Dr. Amy Winkelstein is a pediatrician respected by peers and parents alike. Her younger patients, however, are not always so impressed, as one 4-year-old patient made clear with a question for the doctor. 

“He asked why I wasn’t fully grown yet,” Winkelstein remembered, “because I’m 5 feet tall.”

Who are these small people with soaring imaginations and brutally honest observations? They are 4-year-olds, and their inner and outer worlds are changing rapidly.

Anatomy of a 4-year-old

Four-year-olds travel seamlessly between two worlds, with valid passports to the realms of toddlerhood and school, dependence and independence, and imagination and reality.

“The 4-year-old in some ways is very similar to an adolescent, meaning they’re going through a time that’s very exciting. They’re exploring, they have this newfound independence, but at the same time they’re all of a sudden going to flip and be very dependent on parents,” Winkelstein said.

This can be challenging because parents have grown used to situations where children are dependent on them for assistance in their daily lives. But as kids get to be 4, she said, they really can do so much independently: use the toilet, dress, eat, entertain themselves and play independently.

“That leads to them — appropriately, developmentally — pushing back against the limits that parents are imposing on them in terms of safety and routine,” she said. “They have their own

opinions now.”


Masters of storytelling

And they can share those opinions with eloquence

“Four-year-olds have clauses and descriptions, long, drawn-out stories and conversations,” said Shawn Gardiner, a Head Start inclusion class teacher. “With a 3-year-old, it may be one word. Three-year-olds are still at, ‘I want that,’ or, ‘Want that.’”

Winkelstein said 4-year-olds “can have a reciprocal conversation very well about many different topics. You really can have a dialogue. You can ask them about their birthday party, you can ask them about school, you can ask them about something they were playing, so they really have more of a concrete understanding of language use. They can tell a story to you, they can recount past experiences. They can even use past tense, because that’s a more mature language use.”


Ready to learn

At age 4, it’s beneficial for kids to be enrolled in some type of school, Winkelstein said. That school could be a full-day daycare that also encompasses preschool or a community-based preschool that meets for a few hours three times a week. 

What is important, she said, is that they have a school experience that gives them independence, that time away from their caregiver to think on their own, have new experiences, navigate social interactions, learn how to sit for circle time, follow directions and interact with other adults.

“They start to have what we call early-school readiness skills,” Winkelstein said.

At age 4, children can tell you their full name. And they can learn their date of birth, parents’ names, their address and phone number. They also can begin to count objects in front of them as opposed to reciting numbers from memory. They can use scissors, begin to pedal a tricycle, hop well and climb. They also can brush their own teeth. And at age 4, true interactive play begins to develop between a child and his or

her peers.

Four-year-olds “can join into group play and are getting better at turn-taking and sharing,” said Dr. Mihee Bay, a neurodevelopmental pediatrician. “They can understand rules now and are starting to be able to play board games. They become more aware of others’ emotions and can show sympathy. They also like to make others happy.

“Their imaginative pretend-plays become more elaborate, and they can distinguish between reality and make-believe,” Bay said. “They can carry out reciprocal conversations and answer why-type questions. They grasp the concept of time better now and can use future or past tense. They are able to express their feelings or emotions using words.”


Helping your 4-year-old thrive

According to the experts we asked, parents with 4-year-olds are challenged to find balance among a lot of conflicting needs. Parenting a 4-year-old can be a juggling act between guidance versus freedom, structure versus downtime and social engagement versus the ever-strengthening pull of technology.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics recently came out with a new recommendation — or, I should say, a reaffirmation — about the importance of unstructured play,” Winkelstein said.

That, she saids, is a social science finding that “stands the test of time. You can look back 50 years on what we thought was important to kids, and you can look ahead 50 years from now, and it’s going to be the importance of unstructured play.”

That entails “really giving your child the opportunity to explore, imagine and letting their imagination direct what they do. It’s priceless. That’s the most important thing.”

Bay added, “Once they are in preschool their days are already pretty structured.” Therefore, parents should allow plenty of “down time to just relax and engage in creative play.”

The “terrible twos” may have passed, and tantrums may have diminished, Bay continued, “but a 4-year-old can still be quite noncompliant and uncooperative, although they understand the rules and expectations.”

“They’re still in the developmental stage of learning to exercise self-control and regulate their emotions, and they’re beginning to assert independence,” she said. “Parents can deal with the difficult parts of 4, setting limits by teaching them simple rules and consequences. They understand.”

And, she added, don’t forget to “praise positive behavior so it can be reinforced.”


Enjoy this age

Despite the challenges, there’s a lot to love about 4. The joys of parenting a 4-year-old — playing with them, reading to them, listening to their stories — are the very activities that best foster their growth. So, most of all, enjoy.

And although she occasionally fields observations about her height during her visits with 4-year-olds, Winkelstein said they are “absolutely, hands down, one of my favorite age groups.”

She says she loves “their growing sense of independence and confidence. But at the same time, they are not self-conscious at all. They haven’t been affected by the opinions of others around them, and so their responses and the dialogue are so genuine, thoughtful and just so entertaining, but enlightening all at the same time. Their innocence is what I love so much.” JN

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