Wondering what your child will learn in preschool—and if it’ll be enough to get her ready for kindergarten? Especially today, when you hear about preschoolers who can read and solve math problems, it’s natural to worry. But don’t whip out the flashcards just yet. Your child’s preschool teacher will likely focus on—and your child’s kindergarten teacher will expect her to have—certain building blocks for learning rather than specific skills.
These building blocks are interrelated and can vary somewhat, but they generally fall into the following categories.
While it’s commonly academics that parents worry about, “they’re secondary to social and emotional readiness,” stresses Nancy Cappelloni, author of Kindergarten Readiness (Corwin, 2013). Cappelloni’s research finds that kindergarten teachers want to see that their incoming students can follow directions, get along with others, share, and cooperate. An inability to do these things will ultimately impede any learning, Cappelloni explains.
How will your child’s preschool help him develop these skills? According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), strategies include setting up group projects, helping students resolve conflicts verbally, and creating plenty of opportunities for children to take turns.
How you can help: Playing board games is a great way to help your preschooler get used to waiting his turn (and be a graceful winner and loser).
Arrange playdates and interact with the kids in the beginning, then separate yourself when they appear comfortable, advises Laura Fischer, who has taught kindergarten in New Jersey for 16 years and co-authored the Metuchen School District’s “Kindergarten Readiness” packet.
Help your child resolve conflicts that arise during those playdates or with siblings by talking about what happened and seeing if the kids involved can come up with a fair solution. Talk about how other people might feel in a given situation so that your child gets used to considering other people’s feelings.
There are some specific skills your child should learn in preschool, like recognizing most or all of the letters of the alphabet and numbers to 10, writing her name, and counting to 20. She should learn to categorize, understand patterns, and know her shapes and colors. It’s not necessary for her to know how to read, but she should graduate from preschool with what Cappelloni calls “book awareness”: how to hold books, turn their pages in the right direction, and talk about the stories they tell. Her teacher will likely read a variety of books out loud, including rhyming ones, which naturally teach kids to hear distinctions and patterns in language sounds.
Math and science generally are taught through hands-on experiences. For example, sand and water play and construction with blocks help kids grasp concepts like volume and balance. A pretend grocery store introduces money concepts.
How you can help: The best thing you can do is make a game of learning, says Michelle Smith, who taught early education in New Jersey for 20 years. When you take your child to the supermarket, suggests Smith, “ask, ‘Can you find any packages with the letter ‘c?’”
Fischer echoes this point: “Count as you walk up stairs, count pennies, count blocks… Read rhyming books and leave off the rhymes at the end to see if your child can figure out the missing word.”
Playing letter and number games—like Go Fish and Bingo—also helps, says Fischer. When you play board games like Chutes and Ladders, let your child count the spaces. Most importantly, keep in mind that experts and teachers alike emphasize that no set of skills is as vital as instilling in your child a love of learning. So go to the library and borrow books on subjects your child finds interesting. (Fischer recommends reading to your child at least 20 minutes a day.) Ask questions to help foster her curiosity, and encourage her to ask questions, too. Show your child that reading is enjoyable by doing lots of it yourself (and not just from a screen!).
Expect your child’s preschool to teach him to cut with scissors, write his name using top-to-bottom strokes, and hold his pencil properly with a three-or four-finger grip. “As a kindergarten teacher, I’d rather have a child who never picked up a pencil than one used to holding it incorrectly,” says Smith.
How you can help: Insist on proper grip and encourage play that strengthens little hand muscles, like Legos, Play-Doh, dot-to-dots, and stenciling. Other fun things to try are popping bubbles with a toothpick, squeezing wet sponges to fill a cup with water, and doing finger rhymes, says Fischer.
Through circle time, reading to the class, and other such activities, your child’s teacher will help ensure she can sit still and listen for 10–15 minutes. The teacher will give two-step directions and create classroom routines and rules so that kids are comfortable with the idea of them.
How you can help: At dinnertime, have each person talk about his or her day and make sure your child quietly listens when it’s someone else’s turn, suggests Fischer. Give your child two-step directions (e.g., “Get your shoes from your closet and put them on”) and expect her to follow them without repeating yourself more than once, says Cappelloni.
Being in kindergarten all day (or half a day) will be easier for your child if he can zip his own zippers, put on his coat, and use the bathroom independently. Most importantly, you and your child’s teacher can encourage him to attempt new tasks without getting upset if he doesn’t succeed right away. That’s a skill that will serve him well in kindergarten—and beyond.
Renée Sagiv Riebling is a Middlesex County mom of two. Her youngest child starts kindergarten this month.