Of all the toddler milestones, going to preschool may very well be the biggest. When kids head off to school for the first time, their worlds open up in ways they couldn’t possibly at home, giving way to a brand new set of skills. And while school is a place to learn and grow, parents and caregivers can still do a little work beforehand to help build some preschool readiness.
“Preparing your child for preschool can be the start of an exciting journey into learning,” says Elanna Yalow, chief academic officer, KinderCare Learning Centers. “It can also be a major transition for every member of the family. While it’s easy to focus on the physical aspect – a backpack, school clothes and so forth – it’s more important to devote attention to emotional preparation.”
Preparing a child for preschool? Here are 14 parent- and expert-backed ways to give kids a leg up before heading into the pre-K classroom.
1. Have a routine
According to Tovah Klein, who holds her doctorate in clinical and developmental psychology and is director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of “How Toddlers Thrive,” a good early childhood classroom has clear routines and children learn over time what to expect. However, “the main activities that help a child when they enter preschool are the routines they have at home,” she says.
“Routines help children gain independence because they know what to do and what will happen next,” Klein continues. “For instance, they’ll learn that after book time, books need to be returned to the shelf.”
While preschool is a time to really learn routines, developing good habits at home for daily activities, such as washing hands and getting dressed, will help with the transition. “Preschool-aged kids still need adult support, but being regimented prepares them for going to school and getting used to the routines they will encounter there,” Klein adds.
Good for: Building confidence and independence
2. Play school
Few kids can resist playing school, and fortunately, this age-old, make-believe game is good preschool prep. “If the child wants to, parents and caregivers can pretend to play school, adding stuffed animals or dolls to the mix and taking turns as the teacher,” Klein says. “You can play out routines such as singing songs, having a snack or building with blocks. Also, rehearsing saying goodbye at drop-off and then reuniting at the end of day when the parent or caregiver comes back will help a child as well.”
Good for: Knowing what to expect, adapting to new situations and working through emotions through imaginary play
3. Talk it out
A simple but crucial way of getting kids ready for preschool is to talk to them. “It’s important that parents and caregivers talk with children about how they feel about their first day of school,” Yalow explains. “Ask questions and work together to solve potential issues. Most important of all is to listen and respond to the child’s needs. Your preschooler may be nervous and excited at the same time, which can feel confusing!”
While talking to kids about the “big day” is key, Klein also adds that it’s wise to not talk about it constantly — or too far in advance. “Young children have very little sense of time so waiting until the week before school starts is enough time to start talking about preschool,” Klein says. Doing it too far in advance is confusing and can lead to more worry about school, rather than looking forward to it.”
Good for: Boosting social-emotional development and secure attachment to parents and caregivers
4. Work on labeling emotions
In addition to having general conversations about preschool and getting to the bottom of kids’ worries, helping children name their emotions can be helpful, as well. “For some children, preschool will be the first time they’re interacting with other children outside of their immediate family, and there’s an emotional learning curve,” Yalow says. “The most important skills a preschooler can have are social-emotional, or what are often called ‘soft skills.’ These skills include the ability to name their emotions, as well as some basic emotional regulation strategies and the ability to play with other children.”
Good for: Developing social skills and emotional regulation
5. Flower breathe
Naming feelings is one of the first steps in emotional regulation, but it doesn’t stop there. Children also need to learn how to calm down when they feel worked up or out of sorts. One way to help with this: Flower breathing. “To help younger children with emotion regulation strategies, teach them to breathe deep,” Yalow says. “Hold up two fingers and ask them to smell the flower as they inhale [one finger] and blow out the candle as they exhale [the other].”
Yalow also adds that talking to kids about your own feelings — and how you appropriately deal with them — helps develop this skill, also. “You can say: ‘I’m sad, but I know a hug will help me feel better’ or ‘I’m mad, and that’s OK. It’s not OK to hit, but I can punch a pillow or stomp my feet to get the feelings out of my body,’” Yalow explains.
Good for: Practicing emotional self-regulation
6. Play Simon Says
Got a kiddo who likes Simon Says? You’re in luck. “In addition to supporting children’s imaginary play, common games such as Simon Says, freeze dance and sorting/matching games can help children develop their executive function skills, which help them plan and learn to control their emotions,” Yalow says. “These critical skills help them learn to adapt to new situations and to cope with stress.”
