The stress of back-to-school shopping and making the transition from lazy summer days to early rising is still a few months away, but if your kid is kindergarten-bound, it's normal to be worrying already. While you may wonder if your child is equipped for the new challenges, don't stress. "Children learn at different rates, so resist making comparisons with your child's friends (such as 'Should my child be able to count as high as her playmate can?')," says Robin Macon, preschool director at Ingomar Child Enrichment Center near Pittsburgh. "It's important to remember that the skills she needs will click when your child is ready." However, experts agree that there are certain things you can do now to give your child a head start once she starts school, and everyday activities at home can offer endless teaching moments. Try these tips to send your child off for her first day with confidence.
Reading and Language Skills
While most schools won't expect kids to be able to read independently at the start of kindergarten, your child should be able to recognize uppercase letters, rhyme, and describe a basic plot. Even reading a three-minute story every night can help enhance his comprehension skills. But how you read can determine how much he takes away. "Research has shown that having a conversation with your child while you're reading can further increase his language development," says Julie Corsaro, past president of the Association for Library Service to Children. Try asking him questions to draw out his opinions and deeper thinking. For example, a bedtime book of Happy Birthday, Moon can turn into a discussion about friendship ("Why do you think Bear wanted to give a present to Moon?"). You can also swap roles and let your child "read" the book to you by using the illustrations as a guide for what's happening in the story.
IN THE BACKYARD
Exploring the outdoors is the perfect way to instill a love of science. Start with fun nature observations, such as this "Seed Soar" activity from It's a Jungle Out There! 52 Nature Adventures for City Kids, by Jennifer Ward: Find a place with lots of trees, flowers, or shrubs and look for seeds gliding by in the air. Some will spin from trees while others, like fluffy dandelion seeds, will slowly float along. After you catch some, take a magnifying glass and look at the seeds. Explain to your child that plants are spreading their seeds to help more grow. To foster her interest in science, be enthusiastic yourself and model curiosity. "Watch a snail crawl across the sidewalk together and wonder about how it lives in a shell, for example," Ward says.
IN THE KITCHEN
Before it's time to board the school bus, your child should know how to count to 20 and identify simple shapes. Cooking together offers lots of hands-on lessons in math. Give your kid tasks that involve counting ("Can you put 12 cupcake liners in the tray?"), or use recipes to help him identify numbers ("Can you find how many eggs we need to put in the pancakes?"). And while you cook, practice using sequencing ("First, we pour the flour in the bowl. Second, we add the vegetable oil"). Not only are you helping your preschooler master math skills and follow directions, but you're also helping to build a sense of responsibility, says Bonnie Getkin, assistant preschool director at Ingomar Child Enrichment Center.
Kids who have trouble controlling their emotions or behavior won't adjust to a classroom environment as quickly. But play at home can help preschoolers practice etiquette that will be necessary for success in kindergarten -- such as taking turns, sharing, and following directions. "These skills don't come naturally to 3- and 4-year-olds, but playing group games can go a long way toward building confidence and developing their social skills," explains Kathy Baldwin, a licensed clinical social worker and former special-education teacher in Abingdon, Virginia. She suggests classics such as hide-and-seek to practice taking turns. During playdates, point your child in the right direction when there's a conflict. If she's hogging a toy, you could say, "Lisa wants to play with the teddy bear too; let's set a timer for five minutes and when it goes off, we'll give her a turn." The more you can help promote her sense of self-control and empathy now, the better her kindergarten experience will be.
Originally published in the May 2012 issue of Parents magazine.