How Children Learn and Develop:

3-5 Years

At this age, children are building the skills they need to be prepared  for school and life. Their bodies, brains and feelings are continuing to develop at a rapid pace as they explore their world.

They are becoming more independent in daily activities like getting dressed, using the toilet and washing their hands.

At this age, children’s learning develops into different subjects, like math and science, as they prepare for kindergarten.

Every child learns and grows at his or her own pace. This page describes typical development but all children are different. If you have questions or concerns about your child’s development, talk to your child’s health care provider.

Loving relationships are the building blocks for healthy development.

Strong relationships support healthy social-emotional development, which leads to strong mental health!

Loving relationships teach children how to make friends, understand and communicate their feelings, and overcome challenges. Through our relationships with them as they grow, we teach children to develop compassion for others and a sense of right and wrong.

Children this age are starting to play with their peers, and their imaginations lead to lots of pretend play. Pretend play helps children build language, thinking and social skills.  Children this age are able to understand the feelings of other people and may try to comfort a child who is upset.

Tips to support social-emotional development at 3-5 years:

  • Help children understand their feelings. Children this age have more complex feelings like embarrassment and excitement. Help children make sense of their emotions by using words to describe how they feel and how others feel. Teaching children the words for emotions helps them talk about their feelings instead of acting on them.
  • Encourage friendships. It takes practice for children to learn to share, take turns and resolve conflict. Playing together with other children helps develop these skills. Provide choices for activities, a safe and supportive environment to play, and adult guidance to help resolve conflicts. This will help children discover the joy of friendship early in life.
  • Help children resolve conflict in healthy ways. Children are still learning to control their impulses, wait their turn and share. These are skills that develop over time with lots of adult support. Distract children when they become upset and redirect their attention to another activity. Help them understand how their actions make others feel.
  • Let children take the lead. Find ways to help your child continue to explore his interests. Check out books from the library on the topics that your child loves. Describe their activities as they are doing them. Play with your child and follow his lead. For example, if he is pretending to have a picnic, you can pretend to pack the food into the basket.

Source: Zero to Three,

Begin to handle their impulses and feelings better.

Follow simple rules, routines and directions.

Establish, explain, and model simple rules, like a bedtime routine, in simple ways they can understand.
Pretend to read or begin reading, and write in scribbles or symbols.

Recognize words that rhyme and the letters in their own name.

Keep reading to kids. Point out signs and words on items at home, in the classroom, neighborhood or stores. Encourage them to write letters.

This is a key period for language development!

Build math skills and get better at counting and sorting objects by color and size. Take advantage of every opportunity to count, group and order objects and materials.
Think through problems and apply strategies for solving them. Ask kids questions that apply to real problems and talk with them about different approaches to solving problems.
Observe nature and make predictions about natural events.

For example, they may explain how seeds grow, or how you should care for animals.

Encourage children to ask questions and seek answers by exploring and thinking about what they learn.
Use their imaginations and creativity, and express ideas in many ways.

Start moving to music they like or drawing stories.

Provide children with examples of diverse music at home or other places in their community.
Start to speak and understand a lot more in English if it is not their first language.

Answer “yes” or “no” to certain questions or repeat simple words in songs if English if it is not their first language.

Describe things you see and use actions and real objects to help children understand what is being read, said or sung in English.
Some children this age may touch their genitals or engage in masturbatory actions. At this age, children show interest in their own, as well as others’, “private parts”, and they become aware of gender differences. Sexual exploration is a normal, universal, and healthy part of early childhood development.

Gently set limits on such activities when they are done in the presence of non-family members or in public. Don’t react harshly or shame the child. This will help the child understand socially acceptable behavior.

Source: Colorado Early Learning & Development Guidelines,

Many children with developmental delays or behavior concerns are not identified as early as they could be. As a result, these children have to wait to get the help they need to succeed in social and educational settings (in school, at home, and in the community).

It’s important to identify children with developmental delays or behavior concerns as early as possible. Research shows that early intervention and treatment greatly improves healthy development.

What is it? 

Keeping your eyes out for developmental milestones

Who does it? 

Parents, grandparents, other caregivers

When does it happen? 

Birth through 5 years old

Why is it important?  

