When they are newborns, we worry about where our children's height and weight fall on growth charts. As they become toddlers, we compare notes with parents at daycare or the play group about when their children took their first steps. We consult parenting books and magazines and check the checklists to ensure that our children are growing just as they should in relation to others their age.
As children move into the preschool years, parents' worries often shift to whether or not they are doing all they should to help their children be successful once they reach school age.
A quick search on the Internet will produce a variety of lists with very specific school readiness skills for young children. These can run the gamut from the fairly simple skill of counting from one to 10 to the sometimes daunting ability to tie shoes unassisted or sit still for lengths of time.
However, early childhood experts, such as those with the National Association for the Education of Young Children, as well as preschool and kindergarten teachers say the skills that help children do well in school are not necessarily the ones that make the lists. They aren't even ones that children achieve at the same rate or by the same age. Instead, early childhood teachers say the best skills are those that come naturally from children's daily activities, such as going to the grocery store with their own lists of items to shop for, mailing a drawing they have made to grandma and grandpa or going for a swim with a friend. These include:
Below are some practical ways families can enhance their children's learning during the early childhood years that will lay the groundwork for doing well in school. Chances are many of these are the types of things you and your child are already doing:
Activities, such as preschool, daycare and trips taken in the care of other nurturing adults. These help provide children with the experience of being cared for by and learning from adults other than their parents.
Limiting the amount of time children spend watching television and videos or playing computer games, which are passive, isolating activities. Instead, families should emphasize such activities as formal and informal play groups, library story hours and other activities that involve active learning and put children in contact with their peers.
Reading to your children every day from the time they are babies from both fiction and age-appropriate, non-fiction picture books. Even though very young children may not understand the story or poem you are reading, they learn a lot about language just from hearing your voice.
Exposing your children to language. Share what you know, talk about what interests you, ask your children to talk with you about what they are interested in and why. Aside from helping form a close relationship with your children, this type of ongoing dialogue pays off once children enter school. Children who have had a chance to develop a large vocabulary are often capable of handling more information than those with limited language skills.
Drawing. Children begin to draw and write very naturally. Simply provide them with a comfortable space, materials for writing (chunky pencils and markers are ideal tools for little fingers to grasp), paper and the freedom to experiment. Children's first writing will likely look like squiggles, loops and drawings. Over time (and with lots of encouragement for their first efforts), children will begin to incorporate some letter shapes. Though some children show signs of recognizable writing in the years before school, in others it is not until they are school age that their writing evolves.
Math. Children who are encouraged to learn the many uses for math in the "real world" are more likely to enjoy math once in school. Clocks, telephones, road signs, even price tags on canned goods at the supermarket all involve number recognition. Make a game out of counting all the dinosaurs in your children's collection. Count out the number of forks, spoons and napkins needed to set the table at dinner. Many children's songs, rhymes and finger plays include counting and other language associated with math (think Five Little Monkeys or This Old Man.) Each time you ask your children if they want their sandwich cut in half or you count out loud as you stack blocks on top of one another, you are teaching them the words they will use to understand math concepts. Expand your children's math vocabulary by making a game out of coming up with all the words that mean "big" (enormous, huge, gigantic) or "little" (small, tiny, miniscule).
Knowledge of the world. Trips to the bank, playground, restaurants and other parts of the neighborhood, town, state or country provide wonderful opportunities for expanding children's knowledge of the world beyond their homes. As you travel about, talk informally about what interests you and ask your children to do the same. You can encourage children to think creatively about what they are experiencing by asking open-ended questions such as "Why do you think there is a rainbow in the puddle?" or "Where do you think that ant is going with that piece of grain?" Let your children's curiosity fill in the blanks.
Getting plenty of physical activity. To learn to control and coordinate the muscles in their arms and legs, children need to throw and catch balls, run, jump, climb and dance to music. These types of activities give them the strength to hold their arms steady and in a proper position for writing and their upper bodies upright in order to sit for lengths of time (an ability that becomes important once they reach school age.) To learn to control and coordinate the smaller muscles in hands and fingers, children need to color, put together objects like puzzles, use child-safe scissors, practice zipping their jackets and pick up small objects like cereal pieces, dried fruit or cotton balls.
Be realistic about your children's abilities and interests. So your child is set to enter kindergarten in the fall and hasn't yet begun to write her name? Relax, she will. Young children often learn at dramatically different rates from the preschool years through age eight. While most children can learn to decode (figure out how letters sound when combined in words) at age six, it is also normal for children to learn to do this as early as age four or as old as seven. This age range is also true of drawing, writing letters and numbers, counting, speaking articulately and following multiple directions.