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Helping Children Prepare for Kindergarten

by Ann Barbour

Ann Barbour

Ann Barbour, author of Learning at Home, PreK-3: Homework Activities That Engage Children and Families, is a professor of early childhood education, with extensive experience teaching preschool and elementary levels. Read more »

Sorry, Ann Barbour is no longer taking questions.

I remember well the mixed feelings I had as kindergarten approached for my sons. They looked forward to kindergarten with excitement. Going to school meant joining the big kids. Shopping for school supplies was right up there with getting a new pair of shoes. Being able to ride the school bus was a rite of passage. Naturally, I shared their excitement, but I also felt equal measures of anxiety, worry, and hope. I wanted them to be prepared to meet the challenges they were going to encounter, both academically and socially. I worried how they would adjust to a new routine, new faces and new expectations. I deeply hoped they would like school and do well.

If you are like I was, you're probably wondering what you can do during the summer - besides buying your child new shoes and a backpack - to help prepare him for kindergarten. What skills will he need? Or, how can you help him adjust to this new chapter in his life?

It's true that most kindergartens have become more academically rigorous than they were a generation ago. But that doesn't necessarily mean your child should enter kindergarten with a different set of skills than were needed in the past. When kindergarten teachers are asked what abilities they hope incoming students will have, they say social and emotional skills are equally, if not more important, than knowing letters, numbers and shapes.

There are many components of kindergarten readiness, most of which are not generally considered to be "academic"; even though they directly influence how children learn. These include:

  • Self-care, self-help and motor skills (for example, dressing oneself, holding a pencil, and cutting with scissors)
  • Playing well with others, relating positively to adults, and using language to express needs and wants
  • Curiosity and eagerness to learn
  • Self-regulation skills (for example, controlling impulses, paying attention, following directions, handling frustrations, and negotiating solutions to problems)
  • Letter, shape, color and rhyming word recognition, counting objects to 10, writing own first name

Given these skills, you'll be supporting your child's readiness when you:

  • Talk often with her and respond to her questions.
  • Encourage active play, especially pretend play, with other children.
  • Read, read, read to her every day. Talk about the words in books, ask her to predict what will happen in the stories and to make up stories of her own.
  • Provide pencils, markers, crayons, and blank paper for drawing and "writing."
  • Make things together out of empty food containers, markers, tape and glue.
  • Play guessing games with her.
  • Go places together, encourage her to notice things in her surroundings, and talk about all the interesting things there are to see and do.
  • Use everyday activities to point out words and numbers.
  • Encourage her independence in managing daily tasks and helping with household chores like setting the table.
  • Limit screen time (television and video games) to allow time for more active learning experiences.

You can also help your child prepare for the actual transition to kindergarten by talking about what will happen. What will his new routine be like? What friends will also be there? Reading library books about starting kindergarten can start conversations about this step in your child's life. Encourage his questions and expressions of feelings, but be careful not to transmit any anxieties you may have. Children easily "catch" adults' emotional responses.

Travel the route she'll take to and from school, and arrange a visit. Most schools encourage this. Many hold orientations or open houses to help children and families feel comfortable with school and classroom surroundings and to meet the teacher. Take your child to play on the playground. If possible, arrange play dates with other children who will be in her class. Knowing what to expect eases anxiety and will help her (and you) feel more secure.

Even as you anticipate the start of kindergarten together, take time to enjoy your child. Play together. Go places together. Read and talk together. In the process, you'll be encouraging his enthusiasm for learning and helping him get off to a great start!

Sorry, Ann Barbour is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.


amanda writes...

I don't think my (single) mom had the time to do half of all that when we were getting ready for kindergarten. Fortunately, as a (blogger, I work from home so my time is more flexible, but still I am a little daunted by the list of activities proposed...
Thanks -- I'll try!

Laura writes...

As a kindergarten, first and second grade teacher for almost 30 years, mother of two and grandmother of a child entering kindergarten, I find that two of the most important things parents can do to help their child succeed in kindergarten is to put them to bed by 8:30 PM at the latest (start a couple of weeks before school starts) and provide a healthy breakfast (not sugar cereal). These two things are out of the teacher's control and he/she can teach the rest if the parent provides the sleep and nutrition.

