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5-6 years: child development

5-6 years

School-age children come in all shapes and sizes, but child development between five and six years typically has a few things in common. Here’s what your child might be doing, how you can help and when to seek help if you need it.

School-age child development at 5-6 years: what’s happening

Playing and learning
Even as your child gets older and starts school, play is important. It’s still how your child learns and builds social, emotional and thinking skills.

Your child’s play is more complex now, filled with lots of fantasy and drama. You might notice your child taking on more standard gender roles in pretend play – for example, girls tend to pretend play as mothers and boys as fathers.

Your child is becoming more social and prefers to play with friends rather than on her own. She might find it hard to share her special toys, but she can share – most of the time, at least!

Games with rules sometimes challenge your six-year-old, and he might even accuse others of cheating when he doesn’t win.

Feelings
Your child can express her feelings, although she might need help and time to identify and talk about tricky emotions like frustration or jealousy. She has much better control over her feelings too and she might have fewer unexpected outbursts of anger and sadness.

You might see more patience, and your child might even be open to reasoning with you. This means there could be fewer disagreements in the future.

Although your six-year-old loves to be independent, he still needs lots of your love and attention. Connecting with you and his family is the most important thing in his life. He wants your approval, is proud of his achievements – and probably doesn’t take well to criticism or discipline.

Your child’s growing understanding of the world around might lead to some fears – for example, some children might be afraid of supernatural things (like ghosts), criticism or tests, failure, or physical harm or threat.

Thinking
Your child’s attention span has increased and she can pay attention for longer. She understands simple concepts like time (today, tomorrow, yesterday), knows the seasons, recognises some words by sight and tries to sound out words. She might even read on her own. 

Your child is better at seeing other people’s points of view, which helps him to make friends and meet new people.

And if your child sometimes comes across as if she ‘knows everything’, she’s not alone!

Talking and communicating
Your child will talk lots, sometimes even when nobody is in the room.

He’ll talk in full and complex sentences and have adult-like conversations although he might still find it hard to describe complex ideas or events. He understands jokes and riddles, and toilet humour is particularly fun. Your child also enjoys the opportunity to do ‘show and tell’ at school.

Your child understands more words than she can say, and is learning as many as 5-10 new words each day. Vocabulary growth is so rapid at this age that your child’s brain often thinks faster than he can say what’s on his mind.

Moving
Your five-year-old is more coordinated and loves to show off new physical skills – you’ll often hear shouts of ‘Look at me!’

Your child can ride a bike, jump rope, balance on one foot for a short period of time, walk downstairs without needing to hold your hand, skip and catch a large ball. Many six-year-olds will also be interested and able to play team sports, like soccer.

Does it seem like your six-year-old can’t ever keep still? Wriggling and squirming while watching TV, at the dinner table or even while sleeping is all pretty normal.

Your child’s fine motor skills are improving, which leads to more independence with things like tying shoelaces, using zips and buttons, and brushing hair. She might still find it hard to cut up her food with a knife, but enjoys the chance to practise.

Daily life and behaviour
Your five-year-old is becoming more independent and loves making small decisions, like what clothes to wear or what to eat for lunch.

Starting school opens up a whole new social world – which comes with a whole new set of rules. This might be demanding or challenging for your child. School can be tiring for children so don’t be surprised if he’s a little moody or easily upset, especially after a long day. On these days you might want to try and keep your child quiet at home after school and aim for an early bedtime.

Whether your child is feeling worried about starting school or bursting with excitement, a bit of planning and preparation can ease the transition. 

At this age, your child might also:

  • copy simple shapes with a pencil
  • write her own name
  • copy letters and even write some from memory
  • say her full name, address, age and birthday
  • draw more realistic pictures – for example, a person with a head with eyes, mouth and nose, and a body with arms and legs
  • read simple picture books
  • understand the importance of rules, and the simple reasons behind rules
  • show a strong sense of ‘gender-appropriate’ behaviour
  • engage in more complex social play.

Helping school-age child development

Here are some simple things you can do to help your child’s development at this age:

  • Encourage moving: play different sports and do recreational activities together or with others. These teach social skills like taking turns, cooperating, negotiating, playing fairly and being a good sport.
  • Include your child in simple household chores: setting the table or helping you to put clean clothes away develops moving and thinking skills, while also teaching cooperation and responsibility. These skills are important for school.
  • Play with your child each day, even if it’s just for 10 minutes. Play gives you the chance to enter your child’s world and find out what he’s thinking and feeling. It also shows your child that you care about him and want to spend time with him.
  • Practise classroom behaviour: for example, you could give your child small tasks that keep her attention or that need her to follow simple rules or instructions. Have conversations about her favourite animal or sport and encourage her to listen, respond and question. This all helps your child get ready for school.
  • Arrange playdates: spending time with other children, especially if they go to the same school, helps your child’s social skills and gets him used to being apart from you.
  • Talk about your child’s feelings: you can help your child work out why she’s feeling something and help her put words to these feelings. This will help her form friendships and show empathy.

Parenting a school-age child

Every day you and your child will learn a little more about each other. As your child grows and develops, you’ll learn more about what he needs and how you can meet these needs. 

In fact, as a parent, you’re always learning. Every parent makes mistakes and learns through experience. It’s OK to feel confident about what you know. And it’s also OK to admit you don’t know and ask questions – often the ‘dumb’ questions are the best kind!

Your own physical and mental health is an important part of being a parent. But with all the focus on looking after a child, lots of parents forget or run out of time to look after themselves. Looking after yourself will help you with the understanding, patience, imagination and energy you need to be a parent.

Sometimes you might feel frustrated or upset. But if you feel overwhelmed, put your child somewhere safe or ask someone else to look after her for a while so you can take some time out until you feel calmer. Try going into another room to breathe deeply or call a friend or family member to talk things through.

Never shake or hit a child. You risk harming your child, even if you don’t mean to – for example, shaking can cause bleeding inside the brain and likely permanent brain damage.

It’s OK to ask for help. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your child, call your local Parentline. Our coping toolkit has practical ideas to help you relax and feel calmer.

When to seek help with child development

See your GP if you have any concerns or notice that your child has any of the following issues at 5-6 years.

Communicating and understanding
Your child:

  • is difficult to understand when he talks or isn’t speaking in full sentences
  • has trouble following simple directions like ‘Please put your pyjamas on your bed after you’ve put your clothes on’.

Behaviour and play
Your child:

  • uses lots of inappropriate or challenging behaviour – for example, has a tantrum whenever she doesn’t get her own way
  • shows no interest in letters or trying to write her own name
  • is very withdrawn, worried or depressed or gets very upset when separating from you
  • doesn’t interact well with others – for example, is aggressive  or shows no interest in interacting with other children or adults.

Everyday skills
Your child:

  • still wets or soils his pants during the day (night-time wetting is typical up until the age of 6-7 years, especially for boys)
  • has difficulty falling asleep at night or staying asleep.

You should see a child health professional if at any age your child experiences a noticeable and consistent loss of skills she once had.

Children grow and develop at different speeds. If you’re worried about whether your child’s development is ‘normal’, it might help to know that ‘normal’ varies a lot. But if you still feel that something isn’t quite right, see your GP.

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Last updated or reviewed
05-02-2016

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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