My wife and I were immediately smitten the day we first visited our daughter’s preschool. A bunch of kids ran around in the mud, slinging water everywhere. Another group was playing imagination games with dress-up clothes. Still others sat quietly in a corner, caring for their baby dolls. They were really and truly playing, which was exactly what we wanted. We enrolled our daughter on the spot.Fast-forward two years later, with kindergarten looming, it slowly but surely dawned on us: “play-based preschool” meant the kids played at preschool. All the time. Sure, they listened to stories, sang, drew, created, and built — but it was all in the name of play. Was our child actually going to be ready for kindergarten? She could write her name and had gained a handful of skills, but beyond that, her academics hadn’t really been a focal point.As much as we believed that the whole purpose of kindergarten was to serve as an introduction to school, the push to make preschools more academic gave us feelings of uncertainty, and had us second-guessing. In the end, we decided to take some advice that, as teachers, we’ve given to many parents ourselves over the years.
Relax. In the grand scheme, it’s going to be okay. If we support our kids while nurturing their interests and strengths, they are going to learn how to read and write, and how to remember that 90 doesn’t come right after 50. They’re also going to learn the right way to hold a pencil and how to raise their hand when they have something to say. These things might take time, and they might be bumpy, but they’ll happen. There is no rush — after all, these kids are going to be in school for years and years. They’ll have plenty of time to practice being a student as they get older.
Play might be more important than ever. The term “play-based preschool” might seem redundant: play is supposed to be what preschool is for. Kindergarten is generally more academic than it once was, with less free choice time and more academic demands built into the day, and more preschools are following suit. Whatever type of school your kids go to, try not to second-guess a decision to choose play over work: it’s not going to be a mistake. And speaking of which:
Play is work. The age-old idea that “play is the work of the child” honors the reality that for our little ones, play is both significant and emotionally demanding. Remember that play is full of risk-taking, decision-making, emotional ups and downs, negotiation and creativity. It’s more than a full-time job, and it’s one of the key ways that kids learn to make sense of the world. Adding more traditional “work” early on isn’t necessarily beneficial to all kids, especially if they’re reluctant. Some kids will eat it up, but others may become resentful.
Play academic games and read. Reading to your child every day is one of the most beneficial things you can do for their development. It also models literacy, the most fundamental academic part of school. If you want to work in a little academic boost, consider fun games that work on the building blocks of reading and writing. You can play rhyming games (“what rhymes with cat”?), word games (“say ladybug, now say it without bug, now replace lady with bed”), sight word games (bingo, fly swatter, snakes and ladders), multisensory tracing activities (tracing letters and numbers on sandpaper, shaving cream, someone’s back), and more. My daughter is currently obsessed with reading house numbers — it makes for very slow walks around the neighborhood, but it’s helped her number recognition enormously.
Take your child’s lead. If your child is begging for work packets and drills—give them some! But be flexible; there is an allure to homework, flash cards, and worksheets that may dull over time. If, on the other hand, your child is reluctant to learn their letters and do counting activities, take breaks—maybe long ones—and check in frequently. It’s all about balance. Kindergartens are not all built the same, but they do provide certain basic introductions to what school is. Homework can easily become a battle, and you don’t want it to start before it has even begun.Every child is different. Some kids start to read when they’re three; for others, reading doesn’t really click until the middle and even upper elementary grades. But all kids need to play, and there’s not much downside to prioritizing it over academics when they’re very young. They may start school on a different academic trajectory than some of their classmates, but in the end, that’s okay — kids, and their families, have different needs. As our society tries to define what it actually means to be “ready for kindergarten,” my family came to peace with knowing that we are giving the most possible play time to our daughter and trusting that the academics will follow.
Author Bret Turner