Prepping for preschool

Beyond the ABC’s and 123s — the skills parents should expect their child to learn



Last year, CeCe Harris, 4, of Portsmouth, attended The Children’s Garden in Portsmouth two half-days a week.

This year she’ll add another day to her schedule and is more than ready to spend additional time in the classroom. CeCe’s mother, Jessica Harris, a former preschool teacher, said that she was lucky that CeCe exhibited no initial separation anxiety and has always been naturally social. Still, attending a structured preschool helped further develop CeCe’s social and fine motor skills.

“CeCe has been home with me since she was born, and I feel that this gradual increase prepares her for the full-week schedule she’ll face in kindergarten,” Harris said. “As much as I have used my skill set to assist her at home with academic tasks, I think there is something to be said for the classroom environment.”

Thousands of families across New Hampshire are sending their 3- to 5-year-old children to preschool this fall. Families can choose to send their children two to five days a week, and program days can range from 3 to 10 hours long.

Some programs are an extension of child care; others serve preschool-age children only. Whether parents are looking for their children to grow their social and emotional skills, develop academic proficiency or simply separate from their families a few hours a day, many are curious about what skills preschoolers should grasp before they head to kindergarten. From potty training to speaking, reading and writing, several experts weigh in on what you should expect your preschooler to learn – and how you can support their growth.

Develop a sense of independence through play

Katelyn Dennis, executive director of Great Bay Kids Company, a 50-year-old nonprofit child care center with sites in Portsmouth, Exeter and Newmarket, said preschool students should first aim to develop independence and self-help skills.

GBKC’s preschool program serves children ages 3 to 5 from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, in addition to providing care for children from age six weeks through kindergarten and after-school programs. GBKC reaches 600 students each day.

“We often [as parents] want to do everything for them at home. It’s important to develop independent skills so that they can take care of their body and be healthy,” she said.

Great Bay Kids Company completes regular individual student learning assessments and follows the Creative Curriculum, which outlines developmentally appropriate activities for children according to their age. Dennis said that GBKC also follows the School Administrative Unit 16’s report card for both pre-K and kindergarten, as teachers work closely with educators in the district to support children with individual education plans who attend the center.

Teachers focus on activities that help develop fine and large motor, social, and emotional growth.

“We know that 85 to 90 percent of the brain develops before the age of 5,” Dennis said. “What may look like play is an activity a teacher has set up on purpose to develop specific skills.”

And for those parents worried about potty training — a prerequisite for entry into many preschool programs — Dennis said it is built into the curriculum at GBKC.

“Children model their peers’ behavior and support each other,” she said.

At Live and Learn Early Learning Center in Lee, owner and director Johanna Booth-Miner’s preschool students focus on building resilience and independence through connections made in nature.

“Taking away ages 4 and 5 so that children can be 6 is a crime,” Booth Miner said. “I don’t believe in worksheets or sitting down with workbooks.”

Since 1974, students at Live and Learn have spent a lot of time outside. As the first Nature Explore Certified Outdoor Classroom in the state, the school offers three classrooms of preschoolers (and their younger and older peers ages 6 weeks to kindergarten, as well as children up to age 13 in their afterschool program) 25 acres of land to explore, including five miles of nature trails and plenty of animal friends.

“Every classroom as a mammal and fish tank. We have two donkeys, two sheep, 14 chickens and four rabbits [in barns]. Our children tell you eggs come from chickens, not the grocery store,” Booth-Miner said.

Through feeding and caring for animals, students develop caregiving skills and empathy. They learn also math and science through gathering and collecting data outdoors. Teachers photograph students as they are completing activities and “tag” them
according to skill set — for example, fine motor — and send them to parents so they can see student learning in action. Later, these photographs become part of an annual portfolio.

Potty training is not required before students move up to a preschool classroom; classrooms are fluid and students can “try out” the next age level classroom to ensure it’s a fit.

“Can children succeed if they don’t know all the letters in their name by kindergarten? Yes. If they know how to risk-take and understand failure is not the end, but the beginning of the learning process, the child is ready,” Booth-Miner said.

Focus on speech, language, and literacy

“By age 4, you should understand 80 to 90 percent of what your child is saying,” said Kate Glennon, a speech and language pathologist with Clearly Speaking, a speech therapy practice with offices in Dover, Hampton Falls and Londonderry. While shyness is a normal behavior, by age 3 and 4, children should understand how to take turns, play cooperatively and verbally relate experiences to their peers and adults, Glennon said.

