What's age-appropriate for 2- to 4-year-olds?

The way our kids consume and create media profoundly affects their social, emotional, and physical development. That's why, when we make assessments about age appropriateness, we rely on developmental criteria from some of the nation's leading authorities to determine what content and activities are best suited for each age and stage. Below you will find the developmental guidelines we use in establishing our age ratings and recommendations. But even as we rely on experts, we know that all kids grow and mature differently. Our age-based reviews and ratings are a guide -- but ultimately, you're still the expert when it comes to your kids.

What's going on at age 2-4?

Cognitive development: At this age, children are able to use one object to represent another and can follow simple directions. Two-year-olds begin to tell others how they feel and what they want. They enjoy stories, songs, and rhymes. As any parent of a 2-year-old knows, they have their own opinions and can express them strongly. By age 3, children are able to use words to express their needs, ideas, and questions. At 4 years old, children talk a lot and ask many questions. They like silly words -- even swear words (or anything that will get a rise out of an adult). By the end of this period, children's language grows quickly -- including the ability to recognize letters.

Young children like to hear stories they know again and again, with the same wording each time. They're rapidly building vocabulary and basic number and verbal literacy skills. They memorize music and stories quickly. Many 4-year-olds can count to 10 and recognize numbers. Also at 4, kids can recognize groupings of things, and they can follow basic reasoning. They can also make a plan and complete it.

Attention span and self-control get stronger between the ages of 2 and 4. They need a variety of activities (indoor and outdoor, active and quiet) where they can use all five senses. By the end of this period, imaginative play can become very involved and go on for a much longer time.

On the other hand, young children can't separate fantasy from reality very well, so they may imitate or fear both cartoons/fantastical creatures and characters that are more realistic. Young children also don't have a complete understanding of cause and effect, especially when consequences happen a lot later. Though many TV shows and books claim to be educational, 2-year-olds may have difficulty applying what they learn from television or picture books to their own lives and will probably learn best from real-life experiences. But by age 3, children are able to learn a wide range of information and skills from screen media.

Social and emotional development: Kids this age enjoy imitating others. Toddlers are able to understand another person's goals. But they are not yet able to understand that another person's feelings and point of view may be different from their own. Two-year-olds' feelings are easily hurt, and they frighten easily. Three-year-olds still have extreme -- but short-lived -- emotions and often need to be encouraged to express their feelings with words. By age 4, children are beginning to learn to control their emotions and can work out problems by talking. Kids this age can sometimes be aggressive in their play, but they want to have friends. Four-year-olds understand that friendship involves sympathy and conflict resolution.

Preschool-age children are beginning to learn how to play with others, and they enjoy make-believe. Two-year-olds still haven't mastered how to control their emotions, and they aren't good at sharing; they often play next to but not with other children. By age 3, children are more likely to play with peers and to share. Three-year-olds also enjoy playing pretend both alone and with others. However, they also still have extreme but short-lived emotions and often need to be encouraged to express their feelings with words. Four-year-olds have very active imaginations (some will have imaginary friends) and enjoy role-playing. They're learning about taking turns and can play simple games.

Children develop their gender identities (whether they're boys or girls) around age 2. They may show a preference for toys and media content that fit with gender stereotypes -- for example, girls and princesses and boys and trains. Between the ages of 2 and 4, children learn stereotypes about activities, traits, toys, and skills associated with each gender. Those preferences may grow stronger over this period.

Physical development: Two-year-olds' movements become broader and more refined, although they're not always fluid and can still be quite awkward at times. They talk, run, climb, and take things apart and put them back together. They love finger play and can do simple, whole-piece puzzles. But their fine motor skills still aren't fully developed. They can't yet draw pictures that look like the objects they're trying to copy.

Three-year-olds are much steadier, more mobile, and less awkward in their movements. They can handle small objects, tend to like puzzles, can build towers of six to nine blocks, and can use utensils well.

By 4 years old, children are developing more muscle control and fine motor skills. They can dress themselves, use scissors to cut on a line, handle utensils, and do more complex, multi-piece puzzles. Around age 4, kids begin favoring their right or left hand.

Technological/digital savviness: Two-year-olds understand how to push buttons and tap on screens to turn things on. They love smartphones and tablets and can perform basic functions on remote controls. They know how to turn on devices, put a DVD into a DVD player, and even use an iPod. However, they often have difficulty connecting what they see on a screen (or in picture books) to the objects, people, and places they see in real life.

By age 3, children can often start using a mouse and keyboard. Hand-eye coordination is still developing, though, so they have limited control over the kinds of fine movements that affect gaming and apps. They understand how to point, click, and navigate via images, and they have enough finger control to use most touchscreen apps designed for preschoolers. Three-year-olds are more likely than toddlers to understand the connection between what they see in pictures/videos and what they see in real life.

Early readers will begin typing words they know -- for example, "Dora" -- into a search bar. Take care that kids aren't online without an adult present (mostly because of images that may turn up that aren't age-appropriate). Start talking about how the internet has rules for behavior -- just as the real world does -- including how to behave nicely and respectfully. Begin to teach internet safety basics -- for example, don't give out information (such as your name and address or your parents' names) or passwords, and stay on pre-approved, age-appropriate sites.

What's age-appropriate at age 2-4?

