Happy Summer! The Perfect Time to Prep Your Kid for Kindergarten
I know, I know — most counties aren’t even done with the 2021–22 school year. We just had our first taste of summer with Memorial Day weekend. But stay with me a few minutes and let’s talk about all of our rising Kindergarteners who will be starting school at the end of the summer, because we might just be focusing on the wrong things in our effort to prepare them in pre-K, and this summer is a perfect time to fix that.
Pre-K programs abound that focus on early math skills, phonological awareness, letter recognition, and sight words. Just Google “pre-k programs” and ads for ABCMouse, Noggin, and private pre-K academies fill the screen. But more and more studies over the past fifteen years have shown that increased academic demand on our young kids is actually hurting them in the long run. A 1988 study published by the University of Chicago found kids pushed to read at a young age showed increased frustration and resistance. An NPR article published earlier in 2022 caused a minor stir when a top researcher said that children who were enrolled in drill- and didactic-style early education programs were actually performing worse academically in later grades than their peers who did not have this early childhood reinforcement of numbers and letters.
True, there are some kids who learn to read early because they love to read. My oldest daughter is autistic and hyperlexic, and could recognize letters independently at 18 months old, as well as count forwards and backwards from twenty. At three and half she had a handful of sight words. Reading is one of the few areas she is actually at- or above- peer-level development. However, my very bright neurotypical four year old still hesitates identifying lowercase letters. Counting past twenty-nine gets fuzzy. She can write her name, but can’t recognize any words beyond that.
Am I worried about this? No, and I’ll tell you why. First of all, I myself would be considered a late reader were I going to school today. Not to brag, but at the time of this writing I am a college graduate, former director of a non-profit art gallery (complete with grant-writing galore), co-founded a farm that now grosses nearly a quarter million dollars a year, and written the equivalent of two novels in a previous personal blog on leftist Christianity. I tell you this to reinforce the fact that it didn’t matter, in the long run, that I didn’t start reading until I was almost eight.
Second, in my research around supporting my eldest, autistic daughter’s learning to the fullest of her capabilities, I learned that children are developmentally not ready to read until around age eight — over two years later than we start foisting reading activities on them in kindergarten. In her informative book Smart Moves: Why Learning is not all in Your Head, psychologist and educator Carla Hannaford details how linear math processing doesn’t begin until the left hemisphere of the brain hits a “growth spurt” around age seven. Furthermore, “fine motor eye teaming for tracking and two-dimensional focus” doesn’t fully develop until age eight, when the frontal lobe hits its own “growth spurt.” Looked at another way, early readers are almost like gifted athletes: they have trained their eye muscles beyond that of their peer group, not dissimilar to the work done by a gymnast or football player.
Complicating matters in early childhood education, our kids are facing challenges different from those of previous generations. Less unstructured time, less time outdoors, and more time in front of screens (especially personal screens like tablets and phones, and even more time during the pandemic) has led to a decrease in fine-motor (aka pre-writing) skills, a decrease in gross motor strength and coordination, and less natural learning around social-emotional issues and self-regulation.
It is precisely these challenges — and not some deficiency in the child’s raw capability — paired with pushing skills that are beyond children’s general developmental capacity, that I (and others) believe are standing in the way of later, more natural learning. Let’s take core strength, which, beyond the brain development milestones mentioned above, has been the most illuminating example for me. Due to the increased inactivity of early childhood and the increased time slumped over a personal screen, children simply lack the core strength that previous generations had. Suddenly, these children are expected to sit erect at a desk in kindergarten, and it is fatiguing. A fatigued five year old will fidget, whine, and certainly not be able to pay attention through their discomfort. They may simply lay their head down and appear inattentive, or they may act out and disrupt the whole class. Whatever the case, something as simple as core strength can have a major impact on how fast (or slow) a child is able to pick up reading.
