University of Missouri Extension

GH6122, Reviewed December 2005

Preschool Basics: How Children Develop During the Preschool Years

Preschool yearsAmy Halliburton
Former MU Graduate Student
Sara Gable
State Specialist, Human Development and Family Studies

The preschool years (ages 2-1/2 to 5) are an exciting time for young children. When they were infants, they developed a trust of their caregivers. As toddlers, they began to establish some independence. Now, as preschoolers, they use this trust and independence to actively explore new forms of play (e.g., pretend play) and new environments (e.g., school).

Preschoolers need to learn how to make choices for themselves and how to feel good about the choices they make. It is their job to "learn to take initiative in socially acceptable ways" (Erikson, 1963).

Preschool-aged children's style of thinking and learning can best be described as "what you see is what you get," or reasoning based on the way things look. Preschoolers rely heavily on the literal appearance of things as a means of understanding the world around them. For example, if a child breaks her graham cracker into four pieces while her brother breaks his in half, she thinks that she has more graham cracker than her brother because she has four pieces and he only has two pieces. Similarly, a child may begin a friendship with another child because of something appealing that the other child has, such as a pretty dress or a new toy.

Adults play an important role in helping children take initiative and explore their environments. Adults' behaviors, attitudes and styles of thinking contribute to preschoolers' development. Talking with children and including them in conversations helps to develop their language skills. It is important to give children opportunities for make-believe play. This helps them to understand themselves and others, and encourages their imaginations.

This guide presents the developmental milestones of the preschool years — accompanied by suggestions for how you can foster children's positive development. There is special emphasis on issues relevant to preschoolers, including pretend play, the transition to school, and early literacy.

Development between 30 and 60 months

Each child grows and develops at his or her own rate — displaying developmental landmarks at different times. The table below shows characteristics that children between the ages of 2-1/2 and 5 will typically display as they grow and develop. For each type of development (such as physical, communication, etc.), younger children's characteristics are at the top of each list, older children's are at the bottom.

Table 1
Developmental landmarks between 30 and 60 months



What can adults do?

Thinking and learning


What can adults do?

Expressing feelings


What can adults do?

Awareness of self and others


What can adults do?



What can adults do?

Pretend playPretend play

Preschool children love to play, especially when their play activities involve make-believe. This special type of play, known as pretend play, is particularly important for young children's development. As children's thinking skills improve during the preschool years, they can remember and tell stories that follow a sequence of events and make sense to others. Pretend play is a great way for children to learn and develop skills such as:

You can promote children's development by creating an environment that supports pretend play. For example:

Transition to school

Visit schoolAs the preschool years come to a close, families are faced with the challenge of preparing their children to start school. Preparing for this transition can make the child's experience (and the family's experience) more comfortable. Transitions from preschool to school involve a shift in caregiver-child relationships and peer relationships — some relationships end while new ones begin. Children often have mixed emotions about this shift, including a sense of sadness about leaving their preschool or child care program, and a sense of excitement and anticipation about beginning school. The ability to deal with these emotions and adapt to these changes is important for a successful transition, which sets a positive tone for children's adventures in school.

Here are some suggestions that can help you prepare your children for these transitions.

Promote literacyPromoting young children's early literacy

To promote young children's delight in talking, listening, reading and writing, adults need to provide a variety of interesting language experiences.

Children who have reading difficulties in the primary grades often had limited early literacy learning experiences. Children with reading difficulties have less letter knowledge, less sensitivity to the notion that sounds of speech are distinct from their meaning, less familiarity with the basic purpose and mechanisms of reading, and poorer general language ability.

Children who are skilled readers understand the alphabet and letters, use background knowledge and strategies to obtain meaning from print, and can easily identify words and read fluently.

Activities that prepare young children for learning to read emphasize:

Key concepts in children's early literacy

Phonological awareness
An appreciation of the sounds and meanings of spoken words. For example, a phonologically aware child can hear and say rhyming words, divide words into sounds and/or syllables and put them back together again, and recognize that groups of words have the same sound at the start (fish, frog, fruit), or the same sound at the end (dice, mice, ice).

Phonemic awareness
An advanced form of phonological awareness. The awareness that printed symbols, such as letters, systematically represent the component sounds of the language. Children who demonstrate phonemic awareness recognize the sound — symbol relationship. Phonemic awareness allows children to "sound out" words.

What adults can do

Be a model of literate behavior for your children: write notes, keep a calendar and daily planner, post lists of food and household needs and children's responsibilities, introduce new vocabulary words during routine conversation and bookreading, and subscribe to a local newspaper and magazines the entire family will enjoy.

Sing songs, make up silly rhymes, read books, and play with words and sounds every day. Discuss printed text, words, and sounds as "objects" that can be thought about, manipulated, altered and explored. Help children build and use their ever-growing vocabulary.

Provide children with the tools of literate behavior (pens, pencils, markers, paper, envelopes, a stapler, paperclips, stamps, a dictionary, an atlas, telephone books, magazines, catalogues, newspapers, junk mail) and engage in daily literacy activities with your children (write thank-you notes, mail birthday cards, look up phone numbers, find exotic destinations in an atlas, write lists, read books, visit the library).

Suggested books for preschoolers

Reading books is one of the most valuable ways that parents can spend time with their children. Reading to children helps them develop an awareness of the sounds of language, understand that letters represent sounds, and value literacy. The books listed below (title, author/illustrator, publisher, publication date) promote children's emerging literacy skills through rhyming, repeated patterns and predictability. Most importantly, they are fun to read!


The preschool years are an active time for young children — their independence and initiative enable them to explore their world in new ways. Parents and teachers have the important task of giving children numerous and varied opportunities to promote their development during the preschool years, including physical development, thinking and learning, expressing feelings, awareness of self and others, and communication. Using the suggestions that have been offered will help to foster a positive, creative environment in which children can thrive.



GH6122 Preschool Basics: How Children Develop During the Preschool Years | University of Missouri Extension

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