Your child is learning to express and manage emotions. This is great news for your child and for you, because it means less frustration and impatience and fewer tantrums.

Preschoolers, emotions and play

Preschoolers are learning more about emotions all the time, especially during play.

Play is the natural way children learn and develop. Play gives preschoolers a chance to express their feelings and practise managing them. 

What to expect from preschoolers and emotions

At around 3-4 years your preschooler will probably:

  • use words to describe basic feelings like sad, happy, angry and excited
  • feel sorry and understand she should apologise when she has done something wrong – although you’ll probably need to give plenty of reminders
  • feel generous and show that she understands the idea of sharing – but don’t expect her to share all the time.

At 4-5 years, your preschooler will probably:

  • use words to describe more complex feelings like frustration, annoyance and embarrassment, particularly if you’ve been encouraging him to do this
  • hide the truth about something if he feels guilty, embarrassed or frightened. He might even say ‘I didn’t do it’ even when he did
  • be better at managing strong emotions like anger, frustration and disappointment and have fewer tantrums
  • be very attached to you – for example, your child might feel anxious about going somewhere unfamiliar, like a birthday party.

By the time she’s five, your child will probably:

  • use words to describe complex feelings like disappointment, guilt and jealousy
  • be more aware of her feelings towards others and act on them – for example, your child might be kind to friends and family and want to help you more
  • try hard to follow the rules to avoid getting in trouble
  • have more patience when she’s waiting for things. 

Play ideas to encourage preschooler emotions

Playing with you and with other children helps preschoolers explore and understand their feelings. Here are some play tips for you and your child:

  • Give your child opportunities for messy play, like playing with sand, mud or paints. This is a great way for children to express feelings like happiness or sadness.
  • Look for imaginative and creative ways for your child to play. Your child could act out feelings with puppets or toys, or use old clothes for dress-ups and pretend play. For example, your preschooler could pretend to be kind and concerned like a teacher or a doctor.
  • Take your child outside to play in a park or open area with lots of space for running, tumbling and rolling. This can help your child let out emotions.
  • Encourage your child to paint and draw as a way of expressing himself. Painting and drawing can soothe and calm your child if he’s frustrated or sad.
  • Encourage your child to jump around and ‘act out’ music or make music with simple instruments.
  • Read stories that feature characters who are experiencing similar situations and emotions to your child. This can really help your child understand new emotions like grief about the death of a pet or worry about starting school.
  • Give your child chances to play with children of all ages. By playing with other children, your child can learn how to recognise, manage and respond to emotions.

Your child might find it easier to express feelings if she feels in charge. Letting your child choose what and how to play can help with this. 

All children develop at their own pace. If you’re concerned about any aspect of your child’s development, it’s a good idea to talk to your child and family health nurse or GP or your child’s preschool teacher.

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Last updated or reviewed
23-03-2018

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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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