I have a friend who took kindergarten prep very seriously. When her son began getting homework in preschool (“homework” and “preschool” being two words that should never go together) and he couldn’t properly identify on the homework that “car” started with the letter “C,” she freaked out.
“The poor kid was practically homeschooled over the summer,” she later told me. “I got a bunch of activity books and we worked on them. I think we did sight words, adding and subtracting, letter sounds and opposites. Pretty much all the stuff we did in kindergarten.”
Since her son has a September birthday and would be among the youngest in his class, she felt sure she had to catch him up to where she imagined the other kids would be at the start of the year. But it backfired on her.
“When he went to school, he knew it all,” she told me. “I got phone calls that he did his work and then went around the class and corrected the other kids.”
Before Ryan started kindergarten a few years ago, and I worried that he wasn’t yet reading at all, her advice to me was simple: Don’t push it. He’ll learn what he needs to learn in kindergarten.
There is a lot of talk about how preschool is the new kindergarten and kindergarten is the new first grade, but does that mean our kids need to be more academically knowledgeable at that age than we were?
Most experts say no. What they need to start learning before kindergarten is more about life skills and less about whether they know that two plus two equals four.
Marcy Guddemi, former executive director of the Gesell Institute of Child Development in New Haven, Conn., told Today.com that concepts that foster independence in kids should be introduced—but not necessarily mastered—before they start kindergarten.
Guddemi insists that learning happens at different rates for different kids, and the best thing you can do for your child at this age is to encourage a love of learning. Hint: It’s all about cultivating confidence and independence at this point.
So what should they be able to do before kindergarten?
Do kids need to learn to read before kindergarten? Definitely not. But they should know how books work. They should know how to hold a book and which way to turn the pages, and they should start to grasp that the story is told through the words, rather than simply with the pictures.
You can get this point across by tracing the words with your fingers or pointing out specific words within the story. Reading to kids regularly—and having them see you read—is the best way to guarantee they’ll be lifelong readers, and that’s more important than whether they can sound out words at five years old.
If they recognize most letters and can count from 1-10, they’re right on track for kindergarten. They don’t necessarily have to know what sound each letter makes, but recognizing letters and understanding that they are grouped together to make words is the first step to being able to read. They should also be able to identify some basic colors and shapes.
By kindergarten, kids should be getting pretty adept at writing their own name with the letters arranged in the correct order from left to right and, ideally, with a capital letter at the beginning (no need to panic about that last part, though). Their penmanship doesn’t have to be perfect but clear enough for the teacher to be able to read it.
By kindergarten, kids should be able to mostly dress themselves, use the restroom on their own, pack up their own backpack and, in general, be able to ask for what they need. They should be able to use basic art supplies like crayons, glue sticks and safety scissors. And they should be able to separate from their parents without too much distress (this is something that is harder for some kids at the beginning of the year but should get easier over time).
Kindergarteners should be able to share, take turns and be able to (mostly) listen and follow simple directions. This will obviously continue to be a work in progress for some time, but the concept of having to wait in a line or raise a hand before speaking should not be super new. (I’ve also read some advice about how to teach them to sit still —“practice” playing school at home—but I don’t know... good luck with that.)
At five years old, kids should be able to state their first and last name—and if you can get them to memorize their address and phone number, that’s even better. When I picked my son up from preschool one afternoon and he told me he had an assignment to memorize his address by the end of the week, I almost laughed in response. Learn his address? How on Earth was he going to memorize HIS ADDRESS?? But, I started reciting it to him over and over in a special sing-songy voice; to this day, he’ll still repeat it with the same cadence. Same with my cell phone number, which I taught him around the same time in case he ever got separated from me and needed to use someone’s phone to call me.
So, while kindergarten may be the new first grade in terms of length of the day and how quickly they progress academically during the year, there’s no need to push the prep too much before they’re ready.