Preschooler Social Development

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on December 08, 2022
photo of young children playing with water table

Between the ages of 3 and 5, your preschooler is becoming a more social creature. Where once they may have thrown tantrums when frustrated or resolved a dispute by hitting or biting, they are now learning to share and cooperate. Here is what you need to know about social development in your preschooler.

You may have noticed that your preschooler spends much of their time in fantasy play. The are starting to move past "parallel play" -- when children play alongside each other rather than with each other -- and is beginning to actively engage with other children.

At this age, play is more focused on make-believe than on toys or games. Preschoolers love to construct elaborate scenarios and assign each other roles to play. Going grocery shopping or going to the post office may seem mundane to you, but your child probably finds these chores fascinating and may mimic them in their make-believe play.

Make-believe is how children "try on" adult roles and behaviors they see in the world around them. This activity helps them develop important social skills such as taking turns, cooperating, and paying attention.

Fantasy play also gives your little boy or girl a chance to explore gender roles. Preschool-age boys will generally gravitate to masculine make-believe characters like the strapping superhero, while girls will adopt feminine roles, wanting to be the mommy when playing house, for example. Even if your home doesn't model traditional "masculine" and "feminine" roles, your child is exposed to these ideas from books, TV, extended family, and friends. So don't be surprised if your little boy, who at 2 loved to push a baby doll around in a stroller, has abandoned that for rowdy games with their male friends.

Your preschooler may also go through phases where they want to "try on" the role of the opposite sex and may suddenly become intensely interested in an older brother's toys or clothes. They may then swing back to the opposite extreme, insisting on wearing only pink dresses and bows in their hair. This is all normal experimentation and shouldn't be a concern.


Around age 3 or 4, many children are starting school for the first time. This may be their first experience in a large group of children their own age, and it may take some getting used to. Your child suddenly has to share toys, take turns, communicate clearly, and cooperate with other children, and they'll probably need some help from the adults in their life. Many preschool activities are designed to work on developing these social skills.

If your child isn't in school yet, it's important to provide plenty of opportunities for them to interact with other children their age, whether it's through playdates, trips to the playground, or organized activities like music classes or gymnastics.

By age 5, many children are beginning to prefer the company of other children over the company of adults. They may also show a preference for certain children over others. Your child may have someone they call their "best friend" now. It's important for parents to nurture these friendships. Encourage your child to have their best friend over for a playdate, because being allowed to "show off" their home and possessions will help build their self-esteem and confidence.

Older preschoolers are beginning to understand and internalize social norms. Your 5-year-old probably realizes that if they don't let their friends have a turn, they won't want to play with them anymore. This helps to guide their behavior and choices.

While 5-year-olds can be wonderfully loving friends, they can also be hurtful. At this age, children are beginning to understand the power of social rejection. Don't be surprised to hear an argument between two 5-year-olds culminating with the declaration, "If you don't let me have the ball, I'm not going to be your friend anymore!"

Most of the time, this is just normal 5-year-old interaction. But it's important to keep an eye on mean behavior and make sure your child isn't ganging up or picking on others excessively. Bullying can happen even at this young age.


Your 5-year-old's friends are more than just their playmates. They are a major influence on them. To that end, you may find them trying on behaviors that are new (and unwelcome) to you. For example, If your child's best friend talks about a particular TV show, your child may suddenly demand to watch it, even if TV is forbidden in your home. They may insist on a sugary cereal because it is their friend's favorite.

Your child may also start to "talk back" more around this time, defying you or even calling you names. Though infuriating, this behavior is actually a good sign that your child is learning to test authority and be more independent. Try to react calmly, because a big emotional reaction is often what your child is seeking in these situations.

Your preschooler may start bickering more with older siblings around this time, too. They think they ought to be able to do everything their big brother can do and get frustrated when they can't. You may find yourself caught in the middle of sibling squabbles on a daily basis.

Show Sources

SOURCES: "Social Development in Preschoolers."
Seefelt, C. and Wasik, B.A. Early Education: Three, Four, and Five-Year-Olds Go to School (Second Edition), Prentice Hall, 2005. "Young Children's Social Development: A Checklist."

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