Good for: Learning self-control, managing emotions and adapting to new situations and people
7. Help with coats and backpacks
When kids play school at home, their backpacks can be half-opened and, let’s be honest, they can be in their underwear. But at real school, that’s not going to fly. So, some parents and caregivers may want to help little ones brush up on these seemingly basic skills.
“One of my biggest worries about sending my son to school was him putting on his own coat and zipping up his backpack,” says mom of one Karen Schmidt of Brooklyn, New York. “In the past, I always did it for him since it was quicker, but before school started, I made sure he knew how to do it on his own.”
Good for: Improving coordination, motor skills and organizational techniques
8. Set up playdates
“It’s important for children to spend time around their peers, interacting with supervision but minimal intervention from adults,” says Yalow. “Before school, visit a playground or set up playdates with other children of similar ages and then take a step back to let the children play together.”
“If a child isn’t ready to play with others, allow them to stay close to you until they feel ready to join the other children,” Yalow explains. Once the kids are playing together, observe their interactions and talk with them about how they felt. If they had fun, ask what they enjoyed. If disagreements or awkward moments came up, help them problem-solve ways they could address those situations next time.”
Good for: Strengthening social skills
9. Spend time apart
Many kids have been with their families and/or caregivers more than usual in the past year, and because of this, Klein stresses that it’s more important than ever to practice spending time apart. “Given that children have been home with parents so much during the pandemic, some preschool prep should involve helping children through separation — even if they attended some in-person schooling already or went to day camp,” she explains. “Preparing for separation means parents and caregivers need to have some time away from the child, where they leave and come back, whether it’s going to the grocery store, for a long walk or out to dinner.”
Klein adds that it’s important to let the child know you are leaving and greet them when you get back. “The going out and returning is a way for the child to see that mommy or daddy always come back,” she says. “This base of security is what the child will need to feel comfortable staying at school.”
Good for: Increasing comfort level with being away from parents or caregivers
10. Visit the school
If possible, Klein recommends kids meet the teacher and see the classroom the week before school starts. “This can help acclimate a child before starting school in a group of children,” she says. If going into the school isn’t an option, Klein advises walking or driving by the school or playing on the playground instead. “Slowly introducing the actual preschool to kids can help ease them into where they will be going,” she explains.
Good for: Familiarizing the child with the school and assuaging fear of the unknown
11. Practice taking turns
Learning to share and take turns is a skill every preschool classroom works to instill. But for some parents, a little work on the front-end makes sense. “Before sending my twins to school, I gave them one toy and tried to show them how to take turns,” says mom of three, Jaclyn Santos of Hazlet, New Jersey. “Sharing definitely isn’t their strong suit, and I can’t say they totally got the hang of it before school, but I was happy that we seemed to make a little headway.”
Good for: Honing socialization skills
12. Read books and tell stories
Forget the preschool prep sight words. One of the best ways to prepare a child for school is to read, read and then read some more. Few things are better for kids than reading, so it goes without saying that cozying up and reading lots of books is solid preschool prep. “Storytelling with your child about the events of the day and reading build both memory and language skills,” Yalow says.
Good for: Growing vocabulary and preparing for reading development
13. Put toys away
Little ones may not know the “Clean up, clean up, everybody clean up…” song just yet, but getting familiar with the routine of picking up after themselves is definitely smart. “Incorporating things like hanging up coats, putting a few toys away and sitting down at a table for a meal into routines will all help get kids ready for school,” Klein says.
Good for: Learning and following rules and developing independence
14. Work on bedtime
In the summer months, we all let bedtimes slide. After all, those fireflies aren’t going to catch themselves. That said, it’s important to not wait until the very last minute before trying to get kids back in bed at a reasonable hour. According to the Cleveland Clinic, parents and caregivers should start implementing a “school bedtime” a week or two before preschool starts. The best way to do this is by having kids go to bed 15 minutes early each night, so the earlier bedtime isn’t so jarring. Because, after all, you can do all the preschool prep in the world, but it won’t do much good if the child is exhausted.
Good for: Building physical, mental and emotional health