Preparing for kindergarten? Me too! This year, I will begin my 12th year of teaching young children and will be heading back to the kindergarten classroom after spending the last year substitute teaching across the age span. I feel excited, nervous and a little overwhelmed.
You may be feeling some of these same things as you prepare your child to start kindergarten. You may be flooded with questions, concerns and emotions. You may be thinking it’s time to buy a 300-page workbook and cram your 5-year-old’s brain with something all summer to get them ready. Think again! There are way more fun and developmentally appropriate ways to help ensure they start the year off with their best foot forward.
Create a reading ritual
You may already be doing this without even knowing that it’s one of the most important ways to prepare children for kindergarten. Reading aloud to children is one of the leading determinants of children becoming strong readers during their school-age years. Reading three stories a day for at least 15 minutes helps children develop and understand language, begin to decode their surroundings and understand social problems that occur frequently in stories.
Creating a predictable ritual around reading shows children that reading is valued and deepens the connection between parent and child. If you don’t already have a bedtime reading ritual, consider starting one. Let your child pick the book or books, and you pick one, too. This can help make bedtimes predictable, ease power struggles that may arise and set a calm and connected tone for your children before they drift off to sleep. In addition to a bedtime reading ritual, use reading together to help reset your child’s brain and your relationship throughout the day. The loving connection that develops around reading together can have lasting effects on the parent-child bond as well as the child’s school success.
Practical writing practice
It’s OK if your child is still learning to write before they enter kindergarten; this is part of what kindergarten is for. Some of the first writing they learn in kindergarten is how to write their name. You can practice this at home with writing utensils, writing in the sand with a stick, letting your child trace their name written in chalk with a wet paintbrush, or a million other creative ideas.
Young children are still building the muscles in their hands that allow them to grip a pencil and write successfully. Playing with play dough, picking up items with small tongs, painting with different types of brushes, coloring and drawing all help strengthen these small muscles and help develop the fine-motor control children need for handwriting.
Development of these muscles varies widely in children ages 3-6 — some may be navigating how to grip a marker or pencil, while others can begin to write on their own. Encouraging your children when they use emergent writing (scribbles) can help them see themselves as a writer. Ask your child to tell you about their work and writing, or have them dictate a story to you that they can illustrate.
If your child is interested in learning more about writing, offer support with practical life writing activities. Have them help you write the grocery list or the weekly meal plan. Children can make signs for plants or objects around the house by copying the letters from a reference sheet.
One of my favorite ways to write with children is to create love notes and artwork for family and friends. Drawing a picture and helping your child label “to” and “from” can give meaningful writing practice.
I cannot stress this enough. Play with your child! Play is the work of children and is the way they make meaning of the world around them. Board games, card games, Legos, Magna-Tiles and blocks all help facilitate mathematical thinking, strategy and planning. Simple games like Go Fish, Uno, Candy Land, checkers and Spot It! can help build number sense, spatial awareness and skills for comparison and measurement.
Games like hopscotch can be made with letters or numbers and incorporate large-muscle development. Pretend play with dress up, stuffed animals or dolls can help children create their own stories, act out stories they’ve heard and make meaning. Create a play of your family’s favorite book. Craft some simple costumes or puppets and have a narrator read the story, or just make it up as you go.
Share family stories
Sharing oral stories with children can prepare them for listening and sharing ideas in class. Look through some family photos together or make a slideshow of photos from a favorite trip and talk about where you were, who you were with and what you did. Teaching children to “read the pictures” is a helpful tool for raising strong readers.
Sharing family stories not only deepens the family bond and creates connection, but it also helps children develop their sense of identity. You can print photos and create books of favorite people, places, foods or anything you can think of. Your child can help label the pictures or decorate the pages, and then you can add these homemade books into your bedtime reading rituals.
Promote their autonomy
One of the scariest parts of sending a child off to school is the idea that they will be more on their own, and you won’t likely be there to help. First of all, don’t worry! We teachers will be there to care for, love and help your child throughout the school day.
However, you can prepare your child for this new level of responsibility by helping build autonomy. Let your child pick out clothes and get dressed (even if shoes go on the opposite feet). Let them be in charge of basic hygiene tasks like brushing their teeth and washing their hair and body in the bath. You can absolutely support them as they’re learning to do these things on their own, but as time goes on, they will become more and more independent with these tasks and more responsible for themselves. This will prepare your whole family for success in the morning as you get ready for and transition to school and work.
Kindergarteners love to help! Giving them fun ways to be of service around the house can help them build responsibility and independence. Have your child help prepare parts of meals, pick out and pack lunches or do some simple cleaning around the house. Jobs like sweeping, washing dishes, tidying toys and folding towels and clothes are absolutely appropriate for 5- and 6-year-olds. Make these jobs fun, and do them together. Put on some fun music as you clean or make up a song and work together, especially in the beginning as they are learning.
Helping kindergarteners be self-starters and persevere through simple tasks will develop focus and resilience and prepare them for a future of independent school work and homework.
Make things visual
This is one of the most helpful tips I have learned in my years working with young children: Their brains think in pictures, not in words. Making tasks and routines visible in pictures can relieve a lot of the stress of constant reminders and help children be more independent.
Take photos of your child (or use clip art) of each step of the process of the task, and create a chart on the wall or a small book for reference. For example, the before-school routine might look like this: 1. Eat breakfast 2. Brush teeth 3. Get dressed 4. Pack backpack 5. Put on shoes 6. Drive to school. To help children take charge of their own morning routine and limit power struggles, creating a wall chart or book of what to do and what it looks like can help children begin to manage their own behavior and responsibilities. You can do this with any task or any routine where power struggles are happening: the steps of brushing teeth, bedtime routine, cleaning up, etc.
Build trust and connection and deepen the family bond
Children are very aware and observant. With everything happening in the world right now and as we wait for more details about what schooling will look like in the fall, reassure your child (and yourself) that however school looks, you will make the choices that are best for your family.
Try not to dwell in worries. Offering a time of the day to do a “worry dump” can help — a 10-30 minute session where your family talks about what they’re worried about without trying to fix or make it better. Children overhear conversations and sense your worries. Addressing them as a family can help create a safe space for children to share discomfort in the future.
Once more information about what schooling will look like in the fall becomes available, share it with your children. Set them up for success by giving them information and creating a plan. Find time throughout the day to read, play, sing and cook together with your child. A connected child is a child who is ready to learn.
Over my years of teaching, I have met many parents who were worried about whether or not their child would be ready for kindergarten. Something I tell parents often is that we’re all in this together. We are here to work together in the best interest of the children and find ways to help them be kind, safe, connected and successful. If you want your child to learn some academic skills before their first day of kindergarten, keep it fun! Play and read as many books as you can. Spend time together, listen to your child and strengthen your family bond. This is the ultimate preparation for a successful school career.