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 (getsetforschool.com). 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 (braininsightsonline.com). 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.
Step 2: Love those letters
Each time your child sees, hears or speaks a word, her language skills develop. “By the age of 4 or 5, children can learn the names and sounds of letters, as well as begin playing games with sounds—known as phonemic awareness activities—that mirror the blending and sequencing that they will have to do when reading,” says Jill Lauren, a New York City–based learning specialist and author of That’s Like Me! (Star Bright Books, 2009).
Since your child has probably already mastered the alphabet song, teach her “The Name Game” with her own and other familiar names (“Katie, katie, bo-batie,” “Jake, Jake, bo-bake,” “Mommy, mommy, bo-bommy”). Tongue twisters crank up the love of learning letters and sounds, too (“She sells seashells by the seashore”), as do nursery rhymes (“Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”) and other simple songs (“The Wheels on the Bus”).
Household items can spark word games as well. Point out the clock and have your child list as many words as he can that rhyme with each one (“clock, block, sock, rock”). Encourage a greater understanding of sounds by having your child identify words that start with the same letter, too (“clock, carrot, cake, car”).
Put letters everywhere—magnetic ones on the refrigerator, alphabet blocks in the playroom. Show your child how to spell her name or other simple words first with blocks or magnets, then by writing each letter and saying its sound. Wherever you go, point out letters—on signs, food containers, clothing. “Once a new sound is acquired, remember to keep practicing it,” adds Lauren. “A common mistake parents and teachers make is that they teach the ‘letter of the week’ and do not revisit the sound once it’s been taught. Repetition is important.”
It also helps to involve multiple senses. For example, write your child’s name with large block letters and have him decorate it with items that begin with the same letters (e.g., for “SAM,” use strawberry halves for the “S,” apple slices for the “A,” mini marshmallows for the “M”). “The more senses engaged, the better the chance for retention of new information,” explains Lauren. “Gluing marshmallows onto a giant ‘M’—and eating some along the way—will certainly help children remember that the sound for ‘m’ is ‘mmmm.’”
Step 3: Crunch the numbers
Kids love counting and measuring, especially when you show them how the numbers relate directly to them. For instance, attach a plastic tape measure to the wall and mark your child’s height on it. Show him how much he’s growing every few weeks or months. Or let your little one step on the bathroom scale and see how much she weighs. You can also mark a big, colorful calendar with your child’s, friends’ and family members’ birthdays, along with other important dates and numbers, and help your child count how many days there are until the next big event.
Like letters, numbers are everywhere. Show your child the address on your house and help her learn your phone number by punching it into a toy phone. When you set out a snack, count the pieces of food on a plate, then do simple addition and subtraction by putting down a few more pieces, or talk about how much is left after each one is eaten. “At about 5 months, children start adding and subtracting numbers of three,” says Faull. “They’re programmed to do that. Your job is to make it fun.” Introduce games that involve counting, from hide and seek to basketball to Chutes and Ladders.
Step 4: Share stories
You’ve probably been reading books to your child since birth, but the older she gets, the more involved she can become. “Don’t read the book from beginning to end,” Faull advises. “Make it a conversation, so children can ask questions and there’s a triangle effect between the parent, the child and the book.” Indeed, a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found that back-and-forth conversation was strongly associated with improvements in children’s language scores, but when adults engaged in monologues—including while reading—language development was weaker.
Again, repetition is important, since it lets you ask questions your child will be able to answer: “What’s going to happen next?” “Why is she doing that?” “Who’s that funny-looking animal?” Give her the book and ask her to “read” it to you as she looks at the words and pictures—or encourage her to “write” her own books. “There’s a school of thought that children learn to read first by reading their own words,” says Faull. “If you go to the zoo, take a picture of a tiger or have your child draw one. Then, ask what the tiger was doing. If she says, ‘The tiger was pacing back and forth,’ you write that down.” Staple several such pages together with a cardboard cover, and have your child read the book she’s created to family members. Kids love looking at their artwork and the words they’ve used to describe it.
Step 5: Get crafty
Whether scribbling, painting, cutting or molding, children develop fine motor skills and multiple modes of self-expression through arts and crafts. But again, your approach makes all the difference in how your little one will learn. If she has no interest in the chalkboard she got for her birthday or the crayons that come with the kiddie menu, don’t push it—simply make those tools available.
If she is interested, provide plenty of equipment—different kinds of paper, crayons, washable markers, smocks and finger paints, sidewalk chalk, paste and scraps of fabric, yarn, string or cotton balls. Let her decide what she wants to create rather than dictating the project. Resist the urge to correct the lines, colors or details of the design. As your child unleashes the artist within, ask her to describe what she has created and display her masterpiece prominently in your home.
Step 6: Make music
Research has found strong connections between early childhood music experiences and increases in overall cognitive abilities—including greater focus, long-term memory, reading and math skills. “Because music uses the whole brain to process its many facets, it gets more of the brain involved in the learning process, thus aiding in comprehension and increasing retention,” says Maryann “Mar” Harman, founder of Music with Mar (musicwithmar.com) and host of BAM Radio Music and Learning in Palm Harbor, Fla.
The best way to teach through music is to encourage active listening—that is, have your child clap or march, sing and even play simple instruments like rhythm sticks, maracas and kazoos. “Their bodies aren’t large enough to manipulate most instruments,” says Harman. “But when children experience beats in sets and music patterns, as in marching, it helps build math skills. Tapping sticks and repeating words help kids hear the sounds for language.”
Music also offers the opportunity for dance, another means of enhancing learning. “Dancing teaches spatial temporal reasoning—understanding your body in time and space, a skill needed for understanding numbers,” Harman notes. Before you start looking for a piano teacher for your little one, though, take note: “For preschool-age children, it’s not as important to ‘teach’ music as it is to use music to teach,” Harman says.
Indeed, that seems to be the lesson in every activity you explore with your child as you prepare him for the wide world of academics ahead. As Stacey Kannenberg, “Ready to Learn Mom” and author of Ready to Learn Mom (Cedar Valley Publishing, 2010), says: “The easiest way to empower a preschooler within the learning process is to make it so engaging, exciting and fun that he doesn’t even realize he’s learning.” So let your child lead the way, with lots of time for play, and his education may be virtually effortless.
Los Angeles–based freelance writer Alexa Joy Sherman is busily preparing her son, Jack, for his kindergarten debut next year.
How to boost your child’s intellectual growth and love of learning