Crystal writes...

How important is pre-school before kindergarten? My son is very smart but I want to make sure he has all the skills he needs.

Ann? writes...

Hi Crystal,

Whether or not to enroll your son in a preschool program is an individual family decision. However, there are many good reasons for doing so. Quality preschool programs broaden the kinds of learning experiences children have. Some of those learning experiences are directly related to academic skills. Research shows that children who attend preschool tend to have richer vocabularies and better developed pre-reading and math skills than children who don’t attend. But, these types of academic skills aren’t the only benefit. Preschool enables children to learn within the company of other children and to develop fundamental social skills. Knowing how to take turns, to share, to “read” social cues, to communicate appropriately, and to negotiate and compromise are some of the many skills that children need to succeed in school and in life.

Preschool is also a step in the transition between home and the more “formal” education of kindergarten. Adjusting to and following a routine, using self-help skills, and learning how to relate well to other adults as well as other children in preschool can make it easier for children to adjust to the demands of kindergarten.

If you decide to send your son to preschool, you probably have several options in your community, some public and some private. For more guidance and information about the characteristics of high quality preschool programs, go to, the website of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and click on “For Families” in the menu bar. Allow time to investigate your options, visit different types of programs, and decide what’s best for your child.

Noopur writes...

I have anxiety about the kids bullying. My daughter goes to preschool and is one of the south asian kids in 2. Rest of the kids are caucasians. Till now she never felt out of place and always played very enthusiastically with any race kids but after starting school few white kids commented no body wants to play with you etc.. and now she has withdrawn herself from playing with white kids even if few kids are ready to play and share. I need more inputs for the kids of color and different race.

She definitely is one smart kid as at age 3.5 she is already reading books on her own and writing all the letters and numbers.

I am trying hard to make her feel comfortable in her own skin color and race. But it's a long way. I am just hoping she will use her smartness and without loosing her confidence.

Ann? writes...

Hi Noopur,

No wonder you’re concerned. You’re wise to take steps now to encourage your daughter’s positive identity. In our increasingly diverse society, all children need to learn early on to value differences and to play and work well with others. In addition to what you’re already doing to help your daughter feel comfortable with who she is, I recommend talking with her teacher. She (or he) may not be aware of the situation you describe here, and she may be able to focus more fully on supporting all children’s positive sense of self and on creating an environment that celebrates diversity. You might also consider arranging play dates with other children who are not of South Asian origin. Playing together provides a context for children to discover and delight in similarities, irrespective of outward differences, and for developing friendships that can help build self-confidence.

sarah writes...

My 5 year old daughter, who will be in K2 next year is having problems with number recognition. I was wondering what kinds of things I can do to help her during the summer! I have tried many things like flash cards and posters, but she just seems to have no interest in them, also she becomes very upset when we work on anything with numbers..... what else can I do to help her?!

Ann? writes...

Hi Sarah,

Young children learn number concepts and other math skills best within contexts that are meaningful to them. Numbers are abstract. A “5” is really just a symbol for a group of objects, and in itself doesn’t have any inherent meaning. So, you can help your daughter make a meaningful connection between those five objects and “5” through playful activities that are part of her every day experiences. Some things you might try:
• Give her 5, 10 or 20 things to make something with – a button collage, a Cheerio necklace – and help her count them.
• Sing and act out songs and rhymes that include numbers. For example, “Ten Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed.”
• Talk about numbers during daily activities. For example, ask how many slices of bread you will need to make sandwiches for you family, or ask her to set the table so everyone has a spoon and fork. Cook something together and point out how many cups or teaspoons the recipe calls for. Let her draw a picture of what she did that day on each day’s square of a wall calendar.
• Play simple board or card games that include numbers.
• Play store. Mark prices on items (“6 cents”) and give her 20 pennies to spend.
• Buy a set of number-shaped cookie cutters and make cookies together or let her use them with play dough.
Try to keep things as relaxed and positive as you can. If your daughter is having fun, she’ll be more receptive to learning.

