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Progress Report: Your Preschooler's Milestones

Child clapping

Remember when you could track your baby's developmental milestones as expertly as any pediatrician? Now that your child's a preschooler, the benchmarks aren't as apparent. Instead of making big motor advances, 3- and 4-year-olds are going through intellectual developments that are harder to pinpoint.

Milestones at this age may not be as in your face, but there are still plenty of fascinating changes afoot. "You can expect impressive progress in your child's ability to communicate, do basic problem-solving, and take care of his own needs," says Parents advisor Ari Brown, M.D., a pediatrician in Austin, Texas, and author of Toddler 411. Check out what experts say your child will be able to do during the threes and fours.

Tell a Joke

Your kid's sense of humor should become apparent to you at this age. She may begin experimenting with knock-knock jokes, slapstick basics (like pretending to walk into a wall), or absurdist zingers such as, "I can't hear you because I have Jell-O in my ears!" She'll also recognize when something is out of the ordinary and wacky, which is the basis of a lot of humor, says Parents advisor Jennifer Shu, M.D., editor-in-chief of the American Academy of Pediatrics book Baby & Child Health: The Essential Guide From Birth to 11 Years. "If you're pulling her leg, she will comment on it, like 'Those shorts don't belong on your head; that's silly!'"

Construct a Complex Sentence

Your child's vocabulary is ballooning at this age. "A 3-year-old should have between 500 and 1,000 words, and a 4-year-old may have several thousand," says Dr. Brown. Whereas your child once let you know what he wanted in the most efficient way possible ("Banana. Now."), he is constructing complete sentences at age 3, and by 4 he'll be stringing together multiple phrases to tell you breathless stories about his day. The best way to expand your kid's vocab and improve his language skills is to turn storytime into an interactive affair. When you encounter a new word, pause and ask him if he knows its meaning. And after finishing the story, ask open-ended questions about the plot.

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Communicate Clearly With Others

"As a rule of thumb, a stranger should be able to understand about 75 percent of what a 3-year-old says and 90 percent or more of a 4-year-old's speech," says Dr. Shu. If your child's diction still seems garbled, try to figure out if her mouth muscles are working properly. Some signs of underdeveloped muscles are difficulty eating, drinking, giving kisses, and blowing raspberries. If she is having trouble making herself understood, take her to see a speech language pathologist. "In most cases, poor muscle development can improve with time and appropriate exercises," says Dr. Shu.

Follow Multistep Instructions

Not only is your preschooler a more sophisticated speaker, but he's also becoming a better listener. "A kid this age can follow instructions that require several steps, and since 3- and 4-year-olds tend to be eager to please, they usually respond well to direction," says Dr. Shu. However, preschoolers still need some guidance, so be as specific as possible. "Go clean your room" is too vague for a child this age. Instead, try saying, "Please put all of the building blocks in the yellow basket and place the pillows and stuffed animals back on your bed."

Cooperate Better With Pals

Preschoolers can really get swept away in make-believe scenarios with their friends. "Not only do kids this age have a richer imagination and more advanced language skills to express their ideas, but they are learning how to take turns, both in play and conversation," says Dr. Brown. "For a 2-year-old, a conversation is an opportunity to talk about herself. A kid who is 3 or 4 wants reciprocity. She'll ask questions, demand feedback, and collaborate on pretend scenarios with her friends." In turn, preschoolers' dramatic play, whether it's pirates or house, helps them further refine their social and communication skills. Encourage imagination games by providing a treasure chest of scarves, chunky jewelry, hats, and other dress-up fare.

Play Outdoor Games

Whereas most 2-year-olds lack the muscle coordination and sustained focus necessary to play games like catch or hopscotch, preschoolers should be able to throw overhead, catch a bounced ball most of the time, and balance or hop on one foot for about five seconds. "This is a great age to play casual 'sports' with your kid, like kicking a soccer ball around in the backyard," says Dr. Brown. Preschoolers are also able to understand the rules of games like tag and hide-and-seek and are beginning to grasp the concept of playing fair.

Originally published in the July 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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