Summer Stepping Stones: Use this summer to help your kids and grandkids get ready for preschool or kindergarten - Small Legacies

Summer Stepping Stones: Use this summer to help your kids and grandkids get ready for preschool or kindergarten

By Jennifer Pitterle

April is a weird time to be thinking about school readiness—I know. But hear me out. My oldest child is finishing up his last couple of months of kindergarten, and I’ve been reflecting on how much he’s grown and changed this year. I’ve been thinking about what I wish I’d known back in September. 

If you have a 3-, 4-, or 5-year-old who’ll be starting preschool or kindergarten in the fall, this summer is a great time to start working on some essential school skills (and no, I don’t mean reading and math!). Find out what you can do (and what you don’t have to do) to help your child feel confident and capable as they turn to a new chapter in the fall.

The Gift of Childhood

Young children have plenty of time to learn what we might think of as “traditional” school skills. Instead of focusing on academic rigor at home, our job as parents and grandparents is to be a safe landing place of unconditional love, and to help our kids learn life skills that will prepare them for the day-to-day of being in school.

So today, let’s give ourselves a break from the impossible expectations of modern parenthood. Put away the workbooks and leveled readers; I’ll cover some things you don’t need to worry about before school starts, and a few things you might want to try instead.

Happy learning!


What you don’t need to work on at home:

  • Addition and subtraction worksheets
  • Reciting numbers by rote
  • Writing numbers “correctly”

What to focus on instead:

  • Counting with one-to-one correspondence. This is a fancy way of saying that each thing your child counts is worth, well, one. Have them physically touch or point to each item as they count. Find natural ways to incorporate counting into your day. How many shoes are by the front door? How many raspberries are on your plate?
  • Identifying and making patterns. Point out patterns you observe, and help your child do the same. (“Dad’s shirt has blue-green-blue-green stripes.”) Try some simple beading activities.
  • Sorting. Thanks to the Internet, you can find endless sorting activities for preschoolers! Here’s my favorite easy, inexpensive one: Set up squares of colored paper, and have your child collect objects from around the house that correspond to each color. Have them sort Froot Loops by color, or backyard leaves by texture.
  • Doing puzzles. Puzzles incorporate several foundational math skills at once—observing patterns, finding missing pieces of information, sorting, and so on. (Here are a few of our favorites.)
  • Cooking. Most cooking and baking tasks involve some kind of counting, measuring, and sorting. Involve your kids in simple recipes (like this, one of my all-time favorites to make with my kids!). 


What you don’t need to work on at home:

  • Reciting letters/sounds by rote
  • Memorizing sight words
  • Decoding words

What to focus on instead:

  • Fostering a love of books. Read, read, read to your child. Then read some more. For years, scientists and educators have proven that reading together at home is one of the best ways to prepare kids for all of the learning that’s to come.
  • Story comprehension. Pause to discuss what’s happening, and ask your child to make predictions about what will happen next. 
  • Practicing quiet listening. Preschoolers and kindergarteners are often asked to sit for story time at school (whether or not this is realistic/appropriate is a discussion for another time). As a school-readiness skill, it doesn’t hurt to practice short spans of sitting for stories. We say, “Ears are listening. Eyes are watching. Voices are quiet. Bodies are calm.” 
  • Growing vocabularies. Expose your child to lots of words! The most organic way to do this is just by having conversations with them. Let them ask lots of questions. Find answers together. Listen to their ideas, and share your own. Use small toys (like my favorite Montessori language objects set) to facilitate talking about all kinds of things.


What you don’t need to work on at home:

  • Writing words or letters “correctly”
  • Coming up with entire stories or written projects

What to focus on instead:

    • Improving hand strength. Writing takes a lot of muscle and dexterity! Kids won’t write fluently until their hands have had a lot of practice holding a pencil and making shapes. Playing with play dough or other sensory materials is a great way to build strength. Fine-motor activities that require squeezing, like Perler beads or water transferring, are also great. 
  • Exploring letter shapes. Without doing any directive “teaching,” let your child play with  magnetic letters, a moveable alphabet, or sandpaper letters like these.
    • Having writing/drawing materials available. Let your child have access to pencils, markers, paintbrushes, and plenty of paper. Follow their lead as they create—maybe pictures, maybe words, or maybe squiggles. It’s all good!
    • Recognizing their name. Help your child recognize their name when it’s written down, and work on spelling it themselves. 