Nancy writes...

I'm actually concerned my son may be too ready for kindergarten. He'll be almost 6 because he just missed the cut off date last year. I looked at the skills taught in kindergarten for our district and he can already do most of them. How do I make sure he's not bored and help him curb his impulses to 'show off' because I see them emerging already? Thanks

Ann? writes...

Hi Nancy,

It will be important for you to keep in close touch with your son’s kindergarten teacher. Parent-teacher partnerships are critically important in ensuring a child’s success in all areas of development. If it turns out that your son quickly masters concepts and skills that are part of the kindergarten curriculum, the teacher may be able to keep him engaged by offering additional activities and responsibilities tailored to his abilities and needs. You can also support his eagerness to learn by encouraging him to investigate things that interest him outside of school.

Buena writes...

As a kindergarten teacher for over 30 years, I thank you for your list. I also encourage parents not to worry if your child doesn't know all the letters, numbers, colors, shapes, etc. They will learn those in kindergarten. (yes, it's good to talk with them about those things so they have the idea...but they certainly don't need to master them!) The other things are much more important. Read to your child and talk about the stories. Talk with them about EVERYTHING they see and do. Vocabulary and previous knowledge is very important in developing comprehension and other skills. Yes, be sure they get enough sleep and a good breakfast. Get them ready for the experience of school and we will teach your child well!

Thanks for making it simple. We have too many "definitions" of school readiness. Teachers tell me the same things you are hearing - social skils are important and if children love learning, they'll get the academic stuff.

Randi writes...

Thanks for writing this article.

I'm a stay-at-home mom. My son turned two years old this past March. He is speech delayed and just started an Early Intervention program. Though he does speak, it's not the 50 words that is expected at his age. Additionally, it is difficult to understand what he's saying. He does talk all the time, but some words are very clear while a lot of other words are not. Ultimately, I want him to be prepared for Kindergarten and know pre-school will help. I'm just not sure whether or not it's ok to wait until he's over 3 years old to go to pre-school rather than have him enter a program this fall given his situation. What do you think? Thanks.

Ann? writes...

Hi Randi,

Your son is lucky that you’ve already taken steps to support his development through early intervention. I think your decision about when to enroll him in preschool depends less on his age and his speech delay and more on what types of programs are available in your area. Whether he begins preschool this fall or next, your goal should be to find a program that is a good fit for him – one that is developmentally appropriate and in which you can picture him thriving. It’s always best for parents to visit a school ahead of time, talk with the director or teachers, and if possible, observe in the classroom. That way you’ll know whether the program, the interactions between/among adults and children, and the physical setting are ones that will support his development in all areas. Your son's early intervention specialist might also be able to provide insight into program characteristics that will further encourage his communication skills.

If the program you’re considering gives you confidence that the teacher(s) will be part of the “circle of care” in addressing your son's speech needs, and that he will be engaged and happy there, then I don’t think it’s too soon for him to begin this fall. However, if you decide to wait until he's 3 1/2 (the age at which lots of children begin preschool), you might consider investigating alternatives to conventional preschool programs where he can play and communicate with other children and adults. Some communities have “mothers’ day out” programs, sometimes thought of as previews to preschool. You might also consider forming a playgroup with a few other parents, taking turns letting the children play together in your homes. Best wishes as you decide what's best for your child!

Matthew writes...

Awesome! As a male kindergarten teacher, I'm always looking for helpful information to pass along to parents - thank you!

Kay writes...

I am really getting concerned regarding the information my husband discusses with my son. My husband has a natural love for science and enjoys sharing this love with our 4-year old. For some strange reason, he think it is appropriate to share conversations about war or plane crashes or even meteors crashing into the Earth resulting in the death of the dinosaurs. After repeatedly telling my husband that cognitively our son is not ready to hear about the 'ways of the world' he continues to offer this type of conversation.

I just can't seem to understand why he deems this type of conversation appropriate for such a young child. In my opinion, these types of conversations are completely inappropriate for a 4-year old.

