How Much Does a 4-Year-Old Know?

Published February 21, 2020 in Warp & Woof

How Much Does a 4-Year-Old Know?
Well, At Least My Grandson …
William Sundwick
He does love to talk! From the moment his dad dropped him off Friday afternoon, duffel bag stuffed with changes of clothes and toys, until we took him back home Sunday afternoon, it was nonstop conversation! (Except after 9:00 P.M. Friday and Saturday nights.)
Four-year-old Owen got to spend the weekend with his grandparents, while his parents celebrated their wedding anniversary on the Maryland Eastern Shore. It was a new experience for grandpa and grandma “G.G.” Baby sister Mira was farmed out to the other set of grandparents.
Speech in children develops in interesting ways. Owen has always been a talker (like his dad at that age?) and seems to have modeled both parents. His grammar, including tense, use of pronouns, gender and number, all fit proper contemporary adult speech patterns. This has been developing for a while. Owen now seems to have even mastered verbal punctuation: exclamation points, question marks, commas for independent phrases, are all apparent in his oral arguments.
Somehow, he has also learned unique speech mannerisms that I must say I’ve never heard in other children. He habitually introduces a statement when others are speaking, even when talking to him, saying “Excuse Me!”– whether interrupting or not. Statements of fact are often preceded by “Actually,” as though he is providing surprising new information to his listener. Still evident in his conversation is his favorite interrogative from toddlerhood, “why?” This is typically a stand-alone sentence, neither preceded nor followed by any context – it’s been his favorite signal that he wants to continue the conversation, at least since he was two. He is seeking explanation.
Lately, Owen has also exhibited awareness of pop culture. This goes beyond speech mannerisms into real shared experiences with his parents and friends at “school” (their accepted name for the licensed family daycare facility down the street where he’s been since infancy). Action and characters from the Lego Movie, and Star Wars, are an integral part of his world. Marvel comics are now creeping in as well.
Would a more formal pre-K program enrich him more? He won’t be entering Kindergarten until he is almost six, due to his November birthday. His parents have discussed pre-K, but apparently rejected it, so far. His dad and uncle both had formal pre-school at Owen’s age or earlier. But I must say his language skills haven’t suffered!
What does Owen learn from observation? Where do his interests take him? At four, nature is the biggest draw. He notices the earth, soil, rocks, bugs. He helps Mom with her vegetable garden. He notices trees in the woods as well as people’s yards. And animals! He loves not only reptiles and dinosaurs, but everybody’s pets (he doesn’t have one of his own) and his favorite books are about wild animals, sea life, and dinosaurs. Owen even expresses concern about climate change and fragile ecosystems. He wants to build habitats for animals to “rescue them” from climate change, and thinks that people build “too many factories,” in his words.
Is Owen at a pre-reading level? He can print his name, and knows the alphabet, but familiar story books are memorized, the words aren’t read – including those “chapter” books his parents are collecting for him. He fooled me the other day when he appeared to read word-for-word the text on a page of one of them. But, when I asked him to identify specific words in the line of text, he couldn’t. It was the illustration on the page, and the sequence, that he had memorized.
Videos seem to be the best way to teach him concepts – much of his apparently deep understanding of complex things appear to come from educational videos that he’s shown me online. Some of them are brilliantly produced for preschoolers. Nonfiction children’s books are also a favorite, like D-K picture books, or National Geographic. Much factual knowledge in his interest areas comes from such additions to his home library. His dad loved pictorial reference books when he was Owen’s age, too.
Owen, the builder
Christmas, 2019

Analytical skills, including math and physics, are not yet apparent, except in primordial form, with Owen. The best exercise for this right now is building with Legos. He can now follow the pictorial instructions for small Lego sets by himself – meaning he can identify the pieces shown in the instructions and recognize the patterns of how they fit together. Larger sets still require help from dad, who was an avid Lego builder himself, and remains so today! (I suspect It’s now a stress-reducer, especially as a shared activity with his son.) Owen, so far, seems to limit his math to counting, some simple addition and subtraction, and he is finally beginning to understand gravity and balance when he gets creative in his building projects. But symmetry is now both a mastered concept, and a word in his vocabulary! “See grandpa, I made it symmetrical!” He was correct!

Owen has always been a physical kid, he loves outdoor running, and indoor yoga. He understands the difference between indoor physicality and outdoor physicality. Although, I haven’t been apprised of any interest in team sports yet. Outdoors, whether the terrain is familiar or not, he senses the opportunity to run, not walk, when he sees a path before him. His daycare facility deploys a Cosmic Kids yoga curriculum, and Owen confidently shows us his expertise, including naming poses, the horse pose from the farm “adventure” or the banana pose from the Betsy the Banana video adventure. All adventures begin with the secret Cosmic Kids word: “Namaste.”
His body awareness goes back to toddler days. I believe his mom has always emphasized it (his dad, not so much, if memory serves). He seems to be aware now of some grooming concerns – not just potty routines. He insisted, unprompted, during his weekend with grandparents, that we clip his nails! He instructed grandpa how to give a manicure! He also seems to know when to use a band-aid, and for how long, when he has a scratch or cut on his finger. He can now bathe himself in the tub, although he says he hasn’t had any experience with a shower.
Perhaps the greatest measure of early childhood development, however, is social awareness. Here, Owen, as can be expected, places the heaviest emphasis on his parents. They are the most important people in his life, and it’s critical that he get along with them. He expresses this by obeying their rules, and sometimes by showing genuine concern for their feelings. He seems to sense when his father is anxious, fading into the background as warranted (at least when grandpa is nearby), and I suspect he is at least as considerate toward his mother – I’ve noticed him asking when mommy is coming back, which is more likely than asking when daddy is coming. On the other hand, when confronted by a complex engineering (building) problem, he wants his daddy. Owen seems to see his grandparents as fun, somewhat lax in the rules department, which he works to his advantage – but he’s still amenable to the overall dictum, “when you’re with grandpa and G.G., we make the rules!”
Moving down the hierarchy from parents, Owen’s baby sister Mira (18-months) is becoming a playmate these days. There are competition and territory issues when they both occupy the same space at home – Mira isn’t allowed to play with Owen’s toys – but, generally, they interact well when the activity can be supervised and shared. When we brought Owen home that Sunday, slightly before his parents returned from Maryland with Mira, the first thing Mira did when she arrived was run to Owen and give him a hug! She hadn’t seen him for a whole weekend!
The outer circle of Owen’s world includes friends from “school,” children of his parents’ friends, and fictitious characters from play scenarios. The latter are invariably divided between “good guys” and “bad guys” – each playing a role, usually a function of their identity (policeman, “space guy,” or generic bad guy). Some school friends seem to be influencers as well – there are a couple older (or bigger?) boys at the daycare center. But I learned that “Logan is a troublemaker” – why? “Because Miss Eymy said so.”  So much for influencers.
As Owen relates his social experiences to grandpa, I can’t help but wonder if any of it portends a primal morality – or is it merely reflecting conflict? I haven’t heard Owen say anything about “fairness.” He seems to have all his needs met – for now! Neither can I see him parroting any sense of injustice from his parents, either. They seem to have their needs met, too. What am I missing?
Puzzlemaster Owen: two 48-piece puzzles all by himself!

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