By Angela Wunsch and Claire Moran - True Relationships and Reproductive Health

Children are sexual beings from the moment they are born and have a natural curiosity about their own, and other people’s bodies. From early on children are continually learning about sexuality and relationships from their family, and those that care for them, which is an important component of children’s developing sense of themselves and of the world around them. Children’s developing sexuality is often reflected in behaviour and play and when early childhood teachers, parents are carers acknowledge childhood sexuality it helps them to understand and accept childhood sexual behaviour and respond positively.

Learning about sexuality

Whilst parents and carers are the primary source of sexuality education, supporting children’s healthy sexual development is a responsibility that is shared by important professionals such as early childhood teachers (Breuner, Mattson, Child, & Health, 2016)True 2009). 

The reality is however that children live in a world where their learning about sexuality also comes from television, music, the internet, computer games, advertising and their friends. Early childhood teachers, parents and carers can work together to ensure children receive positive messages, as generally, children who have accurate and clear information about bodies, relationships and sexuality are more likely to:

  • Feel positive about themselves and their bodies
  • Understand appropriate and inappropriate behaviour
  • Understand and accept physical and emotional changes
  • Be able to talk about sexual matters when it is important
  • Avoid or report sexual exploitation and abuse
  • Make informed and responsible sexual decisions later in life
  • Enjoy their sexual experiences

(Breuner et al., 2016; Robinson, 2013)( True 2007; Finkelhor 2007; Kirby 2001; Queensland Crime Commission & Queensland Police Service 2000; Sanderson 2004)

Sexual development in early childhood

In order to respond positively to children’s sexual behaviours and questions, it is firstly important to have an understanding of typical sexual development in young children. This then helps those adults identify and respond to healthy sexual behaviours and those that may be of concern, or harmful.

Under three’s

Babies and young children learn by exploring and touching their bodies, being touched and cuddled by parents and carers, and by observing the roles and relationships of those around them. They are curious about their bodies and are learning the names of the different parts, including naming their vulva, vagina, penis, testicles, scrotum and bottom. As they are getting older it is common for children to have an increased interest in their genitals and the genitals of others and they may be fascinated by watching others go to the toilet (Child at Risk Assessment Unit 2000; True 2012; Brennan & Graham 2012). 

Three to five year olds

It is common for children in this age range to be very curious about themselves and they may begin to show an awareness of body differences by asking questions like Why don’t I have a penis?  Children are also often interested in where they came from and how babies are made. They may ask questions like How are babies made? Or How does the baby get out of the mummy? They may also begin to role-play relationships and gender roles that they have observed around them; for example playing ‘mummies and daddies.’ As children are approaching school age they have generally developed an understanding of acceptable sexual behaviour. Masturbating is a common and healthy behaviour that may occur in this age range and whilst most children will have gained an understanding that this is a private activity, some children may continue to need redirection (Child at Risk Assessment Unit 2000; True 2012; Brennan & Graham 2012).

Five to eight year olds

Children in this age range are continuing to learn about sexuality by asking questions and exploring through play, including games at school and in the playground. Hearing stories about their birth or what they were like as a baby is of great interest to many children, as is the process of fertilisation, pregnancy and birth. However some children may have learnt that these are subjects that are considered ‘rude’ preventing them from asking questions or being embarrassed about the topic. Social groups that develop in this age range typically consist of same sex peers with friendships starting to play an important role in their lives. Some children in the upper end of this age range, particularly girls, may be beginning to show early signs of puberty ((Campbell, Mallappa, Wisniewski, & Silovsky, 2013) Child at Risk Assessment Unit 2000; True 2012; Brennan & Graham 2012).

Is this normal?

Understanding children’s developing sexuality is just one important component in helping ensure children are sexually healthy and safe. The next step in providing a positive environment involves early childhood teachers, parents and carers responding positively to children’s sexual behaviours. This includes sexual behaviours that are considered healthy as well as those that may be of concern or harmful.

The Traffic Lights® framework provides a useful way for early childhood teachers, parents and carers to think about sexual behaviours. Traffic Lights® is a strengths based tool that provides responses which are age appropriate and has the overall aim of being positive and protective. It uses the categories of green, orange and red to provide information for adults to understand and respond to children’s sexual behaviours (Child at Risk Assessment Unit 2000; True 2012; Brennan & Graham 2012). 

Green indicates sexual behaviours which are healthy and form part of children’s natural information gathering process. They are considered age appropriate and are balanced with curiosity about other parts of the world. These behaviours are also easily diverted and may constitute play between children of similar developmental age and stage. Green light behaviours provide great opportunities for early childhood teachers, parents and carers to help children to learn, develop and feel good (Child at Risk Assessment Unit 2000; True 2012; Brennan & Graham 2012) .

Orange indicates sexual behaviours of concern and are a warning sign that something isn’t quite right. The behaviour itself might be healthy and normal, however it is the context in which it is occurring which is outside of normal; perhaps due to the behaviour’s frequency or persistence. Orange light behaviours are also characterised by knowledge or activity which is not what we would expect for the child’s age and stage of development, play between children where there is an inequality in age, size and ability, or are behaviours that pose a risk to the health and safety of the child and/ or others. Orange light behaviours signal the need for early childhood teachers, parents and carers to pay extra attention and monitor behaviour as well as talking to the child and finding ways to help (Child at Risk Assessment Unit 2000; True 2012; Brennan & Graham 2012).

