Mamatoga Preschool Series: Is my Child Ready for Preschool?

Before my son was even born I started thinking about his education and when he would start at a little preschool program, and although my idea of what preschool was consisted mostly of foggy memories of my own preschool experience, I was still pretty sure it would only be for about a year before he started kindergarten. When I started doing actual research into it I realized that you can start your little one in a preschool program as early as 2 years old, and not only that, here in Saratoga we have a lot of different preschool options that offer programs for children that young. Waldorf, Beagle, and the YMCA are just some of the schools in our area that offer two year old preschool, but before picking out which school fits you and your child best you need to first decide if your child is ready to start school.  Even though schools will start taking children this young for programs, readiness for preschool has more to do with where your child is developmentally rather than age. Is he socially, emotionally, physically, and cognitively ready to participate in a program with a group of other children? Though it may seem reassuring to check off a list of skills to determine if your child is ready that method isn't foolproof. The best way to decide is to spend time thinking about your child and to talk to other people who know him well, such as your pediatrician and your child's caregiver. Consider these questions when thinking about preschool readiness as well. Has he spent time away from you? If your child has been cared for by a babysitter or another family member, he might be better prepared to separate from you when he's at preschool. Kids who are used to being apart from their parents often bounce right into preschool with hardly a second glance. If your child hasn't had many opportunities to be away from you, you might want to schedule some, a weekend with grandma, or a playdate where you drop him off for just a little bit. But even if you can't work out your separation issues in advance, don't worry too much; many children leave Mom or Dad for the first time to go to preschool and they do just fine. The trick is to help your child adjust in short doses. Many preschools will allow you to drop off your child for just a short time during his first few days there or to stay for the first few days. As he gets more used to his environment, you gradually work up to dropping him off for the full time. Some experts believe that preschool may even be more important for kids who have been at home with their parents to help get them ready for the move to kindergarten. Preschool can seem like a daunting proposition for some families because it can be the first major separation of parent and child. Because of this, it may literally be the beginning of the child’s having a life that his or her parents do not share and in which other people besides the family and people the family chooses come to have important influence. Looked at in this way, parents want to make sure not only that their child is ready for pre-academic pursuits, but that their child has had the experiences they wanted him or her to have had before sending him or her out into the wider world.

One big question to consider for preschool readiness is whether or not your child can work on projects on his own. Preschool usually involves lots of arts and crafts projects that require concentration and the ability to focus on an individual task. I will never forget the first art projects I took home for both of my kids, they felt like little treasures. If your child likes to draw at home or gets engrossed in simple puzzles and other activities by himself, he may be a good candidate for preschool. But even if he's the kind of child who asks for help with everything, you can start getting him ready by setting up playtimes where he can entertain himself for a half hour or so. While you go about an activity of your own, encourage him to make something out of playdoh, for example. Slowly build up to longer stretches of solo activity. The goal here is to keep yourself moderately occupied with an activity so that he'll get on with his own without too much hand-holding on your part. Another aspect of building this skill is to give your child some simple instructions, something that he will encounter in preschool. Ask them to put their shoes away or hang their coat up or help to clean up after their snack. This will help them get ready for the simple instructions they'll start getting in preschool.

Another thing to think about when considering preschool readiness is whether or not your child can participate in group activities. For the younger kids going into two year old preschool, this might not be such a big concern at first since most children that age aren't quite ready to engage too much with their peers and are more into parallel play, but you can start them out with trying some group activities by taking them to playgroups at the library or Children's Museum that can be similar to preschool activities. Simply getting them used to playing around other children in a group can help them get ready to participate in the types of games and circle time activities they'll take part in when going to preschool.

Your child's schedule and energy level are further important indicators of preschool readiness. My kids were still (thankfully) nap takers when I started them out at preschool so I tried to choose a program that worked around this. Most schools will offer a morning and an afternoon option, so figuring out which one works best for your child and their schedule rather than trying to work against it will make everyone happier with the preschool transition. Even though it can be a short time, keep in mind that preschool can be demanding for a toddler, there is usually some playground time and lots of physical activity packed into that mini school "day". While children are at preschool, they are learning emotionally, cognitively, physically and socially. They spend a lot of time practising gross and fine motor skills and developing their new skills in language and communication. Your little one may not have much to show for their day at preschool, but a lot happens at preschool that is not immediately apparent – the activity is seen, but not the learning.

Something I didn't expect but definitely should have was that preschool readiness of course varies from child to child, and you need to consider that within your own family. My son took to preschool like a fish to water and never looked back, my daughter took to it more like a fish to a bicycle. Not well. I sort of assumed since Finn loved school so much and Levy was eager to start that she would get along well, but that wasn't the case and we had a difficult first year of preschool. I had to look at approaching preschool almost as a first time preschool parent with her and by doing so we've had a much better experience so far this year.

One easy thing you can do with your child is visit the school they might be attending. Familiarity can go a long way for a stress free preschool transition. Throughout our preschool series we're going to feature different schools in our area to consider (check out our first spotlight preschool, Katrina Trask Coooperative Nursery School here), and we'll be giving you a heads up on how and when to go visit the schools you're interested in. Slowly introducing the idea of preschool and getting your child ready for that environment can make the transition smoother for both of you.