  • Educational value: Appropriate content for this age helps kids build their vocabularies, count, and learn about the world (for example, facts about plants and animals). Children between 2 and 4 can benefit from clear lessons about social and emotional skills, such as being kind to others and waiting one's turn. Children in this age group can memorize songs and words, but they don't always understand the meaning of what they're saying. Some older children may be able to learn about basic scientific concepts, such as gravity, and they learn best from visual demonstrations rather than characters talking or singing. Lessons should include concrete rather than abstract ideas, because young children learn better from things they can experience, see, and feel.

    This age group doesn't fully understand complicated content, so choose shows and games with simple production styles. Educational lessons should be central to the plot of the story (rather than simply popping up in the middle of a mostly unrelated story). Ideally, the settings and scenarios are realistic or relatable to make it easier for children to understand and apply the lessons. Young children may not understand references to characters coming from other countries or using other languages, particularly if the show is animated. Point out connections to the real world (familiar people, activities), and ask questions to check that kids are making sense of what they see.

    At this age, children may also be able to learn from a well-designed interactive app. The best apps will be easy to navigate and contain interactive features that support (rather than distract from) educational content. For example, look for electronic books with interactive features that support the story rather than gratuitous bells and whistles that distract from the story.

  • Positive models and messages: Media that models positive behavior is always a great choice. But children this age have a hard time learning social lessons from stories, particularly from verbal descriptions or conversations between characters. Stories that show characters doing kind, nice things for each other are probably most effective. Comment positively on the behaviors that you like on-screen or in stories. Content that tries to teach positive lessons by using negative examples (for example, a sibling learns to love her new brother after she's shown being mean) may be lost on 2- to 4-year-olds. It could also have the opposite effect, as young children may focus mostly on the negative. Aim for content that models the good behaviors you want rather than the negative behaviors you don't want.

    Because 2- to 4-year-olds are learning about gender roles, look for media that portrays characters with diverse attributes to show that there's more than one way to "do" gender. Also look for TV shows and movies that give equal value to boys and girls and masculine and feminine behaviors and characteristics. Consider pointing out some of the positive, non-stereotypical attributes of characters (the princess is brave; the train conductor is kind). Aim for at least some content that shows characters breaking stereotypes, but don't assume that kids will notice these aspects without your help. At this age, children often ignore or misremember counter-stereotypical content.

    Many children this age also begin to notice racial and ethnic differences. Encourage them to accept and respect people who are different by exposing them to content that includes people of diverse backgrounds. Discuss the fact that not all people or families look like them/theirs. Although parents may be uncomfortable discussing the race or ethnicity of characters, research suggests that doing so helps kids understand their parents' positive attitudes. Consider commenting positively on interracial interactions in stories or on-screen.

    Be aware that children this age often need help relating what happens in their media to the real world. Point out connections between characters of different ethnicities/races and real-world acquaintances, friends, and activities. Characters who show hostility to a different group should face consequences for that behavior -- but don't assume that children will notice those consequences. Explain why you don't like the behavior and encourage your child to think about how it made the victim feel.

  • Violence: Young children can imitate aggressive behavior. Try to avoid violent content in favor of friendly, positive interactions. However, children are more likely to see violence in media content as they get older, especially if they watch cartoons or are in the room while the news is on.

    Children are more likely to imitate violence if it's visual (rather than described), easy to mimic (hitting, punching), and presented as funny or silly. Kids are just as likely to imitate cartoon violence as realistic content. Avoid shows and movies in which characters use violence to resolve conflict -- but if it comes up, talk about why it would not be OK to copy the behavior. Consider asking older children to come up with different ways characters could have solved a problem.

    Young children may not notice that a character was sorry or punished at the end of a story, particularly if the story is long or has subplots. Talk about the ending and praise the nice behaviors of other characters. Focus on positive behavior without drawing unnecessary attention to negative behaviors. If characters use violence to resolve conflict, talk about other ways they could have solved a problem.

  • Scariness: Different things scare different children. Know your child, and avoid potentially upsetting material, particularly before bedtime. Darkness, strange sounds, distorted faces or bodies, and other grotesque images all can be upsetting -- even if the story "says" that things are OK or that this is a good or funny character. Anything that involves physical or emotional danger or the separation of parents and kids (human or animal) can be scary and upsetting. A happy ending may not be enough to make them feel better if they're caught up in the frightening content that came first. If you can't avoid content with some scary scenes, consider fast-forwarding through those parts. When kids do see something that scares them, the best comfort is probably physical reassurance (a hug and a favorite toy) and distraction with an engaging activity. Telling them it's not real is not very effective at this age.

  • Sexy stuff: The concept of romantic relationships and scenes of affection between partners (hugging, holding hands) are age-appropriate. Anything more is not appropriate at this age.

  • Language: All swearing is inappropriate for kids this age. While children don't yet understand "bad" or hurtful words, they learn the words they hear spoken around them at an amazing rate.

  • Consumerism and commercialism: Kids this age are too young to understand the "persuasive intent" of advertising (the idea that an ad is trying to sell you something). Try to stick to commercial-free programming and record shows or watch on demand to limit exposure to advertising. Watch out for preschool sites and apps from food companies, toy manufacturers, and big brands, since they're often just giant interactive ads. Children this age are attracted to anything that has characters they recognize from TV or movies, including food packaging, toys, and even apps and games.

  • Risky and unhealthy behavior: Characters should model healthy, safe behavior, such as wearing bike helmets and seat belts. Avoid media that includes drinking, drugs, smoking, or risky stunts for this age. Young children may not understand the difference between the consequences that happen on TV versus what would happen in real life. Children may imitate unhealthy/risky behaviors even when negative consequences follow characters' actions.