Kindergarten has my heart. Entering “big” school is a momentous transition. Some of my favorite teaching years were at this lovable, messy, talkative (and exhausting) level. As a parent, though, the buildup to sending your child out into the wide world of formal schooling can spark significant anxiety. I’ve sent three of my own kids to kindergarten and soon will send a fourth, yet I still mentally replay that loaded question each time: “Are they ready?”
Here’s what my teacher-self tells my parent-self to quiet those nerves: First, kids enter kindergarten in various developmental places, and it’s a teacher’s job to meet them where they are. More importantly, “ready” for kindergarten doesn’t mean knowing everything on a kindergarten skills checklist. It means being ready to learn them when they are taught — along with all the other wonderful things that can’t be distilled into bullet points. If families focus on creating a solid foundation for teachers to build on, we set our kids up for the joyful transition they deserve.
Here are four doable, productive ways to channel that getting-ready-for-kindergarten energy if you’ve got it — and four things you can give yourself permission not to worry about.
1. Instead of worrying about school behaviors, focus on building independence and social skills.
Your child doesn’t need to learn to raise their hand or walk in a line at home because they’ll learn that stuff alongside their classmates when they get to school. But, it’s wise to teach them a few things that will help them function in a group without as much adult availability. For instance, you could help your kiddo practice:
- Using the bathroom from start to finish without help (If you do nothing else, just do this!)
- Introducing themselves with first and last name
- Following directions about getting and putting away their things (Bonus points for finding their nametag on a hook or bin)
- Opening lunch and snack items or politely asking and waiting for help
- Etiquette for sharing communal supplies, like asking for a turn without grabbing and noticing when someone else is waiting
2. Instead of worrying about how high your child can count or whether they know any math facts, focus on having informal math “conversations.”
Today’s math standards ask kids to talk about their math thinking; this is more than just memorizing counting sequences or facts. If you build up kids’ “math talking muscles,” teachers can expand on these habits at school. For instance:
- Read and talk about the pictures in counting books
- Play dice or card games and talk about ways to recognize amounts, like “Look, five on this die is four corners of a square plus one in the middle.”
- Talk about “more than” and “less than” in household situations and how you know which are which
3. Instead of “quizzing” kids on letters and high-frequency words, focus on enjoyable exposure (even if you’re the one doing the work).
Pre-kindergarten is a fantastic time to give kids a peek at the incredible world of reading and writing — it gets kids eager to join the literacy club and primes them to soak up formal school instruction. Resist the urge to “test” your kids or ask them to show off their letter and word knowledge as a prep method. Instead, aim for low-key modeling. For instance:
- Read alphabet books and point out uppercase and lowercase letters, sounds they make, and words that start with those sounds
- Talk about “concepts about print” — how books work — as you read aloud by pointing out the title and author of a book, moving your finger left to right as you read, or pointing out a particular word or letter on the page
- Write down meaningful things in front of your child — like a sticky note reminder to “Buy more ice cream!” or a note to another caregiver, “Please don’t move this LEGO project!”
4. Instead of worrying about teaching specific facts, build kids’ knowledge about the world in ways that interest them.
Background knowledge and the language acquisition that comes with it are crucial for school success. It helps with reading comprehension, science and social studies content learning, and even kids’ capacity to empathize with others. The more kids know about the world, the more connection points they have available for school learning. Easy ways to build kids’ background knowledge include:
- Orchestrate experiences like projects, trips, outings, walks, or pretend play (These experiences have even more power when you talk about them afterward.)
- Practicing oral storytelling — like calling Grandma to tell her everything that happened on your family hike — is the best preparation for writing with lots of detail
- Read and talk about nonfiction books or stories about a variety of topics
- Ask open-ended questions at meals or on car rides like, “What’s your favorite season, and why?” Have kids practice answering and listening to others’ responses
Getting ready for kindergarten doesn’t have to be about checking skills off a list. Reframing our thinking to focus on foundation-building is less stressful for adults and kids alike.