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Erin Hueffner is a freelance writer and mom living in Madison, Wisconsin.
The transition from preschool to kindergarten is a major milestone. It means your child is a school-ager who will be meeting a whole lot of new kids, taking on new challenges, and going to classes for a full day. Maybe your child is leaving an in-home environment for the first time.
Whatever your situation, you’re not alone if you’re worried about how best to prepare your children for what’s ahead, especially in the last few weeks of summer break when things start getting real.
One key thing to remember: lean on fun, even when it feels like there’s a lot to do. According to kindergarten teacher Cathy Cook, play is one of the most important things your child can do. “Academics have their place, but critical social emotional skills are learned through play,” she says.
Here are some ways to have fun, relax, and prepare your child for the transition to kindergarten:
Like many families, you may be enjoying the chance to spend summer days outside to play at a park or splash at a lake. Take advantage of the opportunity to encourage your child’s curiosity and powers of observation – every now and then, ask them to describe the colors they see, count pebbles, or call out the letters they see on signs. It’s great practice for the kinds of activities they’ll be doing at school, but they’re still having summer fun.
If your school offers new student playdates or school visits, do your best to be there. That way, you can see the classroom, meet new teachers, and help introduce your child to new friends. According to Harvard Medical School, seeing the school environment ahead of the first day can really help ease worries and get kids excited about going to kindergarten.
If possible, plan ahead so the last week or so of summer vacation is actually spent around your home and not away on a trip. That will allow kids to ease in back to routine, overcome any jet lag they might have from previous travels, and get a renewed sense of confidence just by being in a place they know and feel safe in.
Celebrate their milestone by throwing a party – invite friends, family, future classmates, or preschool friends who are also heading to a new school of their own. Decorate with their new school colors and make a cake that says “Hooray Kindergarten!” in frosting. This helps put everyone in the mindset that going to school is a good thing.
Make sure to label everything your child will be taking to school–including clothing, lunch bags, backpacks, and personal school supplies. If your child can write their name, let them help with a few of the labels–your tedium could be their triumph (and if they can’t write their name yet, there’s no need to worry, they have plenty of time in school to practice). You can even make a cute name tag for your child to wear on the first day, with their name, teacher’s name, and a parent’s phone number to ease jitters about getting lost.
Take a trip to the zoo or aquarium to get kids into an exciting learning headspace. Seeing animals from around the world can inspire curiosity in your child and expand their world beyond the backyard. While you’re taking a look at the toucans, you can talk to your child about where the birds live in the wild and what they eat – kids at this age are sponges for fun facts, and can give them some extra confidence before heading into a new educational environment.
Those late nights are fun in the summer, but they can make the transition to school tough. According to NAEYC, routines are comforting to children. Help your child adjust by starting a bedtime routine a few weeks before school starts – low lights, taking a bath, a soothing bedtime story, and limited electronics are all helpful ways to ensure a good night’s sleep.
And on the other end, start getting into a morning routine a week before school starts. Mornings can be rough enough even when you do it every day. Try getting up at the same time and being ready to go by the time you’ll need to leave…or at least work towards that.
At some point either before or after school starts, you’ll probably get a list of supplies that your student needs for class. While you can pick out most of the more mundane items (like pencils, crayons, and facial tissue), consider letting your child choose one special thing like a backpack or lunchbox to help them get excited about the first day.
Find a few books about starting kindergarten at your local library and read them together. This can help your child talk about their worries and ideas about going to school, and see that it’s not so scary because they aren’t alone. You can ask your librarian for suggestions. A few favorites are Pete the Cat: Rocking in My School Shoes by Eric Litwin, Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten by Joseph Slate, and Seven Little Mice Go to School by Kazuo Iwamura.
“Kids seem to have more anxiety coming into kindergarten these days,” says Cook, who has taught kindergarten for more than 20 years. “Just be present with your child. Kids look to their parents for cues, and will pick up on their anxieties, so Cook advises parents to try to stay positive. “Talk to them about their fears, and try to reassure them that their feelings are okay, and that other kids are feeling the same way.” If your child has an older sibling or family friend, they can talk about their kindergarten experience and help soothe fears, too.
Looking for a high-quality child care or preschool to prepare your child for kindergarten? Find one near you.