Between the ages of two to five, kids should begin preparing for their academic career. I’ve started building my girls’ basic foundation for the next twenty years of education (I'm planning for grad school, don’t judge me). Based on my experience at UC Riverside studying English and education, student teaching, and working with kids as a tutor and academic program advisor through a local nonprofit, I think the following list is absolutely essential to get them started at an early age. The easier and more fun the first few years of school feel to a kiddo, the more likely they are to foster positive feelings toward education as they grow. I must be on to something because the following list directly aligns with the California State Content Standards for Public School and two of the school districts I have worked for as a substitute teacher. By kindergarten, your child should be able to:
Recite the alphabet correctly and identify the sound each letter makes
Remember that commercial? The one where the kid shouts into the camera, "Hooked on Phonics worked for me!" That is exactly what I'm talking about. Learning phonics (the sound each letter represents) is crucial to speech and literacy. This is why every preschool class across the country is spending copious amounts of time learning and singing silly new songs. The most irritating songs are the ones that work the best for your little ones, so be patient when they start singing their newest silly alphabet song for the 100th time in the car during the commute home.
Side note: I'm pretty sure that when Evyn comes home singing the Phonic Song on repeat, it's her teacher's way of saying, "Dear Parents, I hate you."
Check out the Phonics Song below.
Count to 20 aloud
Numbers can be difficult for kids to wrap their heads around, so using manipulatives is a great way to turn the abstract into the concrete. Count toys, beads, fingers, toes . . . even boogers (my kids have a filthy sense of humor). Take any and every opportunity to help them practice counting. Remember how much you hated algebra in high school? Right now is your chance to start laying down the foundation for math to be easy for them. We listen to a lot of music, so I make sure to point out any song that has numbers in it and sing along with them. Our favorite is the beginning of “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets:
One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock rock
Five, six, seven o'clock, eight o'clock rock
Nine, ten, eleven o'clock, twelve o'clock rock
We're gonna rock around the clock tonight . . .
Hold their writing utensils correctly
How your kiddo holds a pencil or crayon can influence his or her handwriting and even make drawing or coloring more difficult. There are a few “correct” ways of holding a writing utensil, but the simplest way to teach a little hand to hold a full-sized pencil is the alligator method. First, place a pencil on the table in front of your little one and tell them to grab the pencil quickly with only one hand. This helps you determine which is their dominant hand. Tell your kid to pretend that their hand is a hungry alligator and let them make some silly alligator motions using their thumb as the bottom jaw, and the other four fingers as the top jaw. After some playing, let the alligator “eat” the pencil by laying it in the alligator’s mouth along their thumb. But this particular alligator doesn’t like yellow pencils, so it curls up its lips and holds the pencil with its teeth. Here you help them round out their grasp so that they are holding the pencil with only the fingertips of the thumb, index and middle fingers. Success!
Recognize and write their name
Once your kiddo has learned the alphabet and is holding their pencil correctly, have them trace simple words (especially their name) over and over. I like to use a plain sheet of copy paper and write my eldest daughter’s name, Evyn, in highlighter for her to trace. She likes to see how fast she can do it. If she beats me, she gets an Elsa dollar. Sometimes I'll challenge her by leaving out letters one at a time (Evy_, E_yn, _vyn, Ev_n). Kids are self-focused and LOVE to see their own names. Use this to your advantage and make an alphabet collage using the letters in their name cut from magazines to help them learn to spell their name.
Correctly identify shapes, colors, body parts, animals, etc.
“Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” is another lovely song that apparently never gets old at my house. Now that Quinn is starting to learn body parts at day care, I'm often treated to a one-baby mini parade around the house while she sings it at the top of her lungs. Quinn is just starting to potty train and has decided that diapers are unacceptable, so most of these parades going on in my house are au naturel. Point things out, make it fun and let them be silly. That's how you get some of these concepts to stick . . . it’s all about repetition, unfortunately.
Identify matching items by size, shape or color, and identify an item that does not match the others
Learning to categorize the world around them is another essential skill that is the basis of more complex comprehension skills. Seeing patterns in objects around them and identifying those that do and don’t go together can lead to skills in math and science. Help your kids define, compare, and understand the world around them by playing matching games, I spy games, and hide and seek in plain sight. Make obvious matches (like a green triangle and a green triangle) and not so obvious ones as well (like the TV screen, and a piece of bread, both square). Encourage them to tell you what is the same and what is different about the objects.
Hold a book correctly and track words from left to right
This skill builds on the foundation of recognizing letters and learning to recognize simple words like their name. See if they can follow a string of words across the page of a book. Kids may not know exactly what they are looking at, but the words will soon seem familiar and they will gain more confidence as they begin to recognize more words in sequences that will start to make sense. Try having them watch sing-a-longs that track the words at the bottom of the screen.
Here's a fun one.
Sit still for up to twenty minutes at a time
So this one is truly a challenge. Have you ever tried herding a flock of cats? Me neither, but that’s how Evyn's teacher describes getting all the kids on the floor for story time. Yeah, keeping a two to five-year-old still for any given amount of time, let alone twenty minutes, is going to be a challenge. Now imagine your kid’s poor teacher with a room full of them wandering and fidgeting. Preschool teachers are saints. What finally worked for my overactive little one was practice. We started by playing freeze dance, and I slowly would take longer and longer to turn the music back on. I'd also tell Evyn to count to ten before she got up from the table after dinner. Eventually, she learned not to leave the table until everyone was done and did so with fewer and fewer complaints.
Retell a story
This is continuing to be a difficult skill for Evyn because when this girl tells a story, she tells a whopper! Usually, she manages to incorporate a princess, and some cupcakes . . . and completely forgets the actual story she started out with. Now, when we read together before bed, I make her explain to me what happened on each page before I turn to the next. We are still working on mastering this one.
Memorize their phone number and street address
Evyn has no problem memorizing every lyric to every song in the movie Frozen, but if you ask her what Mommy's name is, or where she lives, she looks at you with these big ol' eyes and just shrugs. I'm thinking it’s selective memory, but I will get this child to memorize our address and phone number if it kills me . . . and I very well might die of embarrassment if she tells another teacher that she doesn't know her address and that we sleep in Mommy's car.