If I were queen of the world, I would not start elementary school as we know it until age eight, and make all education before that play- and experience-based, with a heavy focus on unstructured outside time. Alas, I don’t see anyone coming to hand me the crown, so the best I can do is work within the system that we currently have. With my own girls, we do not spend more than half an hour a day on traditional academics. Instead, our focus has been on natural learning opportunities outside (having a garden is a wonderful experience for all of us), and a strong focus on targeted movement: Our slack-line obstacle course gets used every day and we are currently playing a game I’ve dubbed “salad exercises” in which they go through a series of core-strengthening exercises to build and serve a salad out of bean-bag play food I made myself.
This level of detail and customization, of course, is impractical for most households. Childhood brain development just so happens to be not only my special interest that I have the time to indulge as a stay at home mom, but also the career path I’m currently forging. But it doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Things as simple as playdough and storytime go a long way towards future learning capabilities. However, if you find yourself struggling to start or needing a little more guidance, I have developed a more accessible ten-week kindergarten preparedness course that addresses the five main obstacles to learning as I have identified them: core strength, cross-lateral coordination, fine motor skills, social emotional learning, and nervous system regulation. The importance of core strength has been discussed above, so I will elaborate on the remaining four obstacles and how I propose we address them. Perhaps you’ll have enough ideas to get you started. If not, perhaps a prep-course could be of help!
Pervasive inactivity in early childhood has led to less cross-lateral movement and coordination. Cross-lateral movement, or, moving both sides of the body at the same time and/or equally, helps both sides of the brain work in tandem. This is useful for everything from learning how to kick a ball to being able to cross the midline when writing. In other words, one of the easiest ways to get both sides of your brain working, thus tapping into your full learning potential, is by moving both sides of your body. (Again, I have Carla Hannaford’s Smart Moves book for introducing me to this idea and how to tap into it.) Easy, targeted, and fun movement helps kids achieve this goal.
Children coming from families who lack resources and/or free time may be missing out on some key fine motor coordination play that society often takes for granted. Simply playing with playdough or cutting with scissors goes a long way towards strengthening the very same muscles used for writing. Additionally, playdough and paper/scissor manipulation foster executive function through problem solving, attention span, and creativity. Daily table time with these sorts of activities will help children gain more motor strength as well as improve attention span.
The benefits of reading to children cannot be overstated, and this is where the program’s social-emotional learning comes to fruition. Storytime helps children learn about their world, develop attention span, and increase their vocabulary. The recommended reading list includes books readily available at most public libraries (and certainly also on Amazon should anyone wish to purchase them) that prepare children to enter a new school, make and sustain friendships, and navigate social challenges such as managing emotions, remaining confident and kind, being understanding of differences and celebrating creativity.
As a society, we expect kids to “calm down” without giving them many concrete tools to do so. There are many ways to do this, but particularly accessible tools include visualization and breathing techniques. Each session of the program will end with a Nidra-style body scan, where the child is invited to consciously relax their body, and short breathing exercises, which have been proven to positively stimulate the vagus nerve, resulting in a calmer mental and physical state. This regulating practice can then be put to use best during times of stress precisely because it has been practiced during times of calm.
This is a ten-week, self-led program. Each session lasts about 45 minutes if done all at once, but it can certainly be broken down into smaller chunks throughout the day. An example of one such breakdown may be the 10 minutes of exercises in the morning before going to daycare, tabletime in the kitchen while a caretaker is making dinner, and storytime and nervous system regulation practice as part of the bedtime routine. It is suggested to do five sessions a week (making it an easy part of a Monday through Friday routine), but any repetition of the sessions would be beneficial if a full five sessions per week can’t be achieved.
The summer is short, even if it is just beginning. There is plenty of time for fun. In fact, I think free play is probably the most important preparatory activity young children can take part in when it comes to their future ability to learn. But a beyond that, a little extra cross-lateral exercise and story-time can go a long way towards making Kindergarten and beyond a successful time for them. You can bet I’ll be doing this for my own rising Kindergartener!
Annie Newman is a stay-at-home mom educating two children: one neurotypical and one autistic. You can join her Patreon to access the Kindergarten Summer Prep Program and many of her custom-made learning tools, and follow her day-to-day learning on Instagram.