Parents can support their preschool-age child’s communication skills by empowering them in their communication, in whatever stage they happen to be in.

“They are just beginning to express ideas, frustrations and feelings ­— acknowledge them for that,” she said.

Reading to your child helps develop critical vocabulary skills, and in addition, they get the one-to-one communication and reciprocal sharing with someone else, Glennon said.

“I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on preschoolers’ knowledge of their ABCs and 123s, but they should be asking questions and be an active communicator. They should be able to self-regulate before they learn as part of a group,” Glennon said.

A good preschool teacher should be enthusiastic and excited about books and talking about them. Good preschool classrooms include plenty of pencils, markers, lined paper, construction paper and other materials to help foster interest in reading and writing, according to Ruth Wharton-McDonald, an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire and director of Seacoast Reads, a one-to-one tutoring program.

Some activities that support early literacy include reading nursery rhymes, singing songs, learning to recognize rhymes and even re-reading the same books to help support children re-telling a
story in a different way, she said. Learning how to take turns while talking and listening while someone else is talking are important skills for little ones to learn as well.

At the same time, parents should understand that some children might not talk much compared to other 3-year-olds but might instead enjoy music or dance. Or kick a soccer ball better than other children. A good preschool is aware of the developmental trajectory that kids follow, but also pays lots of attention to individual children, Wharton-McDonald said.

“In young children, we know there is a natural tendency in the community to compare your child to a neighbor, cousin or older child. In most cases, that’s not particularly helpful. We know kids develop at their own pace and with their own interests,” she said.

Parents of preschoolers should not rely on drills to improve reading and writing, but should instead allow children to experiment, said Bethany Silva, research assistant professor of education and director of the Community Literacy Center at the University of New Hampshire.

As children learn how language works, they develop their receptive language, move on to spoken language and then focus on representational words in reading and writing, she said. Imaginative play around letters, words and pictures develops literacy.

“The first stage of writing is drawing and pictures,” Silva said. “Often what happens between 3 and 5 is that children go from abstract drawing and scribbles to representational drawing. The child who used to draw scribbles might then be able to draw a family. By the time a child hits the 5-year mark, he or she might be able to draw a lot of letters.”

Continue to build resilience

Important preschool self-help skills include the ability to secure a button, jump, balance and hold a marker, said Taylor Prendergast-Moore, a pediatric occupational therapist at Outside the Lines, a private practice in Dover that addresses fine and gross motor skills, cognitive and social abilities, and play skills and sensory processing abilities in children.

While at age 3 or 4, children aren’t expected to have mastered those skills, they should feel comfortable attempting them, she said.

“It’s not ‘can they do their buttons,’ but how do they act in the process? Are they calm when they face failures? Do they immediately ask for help when they feel slightly challenged? Do they explore methods and ways to solve a problem?” said Prendergast-
Moore. “Simply changing wording from ‘I’ll show you,’ to ‘what would happen if?’ can shift a child’s mindset and help build resilience, as they are starting to explore trial and error on their own.”

Parents should also work with their caregivers to model consistency, particularly when potty training. For boys, parents should not worry about mastering potty training until about age 4. During the preschool years, children are still developing their interoceptive system, which is the part of them that tells them when they are hungry, tired or feeling things in the body. But while children should be gaining more control over their bodies and learning how to function in groups, that does not mean they should be sitting still in the process, Prendergast said.

“Right now, we are asking kids to do things before they are ready to do them. Kids should be outside playing. If they are sitting still, they should be turning over rocks and looking for ants. Or learning how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” she said. “They should be involved in learning activities that are immediately intrinsically fun.”

Address concerns

If parents are concerned their preschool-age child is falling behind or could benefit from extra help at home, they should immediately communicate with their child’s teacher. They can also talk to their pediatrician, participate in a public school screenings, or get an evaluation from a private provider with expertise in speech, physical, occupational or behavioral therapy.

“Parents should never feel that they drop off their child in the morning and then are not involved,” said Booth-Miner. “A quality early child care and educational facility deals with the child and their whole family.”     

Krysten Godfrey Maddocks is a former journalist and marketing director who now regularly writes for higher education and technology organizations in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

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