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Even if your child has been around the preschool block, kindergarten is a big deal. Beyond being separated for hours at a stretch (the heartache! the joy!), your child will have expectations to meet and standards to master. “Kindergarten today is what first grade was 20 years ago,” says Marcy Guddemi, PhD, executive director of the Gesell Institute of Child Development in New Haven, Conn.
Read on for expert tips for fostering the best kind of “kinder-readiness”—but don’t worry if your child hasn’t mastered all of them by the first day of school. Guddemi insists that learning happens at different rates for different kids, and the best thing you can do for your child at this age is to encourage a love of learning. Hint: It’s all about cultivating confidence and independence at this point.
1. Encourage curiosity. Kids need to build something experts call “executive functioning,” which is a fancy way of describing a skill set that includes making decisions, multi-tasking and being persistent. “The way to foster executive functioning is through creative play,” Guddemi says. To do it, turn off the TV and electronic games, and get out some blocks or Legos and practice building a city, or role-play scenarios like restaurant or doctor. Letting your child guide the play shows her that you have confidence in her decision-making skills, something she’ll need in the K classroom and beyond.
2. Practice writing his name. Sure, he’s not going to fail kindergarten if he can’t string those four or nine letters together, but think of the confidence boost he’ll get if he can, says Amy Mascott, literacy consultant, reading specialist and creator of teachmama.com. Strive for legibility, not perfection. He’ll have plenty of time to finesse his work once school starts.
3. Begin learning about letters. Recognizing letters is the first step of reading readiness; understanding the sound each one makes is the next (often harder) leap. Mascott recommends fun learning games like Alphabet Hide-and-Seek. To play, make 26 simple flash cards, one for each letter. “Hide” them around the house, and have your child call out the letters as he finds them. As he does, talk with him about the sound that letter makes. Once the entire alphabet has been found, help him arrange the letters train-style in order on the floor.
4. Master a few sight words. “Sight words” are used frequently and are often difficult to sound out (think: she, said, my, have, here, been, was), so kindergarten curriculums focus on teaching kids to recognize them on sight. You can get a head start by pointing out these words as you read together, or playing any number of games that Mascott lists on her website, teachmama.com.
5. Start nailing numbers. Nobody is suggesting advanced calculus lessons here (well, maybe Tiger Mom would), but “it’s important for kids to be exposed to math concepts and have a general number sense before kindergarten,” says Mascott. The easiest intro is to incorporate math into everyday activities: Count steps as you walk, point out birds in the sky and count them together, or count beans or coins as you sort them. You’ll be amazed at how quickly she picks up mad math skills.
6. Practice making decisions. Any type of creative play involves constant decision-making, explains Guddemi. What should the princess be named? How big should the castle be? Where should the moat go? When you walk to the park together, ask your child to lead the way, or to decide what to do with the caterpillar you find on the sidewalk. Kids learn best when parents model creativity and out-of-the-box thinking -- not in isolated activities but as part of your everyday life, says Guddemi.
7. Understand how books work. Experts agree that nothing fosters a love of lifelong learning like early and frequent exposure to the written word. By kindergarten, your child should know how to hold a book upright and turn the pages, as well as recognize the front, back and where the story starts. “At a young age, children think the story is told through the pictures, not the squiggles that go along with them,” says Guddemi. Point out the title and the author each time you read, and follow the words with your finger so she starts to make the connection. It may take a while to click, Guddemi adds, but with repetition, it undoubtedly will.
8. Work on some self-sufficiency skills. Even if your kid lives in Crocs or flip-flops, his self-esteem will skyrocket if he can tie a pair of shoe laces on his own, says Mascott. Likewise, he should be able to zip up a jacket and button his pants after he uses the potty, for the sake of both confidence and convenience. (Plus, the teachers will love you for raising a can-do kid.)
9. Master eating with utensils. In some countries, children and adults eat with their hands, but in American schools, kids are expected to have what are known as social/cultural skills, which include the ability to wield a fork/spoon. Even if you insist on proper utensil use at mealtime, most kids will revert to their fingers if left to their own devices. Persistence eventually pays off, so talk about proper usage and reward mastery and consistency.
10. Get the lay of the land. No matter how independent your kid may be, there’s bound to be some separation anxiety on that first day of drop-off. To mitigate some of the misery, you can visit the school in advance, meet the teachers and take pictures featuring your child in the school setting. Hang one prominently in the kitchen and start a calendar count-down. “All of these things will lessen the separation trauma,” Guddemi says.
