Get Your Toddler Ready to Go Back to School

These summertime activities will help your little one get ready for the first day.
Bryan McCay

We all love a carefree summer. But the transition to a structured school day in the fall won't be quite as big a shock to your child if you begin a routine and integrate learning into her day now, suggests Amy Susman-Stillman, Ph.D., codirector of the Center for Early Education and Development at the University of Minnesota, in St. Paul. Whether your 3- or 4-year-old is going to preschool for the first time or returning for another year, try these simple ways to make the shift to the classroom a smooth one.

Help Him Speak Up

It's one thing for your child to tell you he wants a snack or needs to go to the bathroom. It's another for him to communicate with a teacher while 15 other kids are running around. "Try role-playing situations that will come up during the school day with your child," says Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., author of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids. "You want your child to feel comfortable saying, 'I have to go to the potty,' or 'I need help.'" It's also important for your little one to learn to express his feelings. If he can say, 'I'm frustrated because ...' or 'I'm angry because ...' that's better than hitting a classmate.

Set the Stage

Even if your child attended preschool last year, summer break can seem like an eternity at this age. So in the weeks before school begins, start talking about what her new routine will be like. "You don't need to be over-the-top excited, but you do want your child to feel good about school," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "Let her pick out a backpack and a lunch box, walk or drive by the school, and read books about it." Some good choices: Llama Llama Misses Mama, The Kissing Hand, Maisy Goes to Preschool, Preschool Day Hooray, Chu's First Day of School, and I Love You All Day Long.

Go Letter Crazy

Just because your child can sing his ABCs doesn't mean he knows his letters -- it means he memorized a song, says Krista Guarini, a preschool teacher in Darien, Connecticut. To help him become more familiar with the letters he'll start seeing every day in the classroom, try this exercise: Write each letter on an index card, mix them up on the floor, then see if your child can arrange them from A to Z. "You can help him by putting out every fourth letter and encouraging him to fill in the blanks," suggests Guarini. With repetition he'll soon become familiar with the order. Keep in mind that by age 4 most preschools expect a child to recognize his name, and will encourage him to start writing it. Make this activity fun by writing it in chalk on the sidewalk or with a stick in the sand.

Work Those Little Fingers

Preschool calls for more use of kids' fine motor skills. Monica Patton, of Decatur, Georgia, says her daughter, Thali, struggled with this, so they set up activities to challenge her. "We'd string beads and macaroni or I'd give her tweezers and have her pick up art supplies like pom-poms and then sort them into toilet-paper rolls." Other ideas: Have your child rip paper into long strips, get kid-safe scissors and practice cutting, and pull out age-appropriate puzzles.

Create Transitions

A preschooler's day is all about moving from one activity to the next. "Sorting and putting away toys at the end of playtime helps give a clear ending to the activity and a sign that something new is about to start," says Guarini. Just as they do at preschool, set up bins at home labeled with pictures of blocks, Legos, and dolls. Work with your child to correctly clean up and put away each toy in its correct spot.

Stress Self-Help Skills

Sure, your kid is running around half-naked these days, but don't forget to work on the dressing skills that will be critical in the classroom. "A 3-year-old should be able to pull up his own pants after going the bathroom, Velcro his shoes, place something into his backpack, and put on his own coat -- although it's okay if he needs help with buttoning and zipping," says Dr. Susman-Stillman. Not only do kids feel pride when they master these tasks, but it encourages their independence and helps them learn organization. Be mindful not to ask your child to accomplish too much at once or you may risk overwhelming him. Says Dr. Susman-Stillman, "It's as simple as breaking everything down into one manageable step at a time."

Preschool allows your child to practice her interpersonal skills and learn in a variety of ways. She'll spend most of her day playing and doing activities.

Originally published in the August 2015 issue of Parents magazine.

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