Kindergarten Readiness, Part 1

06/16/2015 03:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

Most families know that early childhood education is critical for later school success. But most don't know which social/behavioral and early academic "kindergarten readiness" abilities and knowledge children should have by the time they are old enough to enter kindergarten.

Photo by woodleywonderworks.

So, what is kindergarten readiness?

To a kindergarten teacher, it means that children entering kindergarten are well prepared—physically, socially (that is, how they behave), and academically—to participate positively in class and learn the many concepts and skills that will be taught.

Families simply want to know, "Is my child ready?"

Based on more than 30 years of experience as a teacher of young children, I would like to share with all those anxious parents and grandparents the most important kindergarten-readiness indicators, along with simple, practical tips they can use to help their children become kindergarten-ready in the years before formal schooling begins.

Because there are quite a few kindergarten-readiness indicators, there will be two parts to this blog post. Part one focuses on non-academic indicators.

Kindergarten-Readiness Indicator: The ability to listen to others

What Families Can Do:
• Read aloud to your child every day, starting with one page at a time.
• Encourage your child to listen to what you are saying without interrupting.
• Show what it means to listen to others by fully paying attention to your child and asking questions about her interests.

Kindergarten-Readiness Indicator: Can communicate needs

What Families Can Do:
• When your child seems to be having a problem or wants something, encourage him to explain how he feels: "I'm tired." "My finger hurts." "I need help with this puzzle."
• Encourage your child to speak in complete sentences: "I would like a cheese cracker."

Kindergarten-Readiness Indicator: Can state his or her own name and the names of family members

What Families Can Do:
• Help your child to understand that everyone has a name, including mommy, daddy, and brothers or sisters.
• Practice saying and spelling family names.

Kindergarten-Readiness Indicator: Obeys simple rules (waits in line, follows others, shares)

What Families Can Do:
• Read your child books about school, following rules, and sharing, such as Llama Llama Misses Mama and Llama Llama Time to Share, by Anna Dewdney.
• Talk to your child about how easy it is to follow school rules:
     - Standing in line: just as we do at the grocery store.
     - Sharing: just as you share your favorite cup with your brother.
     - Following rules: just as mommy follows traffic rules in the car.

Kindergarten-Readiness Indicator: Follows instructions

What Families Can Do:
• Regularly give your child one-step directions: "Please pick up your towel." "Say 'thank you' to Grandma." "Stand next to me."
• Introduce two-step directions during your daily routine: "Please pick up your towel and put it in the basket." "Put the napkin next to the plate, and put the spoon on top of the napkin."

Kindergarten-Readiness Indicator: Can engage in an activity until it is completed

What Families Can Do:
• Play short games, such as "Go Fish" or memory games, until they're completed; gradually introduce longer games.
• Have your child build structures that require some persistence, such as block towers.
• Have your child completely clean up toys after using them.

Kindergarten-Readiness Indicator: Can work independently on an age-appropriate task

What Families Can Do:
• Don't help your child with everything.
• Encourage your child to work independently as she does puzzles, looks through books, colors in a coloring book, creates art projects, and so on.

Kindergarten-Readiness Indicator: Demonstrates gross motor skills
("Gross motor skills" refers to the ability to control large muscles, such as those in the arms and legs.)

What Families Can Do:
• Have your child practice skipping; bouncing, kicking, and throwing a ball; swinging on a swing; and balancing on a curb or low balance beam.
• Try jumping rope, dancing, or gymnastics.

Kindergarten-Readiness Indicator: Demonstrates fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination

What Families Can Do:
("Fine motor skills" refers to the ability to control small muscles, especially those in the fingers and hands.)
• Have your child practice cutting straight lines, and then simple shapes, with scissors and newspapers.
• Have your child string small beads or glue pasta on paper.
• Have your child practice throwing and catching a ball.

Kindergarten-Readiness Indicator: Can manage his/her own clothes: buttoning shirts; zippering pants; taking off and putting on caps, gloves, and jackets.

What Families Can Do:
• Have your child regularly practice using zippers, buttons, and snaps.
• Help your child practice putting on clothes independently.

Kindergarten-Readiness Indicator: Works and plays well with other children

What Families Can Do:
• Show how you take turns and share when you play with your child.
• Let your child regularly play with other children and observe their interactions.
• Take your child to a children's park, museum, or playground, and allow him to interact with other children and share toys or equipment.

Kindergarten-Readiness Indicator: Can separate from a parent

What Families Can Do:
• Explain to your child that all children go to school and are picked up right after.
• When your child gets dropped off and picked up after visiting with grandma or other family members, explain to her that that's what will happen at school.
• Visit a school and let your child see all the happy children in a kindergarten classroom.

Remember, this is not a checklist of things that suddenly happen when a child turns four or five. Many of these abilities begin to develop from a very early age as you interact with your baby and toddler, talking, singing, and reading.

Families that regularly spend time talking with their child, playing games that promote good literacy and numeracy habits, and supporting the development of the abilities listed above will help their child enjoy kindergarten from the moment they enter, while they are also creating a strong foundation for learning throughout his or her school years.

Next week, I will follow up with a list of early academic kindergarten-readiness indicators and more tips to help families prepare their children for kindergarten.

To learn more now, read this informative Kindergarten Readiness newsletter, featuring an interview with educational consultant (and colleague of mine) Patricia Lozano.

Rebecca A. Palacios, Ph.D., is a Senior Curriculum Advisor for Age of Learning, Inc., the company that operates