From ages 2 to 5, kids make big leaps in all areas of development. At age 2, they begin to expand their vocabulary as they associate sounds with objects (“brown cow”). By age 5, they’ll be able to string complete sentences together and use words in different contexts (“I saw a brown cow on my Grandma’s farm and at the zoo, too.”) Preschool helps bridge those gaps and paves the way for kindergarten and beyond.
“Preschool is an environment in which kids have the opportunity to use language in many different ways with others who are at the same developmental age,” says Jennifer Kurumada Chuang, the site supervisor at Maple Avenue Preschool in Los Angeles. But, overall, preschool helps young, naturally egocentric kids learn how to exist with others in a classroom. “Preschoolers learn how take turns, follow directions, pick up after themselves, stand in line, sit in a circle, raise their hand, use their words to express themselves instead of physically acting out and talk when it’s appropriate,” Kurumada Chuang says. “If they master those social skills in preschool, they’re ready to learn in kindergarten.”
Your child’s preschool experiences can set the tone beyond kindergarten too. To help your child prepare for preschool and reinforce the lessons he learns there, here’s the homework you can do that can make all the difference.
Read, read, read to your child. “Being read to is the single most consistent and reliable predictor of academic success later in life,” says Kurumada Chuang. She recommends reading to your child for 20 minutes every night at bedtime. While you’re at it, stop every so often and ask your child a question about the story before turning the page, such as: “Gosh, why do you think she was sad?” or “What do you think is going to happen next?” Making reading interactive makes it more fun and helps build your child’s comprehension skills.
Help your child learn to follow directions. To help your child get the hang of following directions, practice at home by giving simple commands, such as “Please help me pick up your toys and put them in the toy box.” Then, encourage your child to follow through by offering an incentive to do whatever it is you’re asking. Tell your child that he can play outside once he’s finished putting his toys away. An incentive helps him understand that following directions makes other fun activities possible. If he doesn’t follow your directions and, for example, put his toys away, calmly explain that he won’t be able to play with those toys for the rest of the day or go to the park. Keep it positive by focusing on how clean the playroom will look when you’re done. Then praise him when he’s successful. “You followed my directions so well. Thank you for helping me put your toys in the toy box like I asked you to! That was so helpful.”
Help your child master sharing and taking turns. From ages 3 to 5, children tend to hoard coveted toys and objects. They’re not really ready to grasp the concept of sharing yet. But you can help your youngster practice by having him take turns with toys and encouraging him when he shares on his own. To help him develop the empathy that true sharing requires, state what he did and how it makes others feel, such as: “Thank you for sharing. It makes your sister feel good when you share the ball.” Your child should be able to “own” special or new toys, though, so keep them out of sight on play dates or in his room away from siblings.
By kindergarten, children are capable of sharing well and taking turns. If your child isn’t there yet, help him get the hang of it by inviting a friend over for a cooperative task such as baking cookies. If things aren’t going well, calmly ask him to sit out. Pretty soon, he’ll get the idea and want to join in on the fun again. You can also read your child books about sharing and discuss them. In the classic tale, Stone Soup, retold by Heather Forest, for example, two hungry travelers make soup from ingredients that everyone in the town contributes. What makes it extra delicious is the sharing it took to make it.
Help your child make friends. If you get the sense your child needs a little help in the social department, try hosting play dates with others your child likes or with whom she has common interests. Play dates offer an opportunity to break away from the group and foster individual friendships. You might begin by asking your child, for example: “How about a play date with Grace? I notice that she likes to draw, too.” If you’re not sure which friend to invite over first, ask your child’s preschool teacher if there’s anyone in the classroom who might be a good match for your child. Then, feel free to go from there and make the rounds so that your child gets the chance to know several children better.
To help your child play hostess, let her pick the snack and ask her beforehand what games and activities she and her friend might like to do. On the play date, feel free to play along and stay close by to make sure everyone stays safe. But give your child and her friend the chance to play on their own, too. To help things go smoothly, keep play dates to two hours; children start to get tired after that. And keep it simple by inviting just one child over at a time.
Hone your child’s listening skills. At the dinner table and during car rides, help your preschooler hone her listening skills by asking her to wait to speak until her brother has finished his sentence. When it’s her turn, remind her, “Now it’s your turn to talk. Thank you for being patient and for being such a good listener while your brother was talking.” Explain that being a good listener shows respect for the speaker, whether it’s her brother or her teacher and the other students at school who are trying to hear what the teacher has to say. Mention that it’s a two-way street: When she’s a good listener, she’s showing the same kind of respect that she gets when others listen to her. If she continues to interrupt, keep reminding her that she’ll get the chance to talk. Becoming a good listener, like many things, can take lots of practice.
Manage morning madness. To help your child get to school on time and make drop-off easier, try doing what you can the night before, when you have more time to think the next day through. For example, fill out permission slips, write any notes to the teacher and checks for preschool and put them in your child’s backpack. Have your child take her bath or shower too. You can even set the table for breakfast and take out the breakfast cereal, if you want to. You could also check the weather forecast and let your youngster set out the next day’s outfit. Give her choices: “Do you want to wear the striped shirt or the orange one? Your blue jeans or sweat pants?”
“Get your kids invested in the process with age-appropriate tasks,” says Mary Robbins, a licensed clinical social worker in Orange, Connecticut. To encourage your preschooler to begin to do these things on her own, praise her for a job well done, such as: “Wow! You picked your outfit by yourself? You’re getting to be such a big girl!” As your child masters one task, add another. Eventually, she can help you pack her snack and her lunch the night before. Also, establish a morning routine and stick to it. It might be: wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, have a short playtime together, double check the backpack, and leave the house.
Structured routines give children a sense of control. When they know what’s coming next, they’re less likely to procrastinate or become anxious about going to school. Make a morning-routine poster for your family and put it in a common area, such as on your fridge. The poster should outline the order of tasks such as dressing, eating breakfast, putting on shoes and socks and brushing hair and teeth. Use pictures to convey the message.
If your child dawdles even with a set routine, move his wake-up by 15 minutes instead of trying to get him to conform to your schedule. Also, make sure he gets to bed early enough so he’s more apt to be up-and-at-’em in the morning. Preschoolers need 10 to 12 hours of shut-eye. Also, be on time yourself. If you still need more time in the morning, set your alarm 15 minutes earlier so everyone can get ready at a leisurely pace. Going into preschool late causes drama that can upset kids.
Keep your drop-off departure short and sweet. Say goodbye calmly, tell your child when you’ll be back to pick him up (such as after lunch or his nap). And make sure you’re there on time for pick-up as promised.