11. Memorize their vitals. Now’s a great time to work with your child on remembering her first and last name, address and phone number. (Surely she knows her name, but she may not know, for example, that her last name starts with a C, which might be the way she’s identified in class if there’s another child who shares her first name.) Learning her address will be a simple matter of repetition, while a song can help her remember her phone number. Mascott recommends plugging the digits into the tune of “Frere Jacques.”
12. Practice sitting still. The general rule of thumb is to double a child’s age for the number of minutes they should (roughly) be able to sit still. (So a two-year-old can be expected not to wiggle for four minutes; a four-year-old for eight.) “You don’t learn to sit still—you develop other functions that allow you to decide to sit still,” Guddemi explains. “It’s a critical difference.” To hone this skill, practice playing school with your child, gradually increasing the lesson times. She may not become a zen master, but at least she’ll get some composure practice.
13. Get physical. Kindergarten is hard work—as much for little bodies as little brains. “The term we use is whole child development, which includes physical, cognitive, social and emotional components,” says Guddemi. For the physical part, kids need to run and climb and, occasionally, fall (think: cause and effect). “There’s a connection between all four aspects of development,” Guddemi explains. Ignoring any one puts the others at risk of underdevelopment as well.
14. Find some familiar faces. Making the break that first day will be a heck of a lot easier for both of you if she’s got a friend or two to cling to in class. Mascott suggests organizing a park playdate and posting the details on a community message board (like ParentClick, Craigslist or similar). Try your own variation of this: “Attention, Mountain View parents! Let’s get the kindergarten class together before school starts. Plan to meet at [this park] on [this date] at [this time]. Bring snacks, toys and siblings, and feel free to pass this information along to any kindergarten families you know.” Who know? You might even make a new friend or two yourself.
15. Work on listening skills. In school, she’ll be expected to pay attention to her teacher’s directions. Help her master this skill by giving her fun tasks to complete after following a series of clear directions. Mascott points out that kids hear plenty of commands such as “clean up your room” and “pick up those wet towels.” You might get more engagement (and compliance) if you add things like “please make both of us a huge bowl of ice cream” or “can you teach me how to play Mario Kart?” to your daily to-do lists.
16. Practice story-telling. Help your child master the concept of “beginning, middle and end” by creating stories together. You can cut pictures from magazines or catalogs and come up with a logical story line together to craft a personalized book your child will cherish.
17. Back off a bit. If you’re the sort of parent who’s always leading every game or hovering nearby to make sure he does things “right,” now’s the time to start giving him a little space. “Kindergarten is a big step, and our kids need to know that we have confidence in their success,” says Mascott. It may not be easy, but letting him play independently is one of the greatest get-ready gifts you can give him right now.
18. Practice cooperation. Being able to take turns and work as part of a team are skills learned through practice. If your child has no siblings or didn’t attend preschool, she may find the ideas of waiting her turn or sharing fun new playthings to be totally exotic. Enlisting her help with simple tasks such as table-setting or cooking and encouraging family members to take turns talking about their days at the dinner table will help her become more patient and cooperative.
19. Read, read, read and then read some more. The key difference between adult readers and non-readers is whether they were read to as a child. “We’ve looked at MRIs of the brain to show this is fact and not just anecdotal,” Guddemi adds. So read constantly, and not just books: the cereal box, the shampoo bottle, the pasta-cooking instructions. Exposure to all manner of literature is the simplest way to create a reader for life.
20. Let her fail. The hardest part of parenting is allowing your child to feel pain—but allow it you must, or she’ll never learn how to cope with hardship on her own, says Mascott. Tiny changes will make this transition easier: Let her run to you with the skinned knee before you run to her; have her explain to her piano teacher why you’re late instead of doing all of the talking; don’t bring a back-up pair of goggles to the swim meet if she was expected to remember herself. “Children flourish when you show them you trust in them and believe in their ability to bounce back,” says Mascott.
Jenna McCarthy is an internationally published writer, TED speaker and the author of five books including If It Was Easy They'd Call the Whole Damn Thing a Honeymoon: Living with and Loving the TV-Addicted, Sex-Obsessed, Not-so-handy Man You Married (Berkley Books, 2011). Find her at JennaMcCarthy.com, Twitter and Google +.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.