How do I prepare my child for kindergarten?
Every parent or family wants their child to be the next Einstein (of course without the wild hair and mustache). Or perhaps their daughter could be the next Sonia Sotomayor (sans the fashion backward black Supreme Court justice robe).
But before planning each child’s path toward a MacArthur Genius Award, teachers, providers, parents, and families all want to know how best to prepare young children for kindergarten.
Cost and location continue to be the most important factors influencing a family’s decision on which early care and education setting their child will attend. Yet numerous national research studies continue to conclude that for children to be prepared for kindergarten, the early childhood experiences they have in programs or at home must be high quality. Simply attending a program, without regard for quality, or watching television and playing videos at home, do not ensure that children will be ready for kindergarten.
And so states across the nation have launched initiatives to not only improve prekindergarten program quality, but to give families valuable tools for assessing programs so that the early care and education decisions they make for their children are informed by quality factors.
These state initiatives, generically known as Quality Rating and Improvement System or QRIS, focus primarily on the learning environment and teacher/provider/caregiver qualifications. Quality elements to look for in a classroom or family child care include healthy and safe facilities (e.g., licensed by the state); age-appropriate tables and chairs; adequate “open-ended” toys and materials (e.g., blocks, playdough, paints, brushes, and markers); ample opportunities for dramatic (i.e., pretend) play (e.g., “house area”, puppets and puppet theater); and cognitive play areas (e.g., writing area, science table, water table, sandbox, book corner). While educational background, certificates, licenses, and permits are key components of teacher/provider/caregiver qualifications, experience including proven early care and education competency are often just as important, if not more valuable in the attainment of a skill set that translates to “highly qualified.”
And while the environment and teacher/provider/caregiver qualifications are essential to quality early care and education, more and more high-quality learning opportunities depend on two key elements: the relationships and interactions that children have with their teachers, providers, families, caregivers, and peers; and the level of children’s engagement in play and learning. Teacher, provider, caregiver, and family relationships that are highly interactive and characterized by extended conversations including open-ended questioning; imaginative play activities that require some degree of problem-solving; shared book reading including a creative reenactment of stories, and opportunities for children to demonstrate confidence and independence, all promote healthy social and emotional development and positive attitudes and approaches toward learning. Such healthy relationships prepare children to be kindergarten-ready, as well as lifelong learners.
We all learn more, engage for longer periods of time, and sustain our focus when we do things that interest us. Children are no different when it comes to early care and learning experiences. And while the relationships and interactions with adults described above are vital, sometimes teachers, providers, caregivers, and families need to: focus on what our children are genuinely interested in; provide the materials that interest them (frequently these materials cost nothing – e.g., a refrigerator box, dirt, and water, a library book); ensure that children have ample time to engage with the materials and peers that interest them; and step back and allow children to create, imagine, explore, and problem-solve independently or with peers.
Yes, maybe your child will be the next Van Gogh (with both ears) or Condoleezza Rice (of course you can be Secretary of State AND play the piano), but the best way to prepare children for kindergarten is by developing strong, lasting, positive relationships and by promoting genuine, prolonged engagement in the play, activities, and interactions that interest them most.