3 to 5 years Developmental summary


What's going on for baby?

How can parents and whānau help?

Getting more independent

Our tamaiti is now becoming much more aware that they’re a unique individual.

They will be working out friendships and how relationships work. Their awareness increases about other people’s feelings and perspectives, which helps their developing sense of empathy.

They’re not always good at sharing yet, but they’re learning to.

They are still developing their ability to regulate their emotions.

They’ll be curious about gender — their own and others’ — because they now understand that boys and girls are different.

They can follow simple instructions and feel proud of their ability to complete tasks.

‘I can do it’ is still a favourite phrase and will be used regularly, especially when it comes to getting dressed, washing hands and brushing teeth.

  • Help them to feel special by encouraging their achievements and acknowledging what they can do, and also when they’re trying hard.
  • Encourage and help them to share. Ask them about their ideas for making things fair for everyone.
  • Talk with them about your own feelings — the frustrating ones and the happy ones.
  • Read stories about kids who are learning to share, join in a group or deal with upsets.
  • Understand that it’s quite natural for children of the same age to be curious about each other’s bodies, especially those of the opposite gender.
  • Calmly accept their natural curiosity. Adult reactions will influence whether tamariki feel this is something odd, naughty or shameful, or just another normal learning experience.
  • Give simple, clear answers to their questions.
  • Encourage self-care practices with patience and consistency as they learn to look after themselves well. They’ll benefit from developing skills such as  going to the toilet independently, hand-washing, using a tissue, brushing their teeth and dressing themselves.
  • If you are concerned about how well they do a task, say something like, ‘You brush your teeth first and then I’ll check them for you when you’re finished.’
  • Remember to work on tasks together and to offer tamariki simple choices.

Growing stronger every day

‘He iti, he iti kahikātoa.’

‘Though little, it is still a mānuka tree.’

Our tamaiti is now developing more control of their body and more strength in their muscles. They may also go through a growth spurt.

Their skills will continue to consolidate through repeated practice while they play.

They’re also likely to show more confidence, having moved from a wobbly toddler to a young child with less fat and more muscle.

New large motor skills will usually develop during this time, including:

  • more accuracy throwing and catching a ball
  • walking on tip toe
  • walking backwards
  • hopping
  • dancing
  • steering a balance bike
  • pedalling and steering a tricycle
  • walking up and down stairs one foot after the other.

Their fine motor skills also become more controlled, so our tamaiti will be more capable and confident when using scissors, paint brushes, building with blocks, and using pencils, pens or crayons. They can also copy vertical lines and circles.

They can likely prepare and serve some of their own food and drink.

Vision and hearing checks are still important.

  • Keep providing tamaiti with plenty of time outside to play and explore in safe environments.
  • Visit parks, beaches, playgrounds and other open spaces where they can run, jump, climb, dig, balance, slide and swing.
  • Have lots of opportunities for ball play — throwing, kicking, aiming and catching.
  • Check where they’re playing for possible dangers, both inside the house and outdoors in gardens, garages and sheds.
  • Be especially careful with road and driveway safety. Remind other whānau members and visitors about this too.
  • Think of ways to provide vigorous play opportunities when it’s not possible to be outside. For example, make an indoor obstacle course or start a game of balloon volleyball.
  • Give plenty of opportunities to use paper, scissors and drawing tools like pencils, crayons, chalk and felt tips.
  • Talk to them about where it’s okay to draw and what is okay to cut.
  • Have paint brushes, glue, scissors and collage materials available for them. Regularly using the small muscles in their hands and fingers consolidates their fine motor skills.
  • Continue to keep appointments for Well Child/Tamariki Ora health checks.

Listening, talking and talking some more

Listening, talking and talking some more

Although language ability varies, by the age of 3 many tamaiti will be using 4-word sentences.

Their vocabulary increases depending on the amount and quality of the language they hear, and the conversations they have.

People familiar to them can understand their speech most of the time.

They can recite rhymes and songs and tell stories that may mix up reality and make-believe.

They’ll ask lots of questions.

They’ll enjoy playing with language, repeating phrases, making up rhymes and making up silly words.

They’ll use language to enter a fantasy world.

Singing songs is another fun way for them to use language.

By the time they’re 5 they’ll be understood by most people.

However, they may still stumble over some words. Sounds such as ‘s’ and ‘th’ could still be developing, but this doesn’t always mean a long-term problem. With growth and practice they should master all the sounds in the language of their whānau.

They’re on the way to using plurals accurately.

Picture books remain popular and they’re likely to have their favourites, which they may want to hear over and over again.

