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September 2011

High Five to Your Five-Year-Old

By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.

A note about child development: The purpose of this series is to help parents and caregivers recognize normal stages and to provide age-appropriate activities, nurturing and guidance. Each child is unique. Rates of development can differ widely among normally developing children, and each child can have “fast” or “slow” rates of development in different areas and at different times. These descriptions are merely based on typical behaviors for the age. If your child is not exhibiting “normal” developmental behaviors, there is no cause for alarm. However, discussion with a development specialist can help you to determine if any special interventions are necessary.

A whole handful of fingers, that’s how old a 5-year-old is. And proud of it. She’s almost as likely to introduce herself by her age as by her name. Self-assurance is a common trait at this age as she achieves mastery over such monumental tasks as tying her own shoelaces, printing her name with proper upper and lower case letters and memorizing her address and phone number. Real-life experiences are still her best means of learning, with formal schooling just on the horizon. Years past babyhood, she is proud that she can even take some responsibility for others.


Little by little, your child has been gaining mastery over such things as dressing, eating, bathing and cleaning up after herself. Of course, these skills emerge with your patient support. As she develops competency, she gains confidence to try new things. And her pride in being more self-sufficient leads to behaviors that not only benefit her, but also benefit others. You can easily include her in routine housework and meal preparation, and soon she can take on a task such as bed making or table setting single-handedly.

Cooking (and food in general) had always interested my daughter. So it was no surprise that as she gained fine-motor coordination and could hold attention for multistep projects, she was often in the kitchen with me. A step stool brought her up to counter height. There were many dishes she eagerly helped with, including making smoothies in the blender with frozen banana chunks and yogurt. She was included in every step, including clean up and packaging leftovers (in this case, pouring it into popsicle molds). Hand in hand with cooking skills, our sessions included procedures for first aid for cuts and burns. It was easy to see that she was destined for culinary proficiency, so I wanted her to feel sufficiently comfortable in the kitchen. Sure enough, one day I came into the kitchen to find that this five-year-old had managed the whole smoothie operation—up to putting all the dirty dishes in the sink—by herself.

Social Networking

Moving away from dependence on adults for dressing, eating, and even managing behavior, a 5-year-old will seek out another child before looking for adult assistance. Playmates are eager to teach and help one another, valuing each other’s competence and affirming their own. While she still appreciates a compliment from an adult, she would rather hear one from a peer. She asks her friend, “Do you like the rainbow I drew?” to get peer approval, not just of her rainbows, but of her worth as a playmate.

During pretend play, she has to work cooperatively, so mutual respect is the baseline for a good friendship. Together, they negotiate who plays which role, decide on costumes and props (or jointly envision the invisible), and often feed each other lines as the plot develops. “You tell me the dinner is delicious.” “You say the baby needs to go to bed now.” Dramatic play themes may be the same as when she was 4—family roles, super heroes, etc., with added scenarios from her and her friends’ real experiences, such as visits to the doctor’s office, restaurants, grocery stores or the hair salon. Unusual experiences, such as a wedding, a camping trip or the birth or adoption of a sibling, are played out as well. These scenes help 5-year-olds understand how families and communities work, in rehearsal for their future roles. Fantasy play—wild animals, royalty, magical creatures and the like—symbolically allow them to manage strong emotions they have experienced, with good triumphing over evil in the end. They are also practicing teamwork, mental focus, problem solving and imagination—skills that are essential for success in school and in life.

Civility (in Progress)

As she becomes more adept at considering another’s point of view, the 5-year-old is more aware that she is being perceived by others. This helps her to behave better—to not risk the disapproval of the peer group. Group consciousness helps her see that one person’s behavior can impact another’s. This is a good age to discuss house rules and class rules because now it makes sense to her that everyone agrees on how to use shared space, time, and other resources. Explicit rules are easier to follow, however, than more subtle ones. For example, she may step out of her place to admonish a new classmate for “butting” in line or reprimand your elderly house guest for drinking juice on the couch. In her primitive sense of justice, all the rules apply at all times to all the people.

There is a brain science explanation for this new-found ability to remember a rule and comply with it—or remind others to comply—at the opportune time. The neurons (brain cells) that have been connecting for the past five years are now sufficiently networked for more complex thought. Previously, she might have been able to repeat after you that only an adult can retrieve a ball that goes over the fence, though not when her precious ball is flying past. A child of 4 or younger generally can think only one thought at a time and therefore does not have enough self-control to keep from going after the ball herself in a moment of panic. By the mature age of 5, several neural pathways can act at once: she can register the crisis, remember the rule, consider the consequences for not following the rule, and keep her body in compliance. And when she pulls off this incredible feat of mental restraint, she’s very pleased with herself.

Brain Power

Her amazing brain—on the cusp of decoding the written word—can amaze you, too. While age-mates certainly have their value for playtime learning, adults are still viewed as founts of knowledge. She will ask the most interesting questions, even of adults she has just met. “How does a camera work?” is a good example. For information way beyond the child’s ability to comprehend, the adult can help her draw from prior experiences. This foundation—what the child already knows—can then be built upon with new experiences. One clever 5-year-old demonstrated his progress toward understanding when his family was at the Painted Desert in Arizona and Mom realized the camera battery hadn’t been charged. “We’ll just have to take a mental picture,” she suggested. He dutifully scanned the wondrous scene for a few seconds then closed his eyes. When he didn’t open them right away, his mother asked, “What are you doing?” “Shh,” he replied, “my mental picture is developing.”

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist residing in Annapolis.