds go to school reading and writing. Others aren't interested and will learn letters for the first time at school. Both those are completely normal and it all pretty much evens out in the end, so don't panic if it feels like the reception class is full of budding Picassos and Prousts and your child still has a wobbly at the mere sight of a pencil. It will all come good.

Most four-year-olds, during this year, will be able to hold a pencil using the three-fingered 'pincer grip', can copy a cross and a square and draw a person with two to four body parts, rather than just a big head with arms sticking out. Your child may also be able to print some letters if you show her how and may be able to write her own name.

Counting at four years old

By four, most children can count to at least 10 – often higher but she may well stumble over 11 and 20. She can also count at least 10 objects. After that though, she – and you – start to get bored.

Interestingly, if you ask her to count 10 objects and then muddle them about and change the order they are in, she may not yet understand that there are still 10 and will proceed to count them again if you ask how many there.

She has a good understanding of quantity and may be able to estimate amounts of things, though she will still be confuddled by things of different size, so will guess that five large oranges is more pieces of fruit than five small satsumas.

Four-year-olds and fear

Despite all their swagger and bluster, it doesn't take much to give a four-year-old the collywobbles, and it's worth monitoring closely what she's watching on TV, particularly if you have older children, too.

There's nothing quite so embarrassing as a parent as being called into school to explain why your child has been regaling the rest of reception with the main plot points of Stephen King's It… or even a slightly edgy episode of Scooby Doo. But more importantly, what she sees and is quite happy with in the daytime may often comes back to haunt you both at night.

Fears of the dark, bogeymen, witches and ghosts are all rampant at this age regardless, so the last thing you want to do is give her any more food for thought. Nightmares are also quite common at this age and you may often find yourself getting up to comfort her at 2am – always a tricky time to show compassion.

If night times are proving tricky, try leaving her door open at night and maybe try a nightlight in his bedroom. Finding a solution, rather than telling her she's being silly, is much more likely to resolve the issue quickly. These fears are a natural part of getting older so go easy on her… yes, even at 2am.

How can I encourage my child's cognitive development at four?

Lots of parents say they don't get much out of a child of four about what's going on in their world. If you're talking to them about pre-school or school, ask specific questions – 'Who did you sit next to at lunch?'; 'What story did Miss Piper read you today?'. Detailed questions there's a definite answer to are easier to cope with than a general 'What did you do at school today?'

Try to point out letters when you see them, such as a logo on a truck that features a letter from her name, and encourage her to write letters, too. If you have a child with a pencil aversion (lots of four-year-olds quickly cotton on that writing sounds like 'work') you could try drawing letters in a sand pit or on a tray covered in shaving foam.

The same goes for numbers – just weaving them into your everyday tasks sneakily will encourage familiarity. Get her to put out a cup for everyone on the table and work out how many people will need one, or ask herto pass you a certain number of something and see if she can work out what is one more than that – 'Can you bring me three apples from the bowl to cut up? If we got one more how many would we have then?' But keep it simple. If she finds it too tricky she may simply switch off.

Play and activities at four years old

This is the age of chatting, singing and dancing with absolutely no self-consciousness. This stage will not return without the aid of mind-altering substances so let her enjoy it. Your budding thesp may love to sing and dance but she may not love ballet lessons yet. Four-year-olds are still very much into role play, but are extending it now by using 'props'.

Where once if your child had wanted to be a knight, she'd have looked for a toy sword, and if she'd wanted to be a superhero she'd have looked for a cape, now she'll happily charge you with a stick on his pretend horse and put her hood on her head and fly round the garden with her coat billowing out behind her. Christmas should be cheap this year.

The amazingly elaborate fictional tales are still going strong, too. They aren't really lies – they're more part of role play, as she's working out what is possible and what isn't. Try and play along but hint that you know it's really a game.

She's playing really nicely with other children now and will probably talk animatedly about her 'friends' and be influenced by the sorts of toys and play they enjoy, too. She'll love having friends to play at your house so they can see her toys, smear chocolate fingers on your curtains and tell you they don't like fish fingers.

Once she starts school, you can expect a raft of birthday parties, which will give her the chance to play in a group and learn a bit of give and take. Don't expect there not to be any tears the first time she doesn't win pass the parcel though. What you'll also see at parties is her taking part in what psychologists call 'cooperative play' (and she probably calls 'tag' and you call 'haring about like 30 bulls in a china shop').

What toys are good at four years old?

Toys that burn off energy will be welcomed (mainly by you) so look out for things that get them outdoors, from bicycles, which they might even learn to ride by the end of the year, to trampolines, ball games and nature trail sets (because what four-year-old doesn't want to put a slug in a plastic tub and bring it in to show you?).

Indoors, basic board games will help to teach them about reining in that 'must win' competitive spirit. This is the age when they may also get lots out of a learning tablet – go for one designed specifically for children unless you want to be investing in a new iPad every time your child hurls it across the room.

Role play toys like dressing-up outfits, dolls' houses and play shops will all be popular, too.

Choosing toys for them suddenly gets much easier at this age, as four-year-olds start to develop real interests (and obsessions) of their own. So chances are she could fill out a long wishlist herself with all the dinosaur/pirate/sea creature/fairy toys on her wishlist now.

Children's books are always a winner, too, and as they start to learn to read, they'll go through books like it's going out of fashion.

Developmental milestones at four years old

By this age, your child will probably be able to do some of the following:

  • Speak really clearly using complex sentences
  • Count 10 objects
  • Know at least four colours and three shapes
  • Peddle a tricycle
  • Stand on one leg for nine seconds
  • Draw a person with a body
  • Stack 10 or more blocks
  • Hop
  • Do a somersault
  • Get dressed and clean teeth with just a little help
  • Write own name
  • Know address and phone number if taught them

What else happens when my child is four years old?

The biggie this year is starting school. In most of the UK (things are slightly different in Scotland and Northern Ireland) your child will start school the September after she turns four.

As you'll soon see, an August-born child who may have been three the week before school started, and a child that's just days off turning five, are two very different prospects and if you have a 'young in year' child, you may find they're quite tired in the early days of school. It's worth having a chat with the teacher to see if they can perhaps do some half days if they're struggling.

There are lots of ways you can prepare your child for starting school:

  • Visit the school beforehand as much as possible. Most schools put on lots of settling-in activities in the summer term before they start
  • Talk to them about school and the fun things they will do there
  • Practise the walk or bus ride to school so they're familiar with the route there
  • Get them to be as independent as possible with the basics, such as washing hands, putting a coat on and going to the loo, so they are confident at doing those tasks without your help
  • Look at books and watch TV programmes about children going to school and talk to friends they know who are already at school

Mumsnetters say…

"Some kids are just more challenging than others – the strong-willed ones hate being told what to do and this is the age where they’ll want to test the boundaries of what they can get away with."

"If you have a tricky toddler, my advice is to start a behaviour chart – one that goes up and down depending on his behaviour, with a treat once the arrow reaches the top."

"Rewarding good behaviour and taking away treats for bad behaviour is pretty much all you can do. If you have a difficult four-year-old, try to remember that you’re definitely not alone."