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Child development: 5-6 years

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Many children begin school at five. This is because by five most children have developed enough independence and understanding to enable them to cope away from home for such a length of time. As always, this varies with each child and some will be more ready than others to be away from their parents and to make relationships with people outside the family.

The Raising Children Network website has a lot of information about school aged children, including information about development, behaviour, fitness, health and daily care. As well as articles there are several videos. The Raising Children Network site has been funded by the Australian Government.


Five can be an agreeable age when children are often willing to please and keen to 'fit in.'

Important note
The information in this topic is a guide only. Children develop at different rates and in different ways. If you are worried about your child's development or if your child's development is very different from other children of the same age, have a talk with a health professional. If there is a problem, getting in early will help. If there isn't a problem the reassurance will save you some worry.

Social/emotional development

The family is still the centre of the world for five year olds.  Although they will want to play with other children and may form some simple friendships, their important emotional life is still located inside the home.

They come in contact with different ideas and ways of behaving at school and also have to fit in to a whole new system or rules that might be very different to those at home.  This can be confusing and tiring, so don't be surprised if your five year old is clingy, bossy or teary, especially after school.  Each child responds to pressure in his own way.

Five year olds can share and often feel sympathetic to others, although they are not able to be responsible for younger brothers and sisters. Five year olds notice a lot about being a boy or being a girl and often the sexes play separately.

  • Your 5 year old is becoming more independent and in control of his behaviour. There will be fewer arguments and few tantrums.
  • He is beginning to understand what it means to follow rules in a game and to be fair. However expect at times that it may be too much to cope with, and he will cheat or get upset or not want to play.  See the topic Winning, losing and cheating.
  • 5 year olds love to play together rather than playing by themselves.
  • They will often ask for permission before they do something as they are starting to learn about rules and right and wrong. “Can I” can be  heard often.
  • Your 5 year old can be reasoned with. He asks serious questions, and wants to be taken seriously.
  • 5 year olds are still very attached to their parents and may be upset when they begin school. See the topic Starting school.
  • Your child will be mostly independent in dressing and eating but may still have some difficulty cutting with a knife.

Developing understanding

Five year olds are beginning to get enough of a view of the world to be able to understand that differences can exist side by side.  They begin to understand about values and they can understand that different families value different things. 

You can help your five year old understand that difference is not "yukky" and explain to them why you do things in a particular way in your house. They like rules because the world is opening up to them quickly and rules offer a way of doing things that stops it all getting too confusing.

  • Five year olds understand a lot more about things like space and time, but most five year olds are not able to tell the time yet.
  • Your child will become very good at sorting things by colour, shape and size.
  • Five year olds can draw a person with a head, body, arms, legs and features such as eyes, nose and mouth.
  • They can draw a house with doors, windows and a roof.
  • Your 5 year old can copy letters and write some from memory.
  • They can name four colours and match 10 or 12 colours.
  • They can recognise letters but do not necessarily start to actually read yet.
  • At 6 years your child will be able to arrange objects from smallest to largest, shortest to longest, and lightest to heaviest.
  • A 6 year old will understand that the quantity of a thing remains the same when arranged differently, eg that a ball of clay is the same amount when flattened out, or when water is poured from a  fat jug to a tall thin one, it is still the same amount of water.

Physical development 

Five year olds are often confident and proud of their physical skills, although in their enthusiasm they can easily misjudge themselves and falls are common.  It is not usually until the end of their fifth year that what they think they can do, and what they can actually do, are better matched.

  • Your 5 year old enjoys being active and is good at climbing, sliding, swinging and dancing.
  • Skipping is a new skill that 5 year olds are learning.
  • If they have had some practice, 5 year olds can catch a medium size ball.
  • Most 5 year olds can stand on one foot for a short time.
  • Most 5 year olds can hop forwards on each foot separately.
  • They have good control in writing and drawing and can colour, staying within the lines.

Speech/language development

Most five year olds have a good command of their native language although they still have difficulty explaining complicated events or ideas and may leave out important bits.  They can have the same difficulty with understanding complicated directions so we need to be careful to explain things in a clear and straightforward way to them.

