School is a big step, even for children who have already spent time in preschool or a child care setting. It usually means meeting lots of new adults, learning new names and faces, becoming familiar with a new building, a new classroom, and a new kind of schedule. Being ready for kindergarten can make all the difference in a child’s introduction and further steps in formal education.
By definition, getting ready for school starts at home. During this time parents, caregivers and families all play a leading role in nurturing a young child’s development. School readiness includes self-help skills such as getting dressed, going to the bathroom, washing your hands; familiarity and comfort with using school tools – scissors, pencils, markers, glue sticks; and social/communication skills like using your words to communicate what you need, taking turns, sharing and getting along with others.
Children are born with the potential to develop these skills, but if they don’t get what they need from their relationships with adults at these early ages, their skill development can be seriously delayed or impaired.
An explosion of research in neuroscience and other developmental sciences shows us that the basic architecture of a child’s brain is constructed through an ongoing process that begins before birth and continues through adulthood. Like the construction of a home, the building process begins with laying the foundation, framing the rooms, and wiring the electrical system in a predictable sequence. Early experiences literally shape how the brain gets built. Between the ages of 0 and 5, young children learn life skills like how to walk, talk, and feed themselves. Their social-emotional skills are growing, too, as they learn how to get along with others and how to recognize their own feelings. Children need adults to encourage this skill building and be excited about reaching milestones.
Play and informal learning is one way to nurture these skills and characteristics in children. By playing, children can find endless ways to satisfy their curiosity. Working on puzzles and playing games helps a child learn both patience and perseverance, and builds a child’s sense of accomplishment and confidence. Playing with other children promotes negotiation skills and supports emotional development.
Adults can enhance the language skills of children through talking and playing WITH their child. Without taking over the child’s play or turning it into a lesson, adults can build on children’s ideas. One good example of this would be when your child is “busy” playing, let them play! There’s no need to ask, “What are you doing?” Just let them do it. Instead, sit down and join the tea party, the picnic or the bear hunt. We can extend a back-and-forth conversation, using serve and return, playing with sounds, words, or ideas. We can take on a role and play it with humor and gusto. We can add “juicy words” – specific, interesting words like “please and thank you,” ”dishes, basket, and ants,” or “the woods, the cave, hibernation” – that are fun to say and make play more fun. We can sing silly rhymes, make up stories, or listen together to audiobooks while traveling. We can teach them the songs, hymns and poems we learned as a child. What was your favorite picture book? Share it with your child.
Playing with water and sand, rolling balls across the floor, playing with blocks, and counting, sorting (socks and clothes from the wash), and helping to set the dinner table seem simple but are laying the foundation for science and math concepts. Cooking, doing dishes and playing with pots and pans can also be very scientific. Giving your child opportunities to observe, experiment and predict what is going to happen helps her answer her own questions and solve her own problems – and this is more empowering for children than being told the answer.
Growth is a sequential process, like walking up steps, one step leading to the next. But when we take a young child’s hand and walk up the steps with them it can make all the difference.