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Developmental Milestones

Young Children’s Development: What to Expect

What’s typical development? And what can parent do to be sure their child is getting the stimulation he or she needs? Here’s a list of what to look for as a child learns and grows from infancy to preschool.

Here’s a list of accomplishments and behaviors that are typical for younger children in three age groups — babies, toddlers and preschoolers. Each is followed by a list of things that you can provide to help your child learn and grow. Because each child learns at his own rate, you should consider the lists as guidelines only.

Babies (birth to 1 year old)

What to Expect

Babies grow and change dramatically during their first year. They begin to:

  • Develop some control over their bodies. They learn to hold up their heads, roll over, sit up, crawl, stand up and, in some cases, walk.
  • Become aware of themselves as separate from others. They learn to look at their hands and toes and play with them. They learn to cry when their parents leave and to recognize their own names.
  • Play games. Babies first play with their own hands. Later they show an interest in toys, enjoy “putting in and taking out” games and eventually carry around or hug dolls or stuffed toys.
  • Relate to others. Babies first respond to adults more than they do to other babies. Later they notice other babies, but they tend to treat these babies as objects instead of people. Then they pay attention when other babies make sounds.
  • Communicate and develop language skills. Babies first cry and make throaty noises. Later they babble and say “mama” and “dada.” Then they make lots of sounds and begin to name a few familiar people and objects. They begin to enjoy hearing rhyming and silly language.

What Babies Need

Babies require:

  • Loving parents or caregivers who respond to their cries and gurgles and who keep them safe and comfortable
  • Opportunities to move about and to practice new physical skills
  • Safe objects to look at, bat, grab, bang, pat, roll and examine
  • Safe play areas
  • Many opportunities to hear language, to make sounds and to have someone respond to those sounds

Toddlers (1–3 years old)

What to Expect

Between their first and second birthdays, children:

  • Are energetic, busy and curious
  • Are self-centered
  • Like to imitate the sounds and actions of others (for example, by repeating words that parents and others say and by pretending to do housework or yard work with adults)
  • Want to be independent and to do things for themselves
  • Have short attention spans if they are not involved in an activity that interests them
  • Add variations to their physical skills (for example, by walking backwards)
  • Begin to see how they are like and unlike other children
  • Play alone or alongside other toddlers
  • Increase their spoken vocabularies from about 2 or 3 words to about 250 words and understand more of what people say to them
  • Ask parents and others to read aloud to them, often requesting favorite books or stories; and
  • Pretend to read and write the way they see parents and others do.

Between their second and third birthdays, children:

  • Become more aware of others
  • Become more aware of their own feelings and thoughts
  • Are often stubborn and may have temper tantrums
  • Able to walk, run, jump, hop, roll and climb
  • Expand their spoken vocabularies from about 250 to 1,000 words during the year
  • Put together 2-, 3- and 4-word spoken sentences
  • Begin to choose favorite stories and books to hear read aloud
  • Begin to count
  • Begin to pay attention to print, such as the letters in their names
  • Begin to distinguish between drawing and writing
  • Begin to scribble, making some marks that are like letters

What Toddlers Need

1–2-year-old children require:

  • Opportunities to make their own choices: “Do you want the red cup or the blue one?”;
  • Clear and reasonable limits
  • Opportunities to use large muscles in the arms and legs
  • Opportunities to use small muscles to manipulate small objects, such as puzzles and stackable toys
  • Activities that allow them to touch, taste, smell, hear and see new things
  • Chances to learn about “cause and effect” — that things they do cause other things to happen (for example, stacking blocks too high will cause the blocks to fall)
  • Opportunities to develop and practice their language skills
  • Opportunities to play with and learn about alphabet letters and numbers
  • Opportunities to learn about books and print

2–3-year-old children require opportunities to:

  • Develop hand coordination (for example, by holding crayons and pencils, putting together puzzles or stringing large beads)
  • Do more things for themselves, such as dressing themselves
  • Talk, sing and develop their language skills
  • Play with other children and develop their social skills
  • Try out different ways to move their bodies
  • Learn more about printed language and books and how they work
  • Do things to build vocabulary and knowledge and to learn more about the world, such as taking walks and visiting libraries, museums, restaurants, parks and zoos

Preschoolers (3–5 years old)

What to Expect

Between their third and fourth birthdays, children

  • Start to play with other children, instead of next to them
  • Are more likely to take turns and share and begin to understand that other people have feelings and rights
  • Are increasingly self-reliant and probably can dress with little help
  • May develop fears (“Mommy, there’s a monster under my bed.”) and have imaginary companions
  • Have greater large-muscle control than toddlers and love to run, skip, jump with both feet, catch a ball, climb downstairs and dance to music
  • Have greater small-muscle control than toddlers, which is reflected in their drawings and scribbles;
  • Match and sort things that are alike and unalike
  • Recognize numerals
  • Like silly humor, riddles and practical jokes
  • Understand and follow spoken directions
  • Use new words and longer sentences
  • Are aware of rhyming sounds in words
  • May attempt to read, calling attention to themselves and showing pride in their accomplishment
  • Recognize print around them on signs or in logos
  • Know that each alphabet letter has a name and identify at least 10 alphabet letters, especially those in their own names
  • “Write,” or scribble messages

Between their fourth and fifth birthdays, children:

  • Are active and have lots of energy and may be aggressive in their play
  • Enjoy more group activities, because they have longer attention spans
  • Like making faces and being silly
  • May form cliques with friends and may change friendships quickly
  • Have better muscle control in running, jumping and hopping
  • Recognize and write the numerals 1-10
  • Recognize shapes such as circles, squares, rectangles and triangles
  • Love to make rhymes, say nonsense words and tell jokes
  • Know and use words that are important to school work, such as the names for colors, shapes and numbers; know and use words that are important to daily life, such as street names and addresses
  • Know how books are held and read and follow print from left to right and from top to bottom of a page when listening to stories read aloud
  • Recognize the shapes and names of all letters of the alphabet and know the sounds of some letters
  • Write some letters, particularly those in his own name

What Preschoolers Need

3-–4-year-old children require opportunities to:

  • Play with other children so they can learn to listen, take turns and share
  • Develop more physical coordination-for example, by hopping on both feet
  • Develop their growing language abilities through books, games, songs, science, math and art activities
  • Develop more self-reliance skills-for example, learning to dress and undress themselves
  • Count and measure
  • Participate actively with adults in reading-aloud activities
  • Explore the alphabet and print
  • Attempt to write messages

4–5-year-old children need opportunities to:

  • Experiment and discover, within limits
  • Develop their growing interest in school subjects, such as science, music, art and math
  • Enjoy activities that involve exploring and investigating
  • Group items that are similar (for example, by size, color or shape)
  • Use their imaginations and curiosity;
  • Develop their language skills by speaking and listening
  • See how reading and writing are both enjoyable and useful (for example, by listening to stories and poems, seeing adults use books to find information and dictating stories to adults)
Excerpted from: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Communications and Outreach. (2005). Helping Your Preschool Child. Washington, DC: Author.
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