Ask a Pediatrician: 14 Things Your Child Should Know How to Do by Age 4

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The parenting information industry is massive, and so many folks seem to have opinions and recommendations on child development. Some tools (like the Digital Online Checklist put together by the CDC) can be very useful, but when combined with countless books, articles and podcasts, it’s easy for parents to stress over what their child can and can’t do at a certain age.

Watching out for milestones and tracking progress is certainly beneficial, but there is no exact handbook nor precise timeline for the way kids learn and grow. As pediatricians, we look for trends and ongoing progress. With that in mind, here are 14 things that we commonly see in children by the time they are four years old. This is by no means a prescriptive or alarmist list of requirements for toddlers; rather, think of the below as guidelines for these general trends.

1. Run, Jump and Climb

By age four, children are able to run, jump, climb simple structures, balance on one foot and walk backwards.

2. Throw and Catch a Ball

They can also handle a regular-sized ball (think soccer ball or kickball) by catching, kicking and overhead throwing.

3. Use Scissors

Four-year-olds are becoming adept at using their fingers to perform more nimble activities, such as using scissors (blunt tip!), eating and writing with utensils, and manipulating small toys (such as Legos) and buttons.

4. Get Dressed and Undressed

Tired parents might be happy to know that the four-year mark usually means toddlers exhibiting more independence. Given simple, familiar outfits (no buttons or zips), they can get dressed and undressed by themselves.

5. Go to the Potty

Four-year-olds are mostly potty trained, even though occasional accidents are still common and totally normal. Many four-year-olds will continue using diapers for nighttime.

6. Feed Themselves

Kids this age can feed themselves and many can even pour liquids without spilling most of the time.

7. Speak in Complete Sentences

Goodbye, baby talk! Four-year-olds are typically able to speak in simple but complete sentences and have back-and-forth conversations. Their vocabulary is growing rapidly, and they become more and more chatty and verbose. 

8. Tell Stories

Toddlers’ imaginations are wild around this time! They become engaged with stories easily, able to recall and recreate different parts of stories, follow narrative patterns, and make logical predictions about what will happen next.

9. Have Some Understanding of Real vs. Pretend

They are also learning to tell the difference between what’s real and what isn’t (something you’ve likely seen show up during playtime). At the same time, it’s possible for them to have imaginary friends.

10. Follow Multi-Step Commands

Another useful development involves the ability to follow multi-step commands—a skill we adults may take for granted. Understanding and recalling sequenced instruction (“take off your shoes, go wash your hands and sit down for dinner”) is an impressive intellectual feat that often shows up right around the four-year mark.

11. Understand Time (Sort Of)

At this age, children also begin to grasp how the passage of time works. They can often understand that “tomorrow” means the next day, although other time frames may still be confusing (like “next week we’re going to grandma’s house”).

12. Make Friends

Four-year-olds tend to open up socially: they learn how to approach their peers, make friends and become better cooperators. They also get a kick out of helping out.

13. Empathize with Others

Very importantly, four-year-olds develop the ability to empathize and understand the emotions of others. For example, when a friend says she has a bellyache, your four-year-old may go over and comfort her.

14. Learn Some Social Conventions

Another cool aspect of the four-year-old period: children learn to recognize context and adjust their behavior to match. They start to get a feel for what is and isn’t appropriate in certain situations, understanding the differences between private and public places (like knowing to keep their voice down in church, for example). Of course, they may want to test those boundaries, but they are on their way to learning social conventions. This also means that they become more aware of their surroundings and learn to avoid danger and risk. 

But...There’s No One-Size-Fits-All

Having said all of this, I want to reiterate that every child is different, and they all develop at different rates. If your 4-year-old does not match the above descriptions exactly, that does not mean that there is something wrong, necessarily. Still, if you’re feeling worried about their progress, bring up your concerns with their pediatrician to see if there is anything your family needs to adjust to help your little one along.  Early intervention is key to best outcomes.

Dr. Christina Johns is a pediatrician + Senior Medical Advisor at PM Pediatrics, the largest pediatric urgent care group in the U.S.

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Dr. Christina Johns is a pediatrician + Senior Medical Advisor at PM Pediatric Care, the largest pediatric urgent care group in the U.S. She received her undergraduate...