Take turns rolling dice. Sort laundry around colors and sizes. And read, lots of reading.
This time of year, Spokane parents of children ages 4 and 5 are registering them for kindergarten next fall. But educators say it’s also prime time at home to help those children build more language, math and emotional-social skills.
“Many parents even started thinking about it a year ago or last summer, thinking is my child ready?” said Karin Thompson, with Spokane Public Schools. Part of her work involved the district’s move from half-day to full-day kindergarten.
In Spokane, parents can complete registration now, for children age 5 on or before Aug. 31. In Coeur d’Alene, kindergarten registration is open April 17-May 8, and children must be 5 on or before Sept. 1 of the school year.
To help parents, SPS offers a list of kindergarten readiness guidelines for families to work with a child on different skills.
Thompson, the parent of a kindergartener herself, has recent experience with getting a child ready to start school. She said her biggest challenge as a parent was learning to let go and give her daughter – who has an Aug. 1 birthday and is among the younger students in her class – more responsibility and freedom.
“I had to really move toward letting my daughter be more independent, so simple things like letting her zip her coat, which sounds so silly, but she had to work at it,” Thompson said.
Other questions for parents follow similar lines.
“Can they go to the bathroom independently from start to finish and wash their hands, or are we still coaching them through that process? For me, it was kind of letting go of those things I just did automatically for my child, letting her do what she could for herself and letting her work at it.”
Some of the questions offered by the SPS guidelines ask if a child can:
Follow two-step to three-step directions consistently?
Tell you about feelings?
In self-soothing way, can calm down when frustrated or upset?
Shares, take turns, helps others?
Adjusts to new situations?
Can wash hands and go to the bathroom independently?
Puts on own coat?
Remembers and follows routines?
Visiting a neighborhood school can ease anxiety. Thompson said new SPS families receive a kindergarten bag filled with forms, math and reading activities and a book, “The Kissing Hand.”
In the book, a child raccoon doesn’t want to go to the first day of school, she said. “So the mom raccoon kisses the child’s hand and says, ‘Hold up your hand and I’ll always be with you.’ Then the baby raccoon before he heads into school does that back to his mom so she doesn’t miss him.”
Other tips include helping kids learn about sharing, playing cooperatively and taking turns as they interact with friends and peers at kid activities, school functions and preschool.
In Kootenai County, United Way of North Idaho offers free workshops on Ready! For Kindergarten geared to parents and caregivers of kids ages 2 to 5. They learn ideas for activities and receive tools in an educational kit for home with items such as blocks, puzzles and a book.
The workshops – in spring, fall and winter – are framed around the foundation that learning begins at birth, and that parents and caregivers are a child’s first teachers, said Keri Stark, the agency’s director of community impact.
“Before age 5 is when more than 85 percent of a child’s brain is formed, and those neural connections are just firing like crazy,” Stark said. “Those connections are what develop the social-emotional skills, the cognitive skills, that are the basis for learning.
“It’s all about learning through play, imitation and gentle repetition, so it’s fun, frequent interactions with their caregiver along with reading, talking and playing,” Stark said.
Research shows how even 20 minutes of daily reading to kids builds attachment, resilience and empathy, she added.
“If you can practice conversation back and forth, conversation even with babies, that talking and reading are so important.”
Stark said parents are encouraged to use everyday moments. A few ideas include:
Play with purpose using games and chores. Have a child find a red vegetable or count items going into a cart. Games can include simple dice games for rolling and taking turns. Count the number of dots, or the child can match it with the same amount of small toys.
At snack time, if a child wants Cheerios, parents can ask “more or less” questions, Stark said. “Maybe you can say, ‘Who has more Cheerios? Who has less Cheerios? How many more do you want, five?”
Encourage dialogue while driving, at meals and after reading. Be more descriptive to build vocabulary. “‘Go put your shoes on’ becomes, ‘Can you go put on your two blue shoes?’” Stark added. “They’re learning to identify things by their attributes: shape, quantity, color.”
Use words around feelings and emotions. Simply ask a child, “How are you feeling?” Stark said parents can cut pictures from magazines or print images with words such as happy, sad, tired, angry, worried, silly, afraid, sick.
“By equipping a child with names to go with feelings, it helps children learn the differences between maybe sad and worried and figuring out different coping mechanism for that. They can better identify their emotions rather than act out through problem behaviors.”
More description can go into affirmations, Stark added. “Instead of just saying, ‘Good job,’ you can say, ‘I love the way you sat down and worked on that puzzle even though it was difficult. You really were patient and worked hard.’”
Use paper scraps to label some household items. “They’re seeing letters and starting to understand that letters mean something and make words.”
Central Valley School District principal Kim Kyle suggests parents also encourage kids to do short, independent tasks at home such as coloring.
“Another thing we see as a struggle for kids is to sustain an activity for five to 10 minutes independently,” said Kyle, based at Liberty Creek Elementary. “It would be a good skill to bring into kindergarten if they’re at home and can color for five to 10 minutes, or sit and read a book.”
Her tips include adults asking a child to help set the table or count objects while prepping in the kitchen. Using a pencil and Legos help build motor skills they’ll use in school. Kids learn to follow directions and another adult’s lead in a craft activity or dance class.
In the car, an adult can help a child identify signs and letters. When reading, talk about the characters and what they’re feeling.
“It helps build emotional skills and comprehension, understanding what is happening in the story, how it might affect the character,” Kyle added. “Usually the story has a message and you can talk about it.
“Make it fun, play games and let the kids lose a game. Help them understand how we take turns, that we share, and sometimes I get the blue race car and you get the red race car.”
For kids with a later birthday in August, parents shouldn’t worry if they decide to wait a year, she added. Preschool teachers can be a good resource.
“We do see kids who would benefit having one more year before starting school,” Kyle said. “I don’t think you can go wrong if you wait. Ask their teacher how they’re interacting with peers, are they sustaining independent tasks?”
Thompson said SPS schools schedule Family Connection Conferences for new kindergarteners and families starting in late August. There, a child and parents get acquainted with the teacher privately. Kindergartners don’t start until Sept. 4, while the other elementary students start Aug. 29.
“The first three days of school is when our kindergarten teachers really get to know families so they can best support them. Then, that first day of school is not so scary. They’ve been in their classroom and met their teacher. That’s been well received by both teachers and families.”
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