Brain Power


By Alexa Joy Sherman

Starting kindergarten can be an exciting time—but beyond the new buses, backpacks, books and best friends, the list of skills required to thrive seems to grow every year. Sure, your little one has likely mastered the physical (running, climbing, using the bathroom), social (playing well with others, following instructions) and emotional (achieving goals without tears or anger) prerequisites. But the compulsory intellectual skills strike fear in the hearts of many.

“Kindergarten is the new first grade, with more emphasis on academics than ever before,” says Jan Z. Olsen, a Bethesda, Md.–based occupational therapist and co-creator of the Get Set for School readiness program ( The pressure is so intense that many parents enroll children a year later than they’re first eligible in the hopes they’ll have an advantage—a practice known as “red-shirting”—but this often just heightens academic expectations.

Every school’s standards are different, but most require kindergarteners to at least use a pencil, crayons and scissors, as well as recognize their own name, letters, numbers, shapes, colors and sizes. Some may also expect children to know how to print their name, identify when things look or sound similar and different, retell a simple story in their own words and more.

That may sound exhaustive, but it’s not your job to force-feed facts to your child. Young minds aren’t even developed enough to learn in such a rote fashion, and too much structure could backfire. “If we teach children things that are inappropriate for their developmental age, the message they internalize is ‘I don’t like this, so school and learning aren’t for me,’” explains Jan Faull, MEd, Seattle-based author of Amazing Minds: The Science of Nurturing Your Child’s Developing Mind with Games, Activities and More (Berkley, 2010). “The key is to watch and read your children’s cues, see what they’re interested in, meet them there and then take it a step further.” For some parents, that may mean ramping things up—turning off the TV and playing more games—and for some, that might mean ramping things down—setting aside the flashcards and tracing paper and, well, playing more games. Here are some simple ways to get the balance right.

Six Steps to Superior Smarts

Step 1: Encourage exploration
Preschool can be a great place for kids to learn skills they’ll need in kindergarten, but what they learn outside the classroom is equally important. A study published in the May/June 2010 issue of Child Development found that academic achievement requires mental stimulation at home as well as in a school setting. It can be as easy as having your child help with household chores that you make rife with information, words and numbers. For instance, while doing the laundry, have your child sort clothes according to colors or sizes, naming and counting each item (“two socks, three shirts…”). While preparing dinner, talk about how food makes our bodies strong and gives us energy; point out the shapes of the plates, glasses and placemats; read recipes together; count out scoops and spoonfuls; and share mixing or pouring duties.

Plan lots of time outside, too. “Research demonstrates how valuable green spaces are to the brain,” says Deborah McNelis, an early childhood brain development educator in New Berlin, Wis., and creator of BRAININSIGHTS ( A University of Michigan study comparing students who walked through an arboretum with others who walked through a busy downtown area found that the former group scored higher on attention and memory tests, McNelis cites.

Wherever you go, keep the lessons coming. At the park or in the backyard, talk about how the sun helps plants grow or the different ways the weather changes with the seasons. Count the legs on bugs or the petals on flowers. When you get in the car, play games like “I Spy,” spot the colors of each vehicle you pass and even plot your route on a map for a fun and tangible geography lesson.