Red indicates sexual behaviours that are harmful or abusive, either for the child or for others. They are characterised by being excessive, compulsive, coercive, forceful, degrading or threatening. Red light behaviours may be secretive or involve bribery and trickery, or behaviours that are not appropriate for the child’s age and stage of development or between children with significant differences in size and developmental ability.  A child disclosing sexual abuse is a red light. Red light sexual behaviours require early childhood teachers, parents and carers to provide immediate protection and follow up support (Child at Risk Assessment Unit 2000; True 2012; Brennan & Graham 2012). This would also include documenting the child’s behaviours and following reporting requirements outlined in services child protection policies. 

It’s important to remember however, that most children’s sexual behaviour fits into the green light category and is healthy and age appropriate. Orange and red light sexual behaviours are less common however children with disability, those that have experienced abuse or other disruptions to their development may be more vulnerable to developing, or being exposed to, concerning or harmful sexual behaviour (True 2012; Brennan & Graham 2012).    

Responding positively

Early childhood teachers, parents and carers can provide an environment where children feel safe and comfortable to discuss sexual matters with adults they know and trust. Talking accurately and clearly, feeling confident and comfortable and approaching sexuality and sexual behaviours in a positive and respectful way will contribute greatly to children’s sense of self and help protect their personal safety (Dillman Taylor & Munyon, 2016) ). It is also important to be familiar with child protection legislation and organisation policies and procedures for support and guidance when responding to children’s sexual behaviours.

Accessing professional development opportunities, resources and support from colleagues are all important components to helping children to be healthy and safe, along with being inclusive and affirming diversity and communicating with parents and carers about they ways in which bodies, relationships and sexuality is addressed in the early childhood setting (True 2009). Important concepts for young children are feelings, bodies and privacy, types of touch, rules about touch, early warning signs, what to do and who to tell and there are many resources available to assist (True 2007).

Learning about sexuality also occurs in early childhood teacher’s everyday interactions with children in a number of ways including modelling respectful relationships, using correct names for private body parts, providing opportunities for children to develop and practice interpersonal skills and helping children to communicate their feelings assertively (True 2009). Early childhood teachers have the opportunity to respond positively to children’s sexual behaviours and development which enhances children’s safety, self esteem, health and knowledge.


Brennan, H & Graham, J 2012, Is this Normal? Understanding your child’s sexual behaviour, True Relationships & Reproductive Health, Brisbane.

Child at Risk Assessment Unit 2000, Age Appropriate Sexual Play and Behaviour in Children, Canberra: Australian Capital Territory Government Community Care, pp. 5-11.

True Relationships & Reproductive Health 2007, Communicating about sexuality with children, True Relationships & Reproductive Health, Brisbane.

True Relationships & Reproductive Health 2009, Where do I Start? Supporting healthy sexual development in early childhood: A guide for early childhood services,True Relationships & Reproductive Health, Brisbane. Retrieved from

True Relationships & Reproductive Health 2012, Sexual behaviours in children and young people: A guide to identify, understand and respond to sexual behaviours, True Relationships & Reproductive Health, Brisbane. Retrieved from

Finkelhor, D 2007, ‘Prevention of sexual abuse through educational programs directed toward children’, Pediatrics, vol 120, pp. 640-645.

Kirby, D 2001, Emerging answers: Research findings on programs to reduce teen pregnancy, National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Washington.

Queensland Crime Commission & Queensland Police Service 2000, Project Axis: Child sexual abuse in Queensland: The nature and extent, Queensland Crime Commission, Brisbane.

Rowley, T 2007, Everyone’s got a bottom, True Relationships & Reproductive Health, Brisbane.

Sanderson, J 2004, Child focused sexual abuse prevention programs: How effective are they in preventing abuse?, Crime and Misconduct Commission Queensland, Brisbane.

True Relationships and Reproductive Health is the leading provider of relationships and sexuality education (RSE) services in Queensland. True produce evidenced based, award winning resources and training programs that increase children’s safety and promote healthy sexual development.

Angela Wunsch is the Early Childhood and Parenting Education Coordinator at True and has over 12 years' experience working with children and families and she has a special interest in the area of early childhood.

Published with permission:

Wunsch, A., & Moran, C. (2018). Traffic Lights: Understanding healthy sexual development and protecting children from harm. Educating Young Children: Learning and Teaching in the Early Childhood Years, 24(3), 24.

Breuner, C. C., Mattson, G., Child, C. o. P. A. o., & Health, F. (2016). Sexuality education for children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 138(2), e20161348.

Campbell, C., Mallappa, A., Wisniewski, A. B., & Silovsky, J. F. (2013). Sexual behavior of prepubertal children. In Handbook of Child and Adolescent Sexuality (pp. 145-170): Elsevier.

Dillman Taylor, D., & Munyon, M. D. (2016). A Child Counselor’s Guide to Help Parents Discuss Sex in Developmentally Appropriate Ways With Children Ages 3 to 9. Journal of Child and Adolescent Counseling, 2(1), 42-60.

Robinson, K. H. (2013). Innocence, knowledge and the construction of childhood: The contradictory nature of sexuality and censorship in children’s contemporary lives: Routledge.