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Is Your Child Kindergarten-Ready? What You Need To Know 
by Rita Templeton July 20, 2005

Kindergarten today is not like it used to be: it demands more of children on several different levels. How can you tell if your child is ready, and what can you do to help him prepare?

At birth, it seemed like sending your child to kindergarten was in the distant future; as you held your tiny baby, you probably couldn’t even really imagine him as a five or six-year-old.  But now the time is nearly upon you – time for your baby to make the transition and jump into the world of academics.  You may be facing this day with a whole range of emotions, from pride to sadness to disbelief.  You’re probably wondering if your child is truly ready, and whether you’ve done everything you can to help him.  Sending your baby off to school can be difficult enough without having to worry about how he’ll fare once he gets there; here are a few things to prepare him (and ease your mind).

Not your mother’s kindergarten.

Kindergarten today is much different than the kindergarten we attended as children (if we even attended it – some schools just started right at first grade).  While reminiscing on our first year of school may bring back memories of cut-and-paste and show-and-tell, today’s kids will look back on their own first year and think of a much more intellectually challenging environment.  The concept of kindergarten (meaning “children’s garden” in German) came about in the 1830s, the brainchild of a German teacher named Friedrich Froebel.  Its original purpose, according to Froebel, was basically to socialize children – to get them accustomed to interacting with others.  It was designed to help kids smoothly make the transition from being at home all day to attending school.  While this is still partially the purpose of kindergarten, it isn’t the entire focus any more.  These days, the vast majority of children have spent substantial amounts of time at preschools and day care centers before ever entering school, which means they already have experience in working and playing with other children.  Therefore, the kindergarten experience has been rethought and revamped by public school systems.  Now there’s a bigger focus on academics and cognitive learning.  Children are working with computers and learning programs.  They have required reading and homework.  And they’re more likely to attend a full day, up to seven hours, rather than the half-day programs so common a few years ago.

Cutoff dates and kindergarten readiness …

Most school systems require that a child be at least five years old before entering kindergarten.  The “cutoff date” – i.e., the date by which your child must turn five – is usually September 1st or December 1st, but in some schools, the cutoff date is as early as June 1st.  Although this is still the normal parameter for determining readiness, educators are beginning to focus more and more on a child’s level of development rather than his age.  The real test of kindergarten readiness isn’t in chronological age – a kid of any age can be lacking in certain crucial skills – but in your child’s ability to think logically, speak plainly, and relate to others.

What is a kindergarten screening?

Some schools do this routinely before kindergarten enrollment as a way of assessing a child’s abilities.  A screening is not a readiness test – it doesn’t measure nearly all the factors that make a child considered ready for school – nor is it an intelligence test.  It’s just a way of discovering whether your child is developing on par with his age group and of ensuring that his needs will be met in kindergarten.  Most commonly, a screening lasts anywhere from fifteen to twenty minutes and includes tests such as:

  • Drawing and copying: the screener will note hand preference, comfort level, and fine motor and gripping skills.
  • Visual and auditory memory: how well the child is able to remember what he's just seen and heard.
  • Building with blocks: tests the child's hand/eye coordination, fine motor and dexterity skills, and perception.
  • Using language: the screener will ask the child to describe things or solve simple problems using reasoning skills.
  • Body movements: the child will be asked to hop, skip, and balance.

A screening may or may not include speech, hearing, dental, and vision tests.  They may also want to know your child’s immunization history, so be sure to have that information handy just in case. 

Is my child ready for school?

Kids are all developmentally different, and just because your child may fall slightly behind in a few areas may not mean she’s not ready for kindergarten.  If she is slow at assembling a puzzle, for example, it may simply be that she hasn’t had enough practice or experience with that sort of work. The biggest requirement for kindergarten success is brain development – so if she’s physically lagging behind her peers and has trouble sharing toys, but can think and perceive clearly, she’ll probably do just fine.  In general, your kindergarten-age child should have:

  • Adequate motor skills.  This includes both large muscle activities such as walking a straight line and throwing a ball, and small muscle activities like drawing, coloring, and writing letters (or at least trying to).
  • Academic skills, such as conveying stories and ideas in complete and descriptive sentences, concentrating on a task for ten minutes, knowing and identifying colors, knowing the letters in her name (and recognizing it in print), knowing numbers through at least ten, and knowledge of basic shapes.  She should also be able to answer questions regarding her environment (“How many girls are at this table?”), identify opposites, and understand differences and similarities between items.
  • Social skills.  Playing cooperatively with other children, sharing, picking up toys when he’s finished with them, and following a routine all fall under this skill category.
  • Personal skills, such as handling clothing unassisted (hanging up her coat, buttoning her pants), communicating clearly so that others can easily understand her, and taking care of personal care – going to the bathroom, washing her hands, blowing her nose – by herself.
  • Curiosity and a desire to learn.

How can I prepare my child for kindergarten?