Is there any expertise you can offer that I can share to help end these types of discussions? I really need some help and can not understand why my husband deems this appropriate talk for a young child.

Your professional expertise is greatly appreciated.

Ann? writes...

Hi Kay,

You’re not the first to wonder about the appropriateness of certain discussion topics for young children. First, it’s wonderful that your husband is sharing his love of science with your son. The best kinds of science experiences are directly connected to a child’s life, ones that give him opportunities to observe, wonder about, and investigate things in which he’s interested. Simply talking about any science-related topic - no matter what the topic is - is less likely to encourage learning about science. Discussions that are not based on what a child is experiencing in the here-and-now make science more abstract.

Second, and perhaps more directly related to your question, preschool children tend to personalize situations and often interpret (or misinterpret) what they see and hear based on their rather limited experiences in the world. For example, after hearing about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, one 4-year-old I know was afraid he was hiding in her neighborhood. Seeing or hearing about war or disasters like plane crashes (either in the media or through conversations) can cause confusion, anxiety and fear. Children need to know that their parents will do everything they can to keep them safe. They also need to know how adults feel about these events – they are tragedies that we must try to prevent. That said, young children do grapple with “big” issues like war and death. While we can’t entirely shield them from reality, we can limit their exposure to violent or disturbing events, particularly through the media. And we can use language they understand to openly answer questions they have about troubling topics. Children need honest answers, but they don’t need to know all the details.

As you and your husband come to terms with this issue, you might consider who brings up the topics you mention (your husband or your son), how frequently they are topics of conversation, what kinds of details are shared with your son, and how he seems to process the information. For example, if he seeks reassurance, seems worried, has nightmares or appears to be preoccupied with safety issues, you have reason to be concerned. On the other hand, if he seems secure, shows interest in many things and is eager to learn more, then I don’t think you should worry too much about occasional, age-appropriate conversations about reality.

Roseline writes...

My daughter who is 2.2years old most of the time when i try to read to her, shes just too playful, she doesn't listen instead she'll like to hold the book herself and play, it fustrates me a lot but i'm planning preschool for her if that will help, i don't know. another thing is nshe love watching so much of cailou, please help me what do i do?

Ann? writes...

Hi Roseline,

Keep reading to your daughter! Even though she may seem not to listen or be interested in the book you’re reading, she is still benefiting from the experience. You’re helping her build language, literacy and cognitive skills. It’s no surprise she wants to hold the book herself and “play.” She’s showing her understanding of how books work. She’s also asserting her independence which is typical of 2-year-olds. If she wants to look at a page over and over again, that’s fine. If she wants to turn pages herself and not look at the pictures, that’s okay too. She’s still developing positive attitudes about reading and books and her own ability to master them. In time, she’ll focus more on the story and you’ll be able to point out pictures and their connections to the print. In the meantime, it's important to keep things fun and relaxed and not pressure her to sit and listen.

The best way for young children to watch television is with an adult who can talk with them about what they’re seeing and help them connect the content of the program to their own lives. Like other PBS children’s programs, “Caliou” is of high quality and designed to help children learn. You can make the most of it by viewing it with her.

Angelia Dawson writes...

This summer I'm teaching my 3 1/2 her letters.Showing her the flash cards,teaching her how to write them and also numbers.She goes to a developmental learning center.My question is am I over teaching her?She is picking them up so fast.I know she learning them at preschool,but I want her to know them before she starts kindergarter.

Ann? writes...

Hi Angelia,

It’s great that you’re playing such an active role in your daughter’s learning. Every child is unique. Some children who are 3 ½ will respond well to the kinds of teaching strategies you’re using to help your daughter recognize and write letters and numbers. Others may not. So it’s important to take cues from your child, avoid pressuring her to learn things before she’s ready, and make it fun even when she is. As long as she is enjoying what you’re doing together, then it doesn't sound like you're “over teaching.” You can also use those flash cards to play games, and, of course, you can point out letters and numbers in the environment to help her understand how print conveys meaning.

premium gift writes...

My son had a head start going into kindergarten. He loved flipping book pages and writing/drawing on whiteboards. The important thing is to to make "school time" fun.

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