In my last blog post, I provided a brief overview of the preschool years, which we call The Smart Explorer stage. In this post, we’ll explore some important environmental factors that can play a role in the intellectual development of your child during the 3 to 5 year age range.

Ages 3-5 Years: Intellectual Development

Preschoolers are very curious about the people and the objects around them. At this stage, your child wants to explore everything, which is exactly how she discovers what is going on around her, and how she begins to make sense of the world. The growth of intelligence is nurtured by play, especially make-believe play. Much of what she learns about language, morality, time, and even numbers, comes about as she plays with you and your partner, with friends and by herself. When you encourage a wide array of play opportunities, you are enabling your child to increase concentration as well as expand imagination, creativity, and empathy.

As any parent of three-to-five-year-olds quickly discovers, your child is extremely active at this age. She is gaining increasing control over the large muscles of her body and enjoying activity for its own sake. But she is not yet as skilled in fine motor coordination with her fingers and hands. That leads her to be clumsy when it comes to tying shoes or buttoning coats or even holding tight to their glass of milk. Spills and accidents are common as she experiments. This can sometimes create conflict with siblings and parents. So your child needs many opportunities to move and explore freely and safely with others and on her own. She benefits from having space to explore in her own way, to “do it myself!” as you will often hear.

Children at this age do not pace themselves. Your child may run and dance and play until she reaches her absolute limit of endurance. So parents have to intersperse frequent rest periods during the day.

Though children at this stage are very intent on doing things “by themselves,” your Smart Explorer will still have a bit of difficulty controlling her fine muscle coordination. Tying shoes, buttoning coats, and focusing on small objects are a challenge. Be patient as your child works on these important hand-eye coordination skills.

The Next Stage of Cognitive Development

Piaget called this period “the preoperational stage,” the second stage of cognitive development (for Piaget, it extended from age two to seven). Now children understand the world not only by sensing it but – for the first time – by thinking about it. Your child may begin to see that symbols can represent objects. She starts using symbols such as language and images in drawings to describe her world.

Children are quite egocentric at this age. Your child still sees herself as the center of the universe. That doesn’t mean she is selfish, but simply that she sees the world only from her perspective. She assumes everyone else sees the world that way, too. When logic enters later on, that viewpoint will change… but not yet.

Language Development

At this age, language acquisition takes off. Your child is more likely to talk to herself than to enter exchanges with another person. Again, because she is egocentric, it doesn’t matter to her whether anyone can hear or understand her. She may launch into monologues as she plays with toys or walks about. You may hear her repeating sounds and babbling, making up rambling stories for the sheer pleasure of the noise and rhythm. She skips from one thought to the next with no logical connection.

Take care: this is also a time when your child will repeat any phrases she may have heard uttered by friends or family. Many parents have been embarrassed by their children, echoing to a total stranger, remarks they overheard their parents saying in private (e.g. “Mommy says Aunt Emily is as fat as a house.”)

Limit Access to Technology

It is important to limit television viewing at this stage. You have to be the TV monitor. First, you’ll want to find the interactive shows, such as Sesame Street, that foster confidence and creative imagination. Mr. Rogers was a great role model for children of single parents, showing them what a male role model could be, if one was absent in the house.

Second, you’ll want to screen what your child sees to make sure it is age-appropriate. Today it is hard to avoid programming that contains violence, which can be frightening to young children

Third, you’ll want to keep track of how long your child watches television. Excessive TV watching can be hypnotic and depressing.

There are times when you may want to sit and watch TV with your child. That way you’ll be able to spark active interaction with the shows’ themes and characters. Your child can only learn from TV if she gets actively involved with the material she views. You will also want to point out your opinions, which may differ from the views she is hearing on TV. You help her discern between fact and fiction – seeing the difference between news and commercials. You want her to become a discriminating and intelligent viewer.

Start Music Lessons at This Stage

Making music is both a joyous and educational activity at this stage. Playing piano especially pays off in intellectual gains. In one study, neuroscientist Gordon Shaw at the University of California, Irvine, found that children aged 3 to 5 who received six months of piano lessons, improved significantly in spatial-temporal reasoning – the sort used in engineering, math and chess – over kids receiving singing lessons, computer lessons or no lessons.

Older children show even more pronounced advances. Second graders, who were from a poor district in California, were given piano lessons twice a week for a year. At the end, they improved their math scores to the level of the fourth graders from a nearby affluent school district.