No matter how young your child is, it’s never too soon to start planning ahead.  Sending your child to a quality preschool or day care, although it’s by no means absolutely mandatory, is a great way to build the skills she’ll need upon entering kindergarten.  If you plan to enroll your child in a preschool or day care, look for a program that:

  • Puts an emphasis on learning in a fun, positive environment filled with lots of play.
  • Has activities centered around building socialization skills (serving lunch family-style, for example).
  • Encourages kids to question things and be curious.
  • Focuses on learning new things according to developmental readiness, not chronological age.
  • Has a low teacher-to-child ratio; the lower the ratio, the more individualized attention for each child.
  • Has educated teachers on-staff, with degrees in either child development or early childhood education.
  • Is licensed and accredited by your state, so that they must comply with state health and safety laws.

There are also a number of things that you can do at home, or on errands, in order to help your child prepare for school:

  • Read.  One of the best things you can do for your child is foster a love of reading early on.  Not only will it be more enjoyable for your child and not seen as a chore, but it will help him to recognize letters and words.  Visit the library and let him pick out what books he’d like to read.  Also, take advantage of the library’s story time.  Don’t limit yourself to books – encourage your child to read signs, billboards, and bumper stickers as well.
  • When you write, let your child write too.  Ask for her help in writing lists or tell her to write you a pretend check.
  • Go through the alphabet one letter at a time, and have your child collect (or just name) certain items that start with that day’s letter.  Go one step further and have a themed snack or dinner: chili, carrots, and cake on “C” day, for example.
  • Create rhymes with your child and make them into silly songs.
  • Play letter “I spy” by saying, “I spy, with my little eye, something that begins with the letter H” and letting your child guess what you’re thinking of.
  • Buy a couple of sets of plastic letter magnets – you can pick them up cheaply at most dollar stores – and put them on the refrigerator or a special magnetized board, at a kid’s-eye level.
  • Have your child practice writing his name with chalk on the sidewalk, soap crayons in the bath, glittery crayons or markers, finger paints, or anything else that’s fun.
  • Pick out a few simple recipes and have her help you in the kitchen by measuring and mixing.  Talk about quantities, textures, tastes and smells.
  • Encourage him to sort things out: separating all the freezer-bound groceries from the rest, putting socks together while doing laundry, or go the yummy route and let him sort a pack of Skittles or M&Ms into piles of the same color!
  • Refer to the calendar often.  Keep track of the days of the week and the date, and make a countdown to special events.
  • Play games with your child that involve counting, such as the classics Candyland and High-Ho Cherry-O, and card games such as Memory.
  • When you’re at the supermarket, have her point out different shapes.
  • Improve fine motor skills (and increase creativity) in several ways: provide your child with an art box full of paper, markers, crayons, and scissors.  Roll and mold clay into different shapes.  Play with Legos or other blocks.  Strings beads or cereal to make “jewelry.”  
  • Put puzzles together.  Make it a family affair!

And to better develop your child’s social and character building skills:

  • Teach your children how to listen: look into the speaker’s eyes and waiting to speak until the other person has finished.  The best way to do this is by example, so be a good and attentive listener at all times!
  • Establish a daily routine well before school starts, so that your child won’t be overloaded with new things to adjust to.
  • Give your child a list of chores to take care of on a daily basis.  Make a chart outlining his responsibilities and let him check off a box, or put on a sticker, when he’s completed a task.
  • Provide your child with plenty of opportunities to socialize with her peers, whether in an organized play group, or with neighbor kids or cousins.
  • Set an example for your child by expressing your own feelings in an appropriate manner and using self-control.  Encourage her to use words to verbalize what she wants instead of whining about it.

A couple weeks before it’s time for him to actually start kindergarten, help him ease the inevitable jitters by telling him what he can expect to do and see on his first day – giving him at least a tentative rundown of the schedule will help him to feel more prepared.  Express excitement over getting school supplies, and let him pick them out, so that he’ll be even more eager to use them.  There are also some great books for this particular situation: check out The Night Before Kindergarten, by Natasha Wing, Countdown to Kindergarten by Alison McGhee, and First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg, just to name a few.

A final word on safety …

Your child should be able to recite her full name and parents’ names, her address, and telephone number before going off to school.  Make sure she knows what to do in case she’s approached by a stranger.  Go for walks and practice walking on the sidewalk, crossing at crosswalks, and looking both ways before crossing the street.  And make sure that she knows exactly how she’s getting home: her bus number and driver’s name, if she rides the bus; who may be picking her up (make a list and tell her to only ride with those designated people); or how to get home if she’s walking (practice the route several times, or just walk with her).  Devise an alternate plan in case one way of getting home falls through.

Despite your best efforts, your child’s first day of kindergarten will still be tinged with sadness – after all, your baby’s grown up so fast.  But helping him to prepare beforehand will make the transition as easy as possible for both of you.


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