  • To celebrate a child’s development
  • To talk about your child’s progress with child care and health providers
  • To identify any concerns early


Get free, simple-to-use checklists here.

What is it? 

Looking for specific developmental milestones

Who does it? 

Pediatrician, early childhood educator, other professional

When does it happen? 

At 9, 18, 24 and 30 months – or whenever there is a concern

Why is it important?  

  • To find out if your child needs more support with development
  • To decide if a developmental evaluation is needed


Professionals use a formal validated screening tool; learn more here.

What is it? 

Identifying and diagnosing developmental delays or conditions

Who does it? 

Pediatrician, child psychologist or trained provider

When does it happen? 

Whenever there is a concern

Why is it important?  

  • To find out if a child needs treatment, and/or
  • Qualifies for early intervention


Professionals do a detailed examination using formal assessment tools, observation and conversations with parents and caregivers.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

Learn more on the Developmental Screenings FAQ page.

Children age 3-5 years are making friends and learning how to help, share, take turns and resolve problems – but they still need lots of reminders and support.

At this age children are better able to control their feelings and impulses but they still need practice. They are able to follow simple rules and predict routines.

They are also able to follow directions with two steps (“Go to the closet and get your coat so we can go outside”).

Try these tips to build a child’s resiliency skills at 3-5 years:

  • Talk about his feelings, your feelings, and others’ feelings
  • Help her see how her actions affect other people and help her resolve conflicts (“How did Daniel feel when you took his toy? What can you do to make him feel better?”)
  • Be a role model for how to interact with others (try taking turns playing with a toy)
  • Play games to practice controlling impulses (try “freeze dancing” – dance until the music stops and then “freeze” until it starts again)
  • Stay calm, even if she is not; keep her close to make sure she doesn’t hurt herself or others when she is upset; when she is calm, talk about why she felt that way
  • Give children lots of support, encouragement and love every day
  • Read books and talk about how the characters feel and why
  • Show and talk about ways that are OK to express emotions (like dancing, hitting a pillow, squeezing play dough, talking to an adult)
  • Stick with daily routines – keep bedtime the same every night, do the same order of things before bedtime (pajamas, brush teeth, read a book)
  • Tell her rules in words she can understand and tell her why the rule is important
  • If he needs help, show him and then let him try it himself
  • Play “follow the leader” to help children learn to follow directions

Source: Colorado Project LAUNCH,

The architecture of the human brain is constructed over time. The process begins before birth and continues into adulthood.

Early experiences and relationships shape how our brain gets built. Secure and loving relationships create a strong foundation for healthy brain development.

Depending on our experiences and relationships in the early years, our brains will establish either a sturdy or a fragile foundation, which impacts us for the rest of our lives.

The human brain needs to be able to remember and work with information, focus our thoughts, filter out distractions, and switch gears. It’s almost like the air-traffic controller at the airport, managing the arrivals and departures of many planes on multiple runways.

Scientists call these abilities “executive function” and “self-regulation”. Together executive function and self-regulation are skills that rely on three types of brain function:

  1. Working memory
  2. Mental flexibility
  3. Self-control

Executive Function: Skills for Life and Learning

Children aren’t born with these skills, they develop them over time. Learn more about executive function and how to support it in this video.

Sources: Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University,;  Zero to Three,

Preparing Your Child for School

Starting school is a big transition in your child’s early life.

It can be hard to think about your child being away from home without you, but starting school is an important and exciting step in their development.

These resources offer tips and strategies to help ease the worry of your child starting school — for both of you!

  • Check out these suggested activities and routines to prepare your child for their first day of preschool. Find ideas to help your child prepare for a smooth transition, including pretend play about preschool and activities to ease children’s worry.
  • Is your child headed to kindergarten? Preparing your child for school can be fun and can include a variety of activities. With this great list of tips, your child will be ready to take the first day of kindergarten by storm!
  • Colorado’s Early Learning & Development Guidelines describe a child’s development, birth through age 8, and provide tips and resources to help parents and caregivers support healthy development at every age.

Is your child ready to start school? Visit Enroll Jeffco to find a school and enroll!

Tips to support the social-emotional development of children age 3 to 5!

Strong social-emotional skills are part of the foundation for lifelong mental health. As adults, we can help children learn!