Hold Off on Swim Lessons

Be cautious about swimming lessons at this stage. Though it has become vogue to begin lessons earlier and earlier, even in infancy, it may not be a good idea. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages swimming lessons before the age of four, saying it may foster a false sense of security.

Righty or Lefty?

Handedness is usually established by this time. About 90 percent of children are right-handed. Educators no longer try to change the natural inclinations of children.

Most kids at this age attend pre-school for some period of time. If preschools are of high quality, they can help teach your child how to become competent in a setting away from mom and dad. But it is not a necessary part of a child’s education at this early age. Everyday life, including sorting socks with Mom or helping Dad load the dishwasher, are all forms of learning, too. Here, as in most issues concerning your child’s growth, you should follow your own instincts about what is best for your child

In the next blog post, we’ll look at the factors that play a role in the emotional and social development of your 3 to 5 year old child.


  • Dr. Gail Gross

    Author and Parenting, Relationships, and Human Behavior Expert

    Dr. Gail Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D., M.Ed., a member of the American Psychological Association (APA) and member of APA Division 39, is a nationally recognized family, child development, and human behavior expert, author, and educator. Her positive and integrative approach to difficult issues helps families navigate today’s complex problems. Dr. Gross is frequently called upon by national and regional media to offer her insight on topics involving family relationships, education, behavior, and development issues. A dependable authority, Dr. Gross has contributed to broadcast, print and online media including CNN, the Today Show, CNBC's The Doctors, Hollywood Reporter, FOX radio, FOX’s The O’Reilly Factor, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Times of India, People magazine, Parents magazine, Scholastic Parent and Child Magazine, USA Today, Univision, ABC, CBS, and KHOU's Great Day Houston Show. She is a veteran radio talk show host as well as the host of the nationally syndicated PBS program, “Let’s Talk.” Also, Dr. Gross has written a semi-weekly blog for The Huffington Post and has blogged at since 2013. Recently, Houston Women's Magazine named her One of Houston's Most Influential Women of 2016. Dr. Gross is a longtime leader in finding solutions to the nation’s toughest education challenges. She co-founded the first-of-its kind Cuney Home School with her husband Jenard, in partnership with Texas Southern University. The school serves as a national model for improving the academic performance of students from housing projects by engaging the parents. Dr. Gross also has a public school elementary and secondary campus in Texas that has been named for her. Additionally, she recently completed leading a landmark, year-long study in the Houston Independent School District to examine how stress-reduction affects academics, attendance, and bullying in elementary school students, and a second study on stress and its effects on learning. Such work has earned her accolades from distinguished leaders such as the Dalai Lama, who presented her with the first Spirit of Freedom award in 1998. More recently, she was honored in 2013 with the Jung Institute award. She also received the Good Heart Humanitarian Award from Jewish Women International, Perth Amboy High School Hall of Fame Award, the Great Texan of the Year Award, the Houston Best Dressed Hall of Fame Award, Trailblazer Award, Get Real New York City Convention's 2014 Blogging Award, and Woman of Influence Award. Dr. Gross’ book, The Only Way Out Is Through, is available on Amazon now and offers strategies for life’s transitions including coping with loss, drawing from dealing with the death of her own daughter. Her next book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, is also available on Amazon now and teaches parents how to enhance their child’s learning potential by understanding and recognizing their various development stages. And her first research book was published by Random House in 1987 on health and skin care titled Beautiful Skin. Dr. Gross has created 8 audio tapes on relaxation and stress reduction that can be purchased on Most recently, Dr. Gross’s book, The Only Way Out is Through, was named a Next Generation Indie Book Awards Silver Medal finalist in 2020 and Winner of the 2021 Independent Press Awards in the categories of Death & Dying as well as Grief. Her latest book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, was the National Parenting Product Awards winner in 2019, the Nautilus Book Awards winner in 2019, ranked the No. 1 Best New Parenting Book in 2019 and listed among the Top 10 Parenting Books to Read in 2020 by BookAuthority, as well as the Next Generation Indie Book Awards Gold Medal winner in 2020 and Winner of the 2021 Independent Press Awards in the category of How-To. Dr. Gross received a BS in Education and an Ed.D. (Doctorate of Education) with a specialty in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Houston. She earned her Master’s degree in Secondary Education with a focus on Psychology from the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Dr. Gross received her second PhD in Psychology, with a concentration in Jungian studies. Dr. Gross was the recipient of Kappa Delta Pi An International Honor Society in Education. Dr. Gross was elected member of the International English Honor Society Sigma Tau Delta.