Skill development during the first five years of your child’s life moves fast. It can be hard to anticipate what’s coming next. The brain grows rapidly in babies, toddlers and preschoolers. Language blooms and motor abilities advance. Thinking becomes more developed, and social and emotional skills allow more interaction with other people.
Sometimes it seems as if babies, toddlers and preschoolers develop a new skill overnight. But skills develop over time and are all connected.
What Influences Skill Development
To some degree, genes influence your child’s development the first five years. For example, genetics affect the number of brain cells (neurons) all babies are born with. But genes don’t act alone. Environment also plays a part.
The neurons kids are born with branch out and make connections based on experiences. In the first three to five years of your child’s life, his brain has the potential to make billions of connections, limited only by the number of neurons available. Your child’s brain is constantly creating and recreating connections.
That means your child’s environment—and you—play a big role in what you can expect to see before kindergarten. That’s good news for kids who are not gaining skills as rapidly as expected. With early intervention and at-home strategies, kids with developmental delays are likely to acquire new skills and build on their strengths.
Physical Development in Babies
The first five years is a period of rapid physical development. As kids grow rapidly, they develop the motor skills they need to be physically active, explore the world and handle new challenges.
When babies are born, they aren’t able to control many of their body’s movements. That first year, they learn to direct movement to reach for and grasp things, push up, turn over and crawl.
All of these skills build on each other and encourage new skills. The more a baby reaches for something, the more motivated he is to hold on to it or get to something newer and more interesting. By the first birthday, some babies are even beginning to walk.
Being mobile is why older babies are called toddlers. They’re toddling around, exploring the world from this new perspective.
Physical Development in Toddlers and Preschoolers
Over the next few years, toddlers gain better balance and more confidence in their ability to test out new skills. They learn to move while holding on to toys, bend down and get back up, climb stairs, jump and run. They also develop better fine motor control, allowing them to start using eating utensils and crayons.
By preschool age, kids are fairly well coordinated. They can build block towers, do some basic cutting with scissors, throw and catch a ball and even begin to ride a tricycle. They’re confident climbers who are eager to explore and show off their own strength.
Language Development in Babies
The first five years is also a critical period for acquiring speech and language skills. A cooing, babbling baby becomes a toddler who can say a few words. Then he’s a preschooler with a large vocabulary he uses and understands.
Babies are born with the ability to make and hear many different sounds. But being in an environment full of conversation and other sounds quickly helps them narrow the range to the sounds in their native language.
As babies approach their first birthday, they begin to use language more purposefully. The nonsense sounds they make are gradually used in longer strings that have the same rhythm as sentences. They start using simple words like up and mama to tell people what they want and need.
Language Development in Toddlers
As babies grow into toddlers, they begin to use language as a way to tell people what they want and need. At age 2, most kids start using two-word sentences to express feelings and talk about everyday life. They can recognize and use their own names, as well as the names of body parts and everyday objects. Typically 2-year-olds know about 250 small words.
Using the word no is a big milestone for toddlers. As exasperating as it can be to hear, it means kids are starting to think for themselves and be more independent. They are also able to follow basic directions and answer simple questions like “Where is…?”
Language Development in Preschoolers
At around age 3, kids are also able to answer “who” and “when” questions. They can talk about ideas, tell simple stories, and use three- to four-word sentences.
The more exposure preschoolers have to language, the more skills continue to improve and the more words they learn. Exposure to language happens in many ways—being talked with, listening to conversations and even playing rhyming games.
Exposure to books also enhances language development. When parents read aloud, their kids tend to have strong language skills. This means they not only understand books, but also can process language well enough to grasp what other people are saying and feeling.
Social and Emotional Development in Babies, Toddlers and Preschoolers
Language development has a big influence on social-emotional development. This is a great example of how skills work together.
Once your child is able to communicate what he wants or needs, he starts to interact with other people. Young babies do this by imitating facial expressions and sounds. They also try to engage others to imitate their sounds. As they become older, this moves toward playing basic, interactive games like peekaboo and patty-cake.
Those interactions are the first step in social-emotional development. Over the next few years, most kids will make a lot of progress socially and emotionally, beginning with the ability to react to other people’s emotions. Babies and young toddlers often cry when other people cry and laugh when other people laugh, even though they don’t understand what’s going on.
As kids get older, they are more able to understand that these reactions relate to feelings. They learn to link words to those feelings and use them to explain their own actions. These are other social-emotional skills kids start to learn in the first five years:
- Figuring out ways to deal with disappointment and conflict
- Showing concern for someone who is sad or hurt
- Being patient
- Making friends
- Following rules
Cognitive Development in Babies, Toddlers and Preschoolers
In very early childhood, most kids learn thinking skills through non-directed play. That means they explore and watch the world around them. They test to see what they can and cannot control.
This kind of solo play allows kids to develop thinking skills like figuring out basic cause and effect and how to put things into categories (moving from basic “hot” and “cold” to more complex categories like “triangle” and “square”).
Toward the end of the toddler years and the beginning of the preschooler years, kids begin to play with other children. This helps them develop other thinking and communication skills.
Speaking with play partners and acting out everyday routines help kids learn how to use language to work with other people and how to deal with simple conflict. Negotiating the rules of games help kids start to learn self-control. (But following complicated rules is a skill that develops later—closer to age 6 or 7.)
Find out more about how your child develops—specifically the eight key things that go into how kids learn.