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Prepare preschoolers for first leap into school

By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia

Little Matthew Fudger, 2, stood shyly next to his mother and peeked into his new classroom from the hallway of Presbyterian Preschool and Kindergarten in Roswell, Ga. He wasn't sure he wanted to go in.

"Let's go inside," his mother Amy said. After a few minutes, he finally did, making the giant leap into being a preschool kid.

A preschool program can prepare children to better play and interact with others and solve problems, said Diane Bales, an Extension child development specialist in the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

"Even very young children can learn a lot by playing with other children," she said. "And a positive preschool experience can help children be excited about learning when they begin school."

Getting ready

But that first day, or those first few weeks, can be a tough adjustment for preschool children.

Here's a basic checklist to gauge your child's school-readiness. Does your child:

  • Sit quietly for short periods?

  • Follow two- and three-step directions?

  • Cooperate, take turns and occasionally solve disagreements with other children?

  • Eat lunch, use the bathroom and dress himself independently?

  • Explore his environment safely?

  • Feel confident of his abilities?
If you answered yes to these questions, your child may be ready for preschool, Bales said.

Practice

You can help your child practice school skills at home by:

  • Practicing tying shoes, getting dressed and cleaning up after meals and playtime.
  • Giving the child simple directions like setting the table or laying out clothes for the next day.
Focus on developing confidence, too, Bales said. Children who feel good about themselves are less afraid to ask questions or try to solve problems.

Knowing other children in the class may make the child feel comfortable that first day. Find out who will be in your child's class and introduce them. Or gain an edge, as Amy Fudger did with Matthew, by enrolling your child in a program that has children he already knows.

Program choices

Not all preschool programs are the same. Mother's-morning-out programs tend to be less structured, with more play time, than some preschool learning programs.

"The youngest children may do best in a less structured program, where most of their time is spent in free play," Bales said.

A shorter program, she said, may work better for a very young child.

Older toddlers and preschoolers may be ready for a more structured program that includes organized group activities. They may be ready to spend a half day or full day at preschool.

"But even a more structured preschool program should include plenty of time devoted to indoor and outdoor play," Bales said.

Children should have chances to choose activities and explore on their own or with other children, she said.

Getting an edge

School success can start before children leave home. Make sure they're rested, nourished and protected. Parents can provide early learning at home through reading, singing, dancing or playing.

"Young children learn best through hands-on experience," she said, "by seeing, doing, touching, feeling and acting things out. Play truly is young children's 'work.'"

Children have more time for play if the television is off.

"Television can certainly be entertaining, and certain shows can help children learn," Bales said. "The problem is that television is a passive activity. Children don't have to do anything but sit and watch."

Parents should decide in advance what shows to watch, she said. They should watch shows with the children and discuss what they see together, and turn off the TV when shows are over.

Starting school is a big step for parents and children.

"Little steps can make starting school easier and a better experience for children and parents," Bales said.

(Faith Peppers is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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