If your child has started school she may come home with words that are not commonly used in your house.  If some of those are offensive to you it is best to offer the alternative word that you use and give a simple reason why you choose that word in preference. See Swearing.

  • They can speak clearly and can have a conversation with you about everyday subjects.
  • Five year olds are able to say their name, address, age and birthday.
  • Five year olds ask the meaning of words and can describe something by the way it is used, eg a knife is used for cutting.
  • They are able to tell stories and give a short talk to children at school eg in "show and tell".
  • 5 year olds love to listen to stories and recite or sing rhymes and songs.
  • Five year olds love jokes and riddles.

What you can do 

Your five year old will love to have your support and encouragement, particularly if she begins school in this year.  She will notice what she can do and can't do in comparison to other children and may want your help to be better at something that is important to her (like hitting a ball).

  • You can help your child feel good about herself by concentrating on her special strengths.
  • Help her to have experiences of achievement and completion by getting her to do simple jobs around the house that she can easily accomplish (like putting out the knives and forks).
  • Allow her to be "little" for short periods when being "big" gets too tiring.

If there is a younger sibling at home, your 5 year old may feel jealous of all the time you and her brother or sister have together while she is at school.  Making sure that you get a little bit of 'special time' with her will pay rich rewards in giving her the strength and confidence to meet school challenges.

Five year old boys need some special help from their fathers (or other close male friends or relatives). Mostly children still have more opportunity to see what it is like to be a woman than they have to see what it is like to be a man. They want to know what it feels like on the inside as well as what it looks like on the outside. If boys have had a chance to spend time with their fathers and hear about their dad's feelings and his life outside the home they will be much more confident getting on with other boys in social situations.

  • By 5 years it is usually clear whether the child is right handed or left handed. Do not try to force a left handed child to use his right hand for writing and drawing. Almost all scissors are made for right handed people.  Left handed people need to learn how to use right handed scissors - hold scissors in right hand, manipulate paper with left hand.
  • 5 year olds enjoy a wide range of dramatic plays, so have lots of dress ups, props, puppets etc.
  • Provide opportunities for cutting, drawing and colouring, sorting objects, matching shapes and letters and enjoying music.
  • 5 year olds like to know a lot of facts and you as a parent are a guide, resource and teacher to your child.
  • Continue to read stories to them.
  • If they are at school talk to the teacher about how they are going.
  • Make time to listen to how their day at school went.


Seek advice from a health professional if you are worried or if your child:

  • is wetting or soiling during the day
  • seems to be going backwards or wanting to be "little" for a long time
  • continues to be very anxious about separating from you after the first few weeks at school
  • is having difficulty learning at school.


Emotional/Social Development

  • Five year olds still need their mothers or fathers (or special carers) and a close home base.
  • They are often keen to ‘fit in’ and learn the rules.
  • Starting school can be a challenge and they need your support to meet it.

Developing Understanding

  • Five years olds begin to understand about sameness and difference in various aspects of life.
  • They begin to understand that differences can exist side by side.
  • They can begin to see different perspectives on the same subject, for example the same amount of water can look different in different containers.

Physical Skills

  • Five year olds are often proud of their physical skills but sometimes misjudge what they can do.
  • They are still developing running/jumping/climbing skills.
  • They can hold a pencil well and have good control of their hands although they are ‘clumsy’ sometimes.


  • Keep calm when your five year old brings home strange words from school.
  • Read to them as much as you can because this helps them to want to read.  
  • Talk to them lots - they miss not being with you during the day and their friends at school don’t really fill the gap until they are close to six or later.  


Bowler R and Linke P, “Your Child from One to Ten” 2nd ed. Melbourne:ACER 1998.  

Allen Eileen & Marotz Lyn “Developmental Profiles: pre-birth through to Eight” Albany: Delmar, 1999.

Holditch Lesley, “Understanding Your 5 Year Old” The Tavistock Clinic. Rosendale Press, 1992.

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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