    Social and Behavioral Skills

    This category encompasses so many things—some more important for starting school, and some less so. In the interest of brevity, here are my top four non-academic skills to work on with your little one:

    1. Advocating for themselves. Help your child get comfortable asking adults for help. Have them practice a “strong voice” for saying no in situations where they feel uneasy (e.g., when a friend gets too close in their personal space). 
    2. Dressing/undressing and wiping. Bathroom skills are invaluable in kindergarten! Take this summer to help your kiddo practice wiping, and getting wet clothes off and dry ones on. (This includes socks and shoes, too!)
    3. Healthy sharing and taking turns. Most toys and materials at school belong to the community. Help your child practice, “Can I have a turn when you’re done?” and “I’ll let you know when I’m done and you can have a turn!” (This allows the current user to finish their work with the item before handing it over.) 
    4. Lunch and snack skills. Practice opening snack bags, undoing water bottle tops, putting in juice-box straws…you get the idea. Also, talk with your child about their school’s policies for food. Due to allergy concerns, most schools don’t allow food sharing/trading. We also talk about how many different foods there are in the world, and how one person’s “yuck” might be someone else’s “yum.” 

    Setting Expectations

    As with any new experience, set your child up for success ahead of time by talking a lot about school in the weeks and months leading up to it. Talk about what your daily routine will look like. Visit their school and meet their teacher. Check out the cafeteria and the playground. Talk about what it might feel like to be in a classroom with lots of other kids. Maybe loud? Maybe fun? Probably both! Talk about strategies they can use if they feel overwhelmed or homesick, and normalize feeling those things. Play “school” at home. Practice walking to the bus stop.

    Favorite Books for PreSchool and Kindergarten

    And, as I always say, a few books never hurt. Here are my favorite books about starting school to read together. As an Amazon associate, I may earn compensation based on sales the result from all links below.

    KINDergarten: Where Kindness Matters Every Day, by Vera Ahiyya. This story follows a quiet new kindergartener as he navigates the overwhelm of his new classroom and works on a kindness chart with his friends.

    Llama Llama Misses Mama, by Anna Dewdney. This modern classic focuses on what preschool feels like when you really miss your mama. I sobbed the first time I read it to my then-2-year-old. The ending, thank goodness, is full of good feelings.

    The King of Kindergarten, by Derrick Barnes. A story about how to feel confident and walk tall when a new environment seems a little scary, featuring a protagonist who will charm even reluctant readers.

    The Berenstain Bears Go to School, by Stan and Jan Berenstain. One of my own childhood favorites, this one holds up many decades later. Sister and Mama Bear visit Miss Honey’s kindergarten classroom and learn about the different parts of the school day to soothe Sister’s anxiety.

    Bye-Bye Time, by Elizabeth Verdick. For young preschoolers, this book is reassuringly matter-of-fact about saying goodbye to mom or dad, and offers real-world strategies for both parents and children about separation.

    Making Friends, by Fred Rogers. No less warm on the page than he was on television, Fred Rogers offers calm, compassionate thoughts about navigating first friendships. The photographs of real children are perfect.

    We Don’t Eat Our Classmates, by Ryan T. Higgins. This contemporary favorite follows a dinosaur, Penelope T. Rex, as she learns about the highs and lows of going to school and getting along.



    I wish you and your family a happy summer ahead. Even as our children get older, the joy of watching them learn and grow never does.


    Jennifer Pitterle is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor. Pre-parenthood, she was a longtime editor for a lifestyle magazine group. She writes about parenting, nature, children's literacy, and more. She's always working with her children to bring a sense of natural enchantment to their suburban home and backyard. 

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