A fresh look at preschool readiness

a b c d e f g … We glow when our toddler sings her alphabet, counts to ten or announces that a box is “actually a square”. Like a sponge, young children absorb an astonishing amount information and rapidly make it their own. Surely, successful school experiences are in all their futures. In fact, this aptitude for facile learning, a sturdy memory and reliable recall is a genuine indicator of intellectual prowess. But we all know there’s more to the story. Much more. What else does go into this readiness package? Are there other, possibly even more meaningful markers of preschool preparedness? Indeed, there are several. And the good news is that most of these qualities – ones that allow youngsters to make the most of and get the most from their preschool experience – grow straight out of everyday family living. Here is a look at a few:

TRUST: It’s safe to say that early preschool experiences require one leap of faith after another:

  • new people – teachers and kids
  • new surroundings – a big, bright classroom
  • new activities – like touching wet clay
  • new demands – speaking up in a group
  • new choices – hmmm, painting or legos?
  • new expectations – waiting my turn when I really, really want to get up and go

In order to enjoy these challenges and approach them as new roads to independence, our preschooler needs to believe that adults, teachers included, are trustworthy – that they will look out for her, guide her in positive directions, tune in to her feelings and always keep their word.

How do we engender and encourage this kind of “basic trust”? Answer: through reasonable expectations, kind, firm and consistent limits and lots and lots of love. For example: I expect Howie to end his play, toss his trucks in the toy chest, and join me so we can go to outdoors. Howie is three. He gets it. He just doesn’t want to do it. He’s having a great time with those trucks. I take a breath, realizing there will be multiple steps to this process. First, fair warning, “Howie, in a few minutes, we’re going to put those trucks away so we can go outside.” Then, I go in to help by turning it into a game. ”Okay, I’m sending you a garbage truck…get ready”. I expect Howie to jump in., but he may balk and put his foot down. In that case, I might cajole for a minute, then deliver a consequence. “Okay. This is tough for you right now. I’ll put away all the trucks for you and set them up here. Before we get them down next time, let’s be sure you’ll be helping with the clean-up.”

PLAYFULNESS AND IMAGINATION: I’ll just say it: 3- and 4-year-olds should not be too serious. Their world should be peopled by silly songs, playful banter and pretend everything. New language, new ideas and new imagery blossom when children bring their fantasies to life, swapping scenarios with their parents and pals. Children try on new personages and perspectives as a way to figure out their world. And when they overwhelm us with silly nonsense rhymes and riddles (Why did the peanut cross the road?) and “surprise!” appearances, they become masters of their own universe, able to turn reality on its head. We know some toddlers are natural jokesters. Everyone else can use a jumpstart from their parents. Something most of us do this without even thinking – from “Silly Billy” and “Ziggy Zachy” to “Momma’s gonna wear your shoes today, okay?”

RESILIENCE: Resilience is the ability to bounce back after small disappointments and frustration and it is absolutely central to a child’s first school experience. In a group situation, your boy may be disappointed because he is not first in line, not sitting next to Lucy, or not given his favorite snack; because he didn’t have time to finish his block building, someone else is using his favorite puzzle, his best bud is absent, and it’s too wet to play outdoors… etcetera. Fortunately, as parents we have many (oh so many!) opportunities to help our children manage small disappointments. Probably the most tried and true path to resolution is – acknowledge, comfort and move on. “I know you wanted to play a little longer with your trucks, Howie. Later we’ll make sure there’s lots of time, but now we have to go out.” The message is – I see you’re disappointed and I’m sorry about that, but it’s not the end of the world. More fun times are ahead for sure!

CARING: Instilling empathy in a young child is a subtle, complex and never ending process. It’s one thing to feel sorry for a child whose balloon just popped or who fell and skinned her knee. Another to see our own words or actions as potentially hurtful. I knew a teacher who helped concretize this process by asking a child to “Look at his face,” in other words, “Read the emotion there. Her feelings are really hurt.” Afterwards, teacher and child or parent and child can take steps to remedy and put things right again.

In any preschool classroom, misunderstandings abound: the overlap of egocentric thinking with a larger social understanding. So, for example, Stella sits in the red chair because she’s wanted to all morning. Never mind that Corey was in the process of lowering herself into that very spot. “I had it first!” “No, I had it first!” Each child feels deserving of the chair. Carlos drives his train smack into Teddy’s block building, toppling it in the process. Bad guy vanquished by good guy in train! Then instantly, Teddy is in tears. The adult who helps children regain their calm so they can deconstruct and assume each other’s point of view builds important avenues for social learning and shared enjoyment.

So, markers of readiness and opportunities to foster them are everywhere in the daily lives we share with our children. Trust, imagination, resilience and caring – these are just a few of the qualities that allow children to immerse themselves happily in a preschool environment; to both enjoy and contribute to it. In nurturing these traits, we nurture children ready to make the most of their school experience; children who are adventurous and eager to try new things, who can persevere when expectations are high, who build meaningful connections with others, and have a great good time. They expect good things to come their way and most often they do. These kids are preschool ready!

Finally, here is one director’s short list of qualities that enable children to be preschool ready:

  1. Confidence and trust
  2. An openness to new experiences
  3. Comfort with other children and adults
  4. Curiosity about lots of things; an eagerness to learn and to know
  5. A lively imagination and playfulness with language
  6. The ability to follow short (2-step) directions
  7. The capacity to focus and to stick with challenging tasks
  8. Respect and caring
  9. Resilience
  10. Pride in new learning, new skills and new accomplishments