Their ability to concentrate is strengthened through book sharing.

  • Have conversations about what’s going on around them, the people they meet and what they’re doing.
  • Tell stories and encourage them to join in the telling.
  • Model accurate grammar and plurals.
  • Join in games and add in new ideas to conversations.
  • Listen patiently, giving them time to say what they’re trying to get out.
  • Have fun reading books together, and talk about the story and the characters in it.
  • Add extra words to extend vocabulary.
  • Have fun with words and sounds. Talk about words that rhyme or start with the same sound.
  • Look for ways to increase the number of words they use, especially about new experiences they are having.
  • Books have many uses. Stories can entertain, teach tamariki about the world, calm their fears, show families going through similar events, comfort them and make them laugh.
  • When reading together, check in with them by asking questions like, ‘What do you think that word means?’ ‘What do you think is going to happen next?’
  • Make your own books with them by writing the story together.
  • Point out letters and words everywhere, such as traffic signs, street names and brand names.
  • Libraries are free and books are readily available. Sitting and reading with a child can be one of life’s joys — for both of you.

Needing help from big people

By age 3, tamariki are better at recognising and expressing their emotions.

Their behaviour is a window into their world, and shows how they’re coping with the day-to-day realities of their lives.

They don’t yet have all the skills to solve problems and get what they need by reasonable and acceptable means, so they’ll need help when things go wrong for them.

For example, they might be using the toilet independently or they may still need help. How adults help with this learning can impact greatly on the level of progress they make.

Changes in their environment can have an impact on their toileting progress and may even see them regressing to wetting and soiling themselves. A new sibling arriving, a new home or starting at an early childhood education centre can all upset their toileting progress.

Sometimes a child finds themself in a new home with a new family caring for them. This is likely the result of some crisis and may see them suffering from grief, loss or trauma. They may be obviously upset, angry, unhappy or withdrawn, or seemingly OK, but struggling under the surface.

  • Build a safe and secure world for tamariki, even if that wasn’t what dad and mum experienced growing up.
  • Be warm and caring towards them, as loving relationships are the foundation for their wellbeing and development. If a child’s trust is shaken, their behaviour may be negatively affected.
  • Understand that sometimes they will need extra support and stability, especially if they’ve experienced trauma or are upset and their behaviour is difficult. Even when it’s hard to give, they need love and kindness, not punishment.
  • Revisit SKIP’s ‘ngā tohu whānau’ (the 6 principles of effective discipline’). These will help give tamariki the structure and discipline they need to grow into happy and capable adults.
  • Help them to learn and use language to say how they’re feeling. This way they’re less likely to ‘act out’ with challenging behaviour, or bottle up their emotions when there are disputes.
  • Whatever a child’s circumstances, those caring for them can provide a healthy, stable and positive environment by using ngā tohu whānau to guide them. It can take a great deal of effort and perseverance by the caregiver, but it is absolutely worth it.

Play is the way

Right from the start, this resource has emphasised the importance of play. Play is a child’s work and is how they get their main learning opportunities. Humans are no different to other baby mammals like kittens, puppies or cubs: play prepares them for adult life.

At ages 3–5 the play activities can seem more like miniature adult activities than previously, and a child’s sense of humour is developing as they are learning about how things ‘ought’ to be.

Their play will likely include pretend games with imaginary friends. Through their imagination they can create someone or something special just for themselves.

By age 4, pretend play may become quite sophisticated. Upsetting events or exposure to inappropriate material can lead to confusion or fears — real or imagined.

Play also provides ideal opportunities for learning te reo Māori.

Tamariki learn best when they’re relaxed and having fun.

  • Be their child’s first and most important playmates. Turn anything into an opportunity to play. For example, getting dressed, household jobs, cooking or shopping are all opportunities to have fun together and watch them learn and grow.
  • Avoid the ‘it’s just quicker to do it myself’ thinking and instead give tamariki the opportunity to help with jobs at home.
  • Be prepared to laugh along with them and make up silly rhymes and stories together.
  • Respond thoughtfully to their pretend play. It can be a source of entertainment and amusement, or it may cause concern.
  • Decide whether they need someone to ‘play along’ with in an imaginative game, or if they need comfort and reassurance.
  • Remember that in most cases imaginative play will be influenced by all the things they see and hear in their daily lives.
  • Be aware of what they may be watching on television or accessing on the internet.
  • Understand that fantasy play with imaginary friends can be their way of experimenting with different situations and feelings. It can give a glimpse into their inner thoughts and wishes.
  • Whānau can encourage the use of te reo through play. Keep it fun and lively.

Pacific Parenting