3–4 years old: Cognitive and linguistic development

3–4 years old: Cognitive and linguistic development

Your child’s cognitive development at 3–4 years old. Follow your child’s milestones step-by-step.

Cognitive development refers to the acquisition of skills such as memory, attention, reasoning, and planning. These skills allow children to manage their emotions, thoughts, and behaviours, in addition to helping them store knowledge, solve problems, exercise judgment, and understand the world around them. Cognitive development also includes language development, which is a child’s ability to communicate, understand language, and express themself verbally.

Cognitive and language development at 3–4 years old

Cognitive skills

At this age:

  • Your child plays make-believe in a more elaborate and realistic way. For example, they may pretend to be in school, at a restaurant, or in a store.
Remember that not all children develop the same skills at the same speed. The material on this website is for general information purposes only. If you’re concerned about your child’s development, speak with a doctor.
  • Your child is now able to remember more than one instruction, e.g., they can understand the rules of a simple board game.
  • Your child can sometimes wait to speak when someone else is already speaking
  • They take role-playing seriously, and are able to adopt the behaviours associated with various roles. For example, they put out imaginary fires while playing firefighter.
  • They categorize items depending on their intended use, e.g., things you play with vs. things you wear.
  • They are familiar with their daily routines and are becoming increasingly independent. For example, they can brush their teeth on their own, with adult supervision.
  • They can count up to about ten.

Over the next few months, your child will begin to do the following:

  • Understand certain concepts, such as opposites
  • Understand terms associated with time (e.g., yesterday, today, tomorrow, day, night)

Language skills

At this age:

  • Your child understands more complex questions (e.g., “with what?”, “why?”, “how much?”).
  • They understand certain abstract words, such as on, under, before, and after.
  • They can tell you about something that happened that day.
  • They can reach logical conclusions (e.g., “We’re not going to play outside because it’s raining”).
  • They ask a lot of questions, which prolongs conversations.
  • They are able to recognize and name different colours.
  • They formulate complete sentences made up of at least four to five words, and are learning to make longer ones using conjunctions such as and or but.
  • They pronounce many sounds correctly. However, l, ch, j, and r sounds, as well as words with two consonants in a row such as train, can still be difficult to say.

Over the next few months, your child will begin to do the following:

  • Explain and recount things more often and in more complex ways
  • Increasingly use complex sentences with more than one conjugated verb
  • Gain a better understanding of story plots while being read to (the character’s purpose, the problem at hand, the emotions, etc.)

How can you help your child progress?

Find out how to support your child’s cognitive development through books. (In French)

Each child is different and develops at their own pace. That said, you can help foster your toddler’s development by adopting the Comfort, Play, and Teach parenting approach, which can easily be integrated into your daily routine. The table below outlines small, age-specific actions you can take that will benefit your child’s cognitive development.

When you read your child’s favourite books to them,
they learn to understand stories and develop their vocabulary while spending quality time with you.
When you incorporate sorting and filing into your daily activities, by saying things like, “Your socks go in this drawer and your sweaters go in the other drawer,”
your child understands that similar objects can be grouped together.
When you talk to your child about situations that make them happy, sad, or angry,
they gradually learn to associate certain words with the emotions they’re experiencing.
When you ask your child “Why are you crying?”,
they learn to think about their emotions and talk about what’s causing them.
When you play make-believe with your child, e.g., by pretending to be in a restaurant,
they practise using complex sentences and holding a conversation.
When you give your child measuring cups and spoons to play with during bath time and show them how to measure the amount of water that can fit into a cup,
they gradually start to understand the various forms of measurement and practise measuring things.
When you work on crafts with soft and rigid materials such as feathers, cotton balls, and sticks, and talk to your child about them,
they develop their vocabulary by learning new adjectives like soft and hard.
When you draw with your child and take the time to describe what you’re doing and ask them what they’re drawing,
they learn to describe their actions.
When you ask your child to tell you about the scenarios they’re making up while playing with figurines or stuffed animals,
they gradually learn to tell a little story.
When you ask your child to play with marbles or buttons of various colours and ask them to pay attention to their patterns, shapes, and sequences,
they start to recognize patterns and shapes, and understand what sequences are made of.
When you let your child help with meals and ask them to measure ingredients,
they learn the relationship between amounts, numbers, and measurements.
When you encourage your child to tell you what they liked about their day,
they learn to share their experiences using a few sentences.


Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Marie-Ève Bergeron-Gaudin, speech-language pathologist, and Noémie Montminy, doctoral student in psychopedagogy at Université Laval.
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: August 2021


Photo: GettyImages/miniseries



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