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Katherine Martinelli

How to Prep Your Toddler for Preschool

Wondering what skills your child should master before heading to pre-k? Here’s a crash course in preschool readiness.

Whether your child has been in daycare since she was an infant or she’s been at home with you, as she develops and grows into an inquisitive toddler, you may start wondering if and when you should think about preschool. The choice is largely a personal one and the decision will likely be based on your family’s educational philosophy, your child’s personality and readiness, finances and other factors. Here, early education experts weigh in on the potential benefits of preschool, how to tell if your child is ready for school and how to best prepare her for this next phase of learning.

In this article:
Benefits of preschool
Preschool skills checklist
How to prepare your toddler for preschool

Benefits of Preschool

Preschool is a bit of a fluid term depending on where you live, but it generally starts around 3 years old. In some parts of the country a program for 4-year-olds might be labeled pre-kindergarten, while in others it’s still considered preschool. In other cities, kids as young as 2 may be enrolled in preschool. Whatever you call it, the philosophy and reasoning behind it is generally comparable.

Numerous studies over the years have shown the benefits of preschool, from increased academic achievement even years later to a lower likelihood of committing a crime. But according to Fabiola Santos-Gaerlan, founder and director of Honeydew Drop Family of Childcare Services in Brooklyn, New York, the primary benefit is socio-emotional. “They’re learning to share, they’re learning to take turns, they’re learning to have routines. The cognitive—the shapes, colors, alphabet—that can come in time, but you need a basic foundation of socio-emotional skills, namely independence, resilience and socialization,” she says.

Daryl Cantor, a learning specialist at an independent school in New York City with a Masters in early childhood special education, agrees that socialization and learning to be a member of a group are the greatest benefits of preschool. But she also acknowledges that as school becomes increasingly rigorous, early childhood education can help set kids up for success. “Nowadays kids are exposed to school before kindergarten,” she says. “It’s so much more academic than it used to be, so children really need preschool to work on those skills.”

Preschool Skills Checklist

Short of your child directly telling you he wants to go to school, Cantor says it can be hard to tell when kids are ready for preschool. If your child is home with you, one sign could be that you just can’t seem to keep him busy enough. “But if kids aren’t ready once they start, there are signs that will let you know,” she says. If they have a particularly hard time separating, cannot be comforted by their teachers or have no interest in other kids or toys, for example, they may not be ready yet. Santos-Gaerlan confirms that once in a while they encounter a child who just isn’t ready and they suggest taking a break and trying again in six months, though she says this is rare.

Your child will work on many skills once she’s in preschool, but here are a few that Cantor and Santos-Gaerlan suggest kids have before entering preschool:

  • Participate in a routine
  • Can take turns
  • Able to calm themselves down if they get upset
  • Can handle transitions without melting down
  • Know some colors, letters and numbers
  • Can sit and listen to a story for 10 minutes
  • Engage in imaginative play
  • Can build with blocks and manipulate small toys
  • Able to jump, throw and catch a ball, and go up and down stairs alternating their feet
  • Can get dressed and undressed themselves with help
  • Speak in full sentences and sing songs
  • Can sit in a chair and drink from a cup
  • Are potty trained (policies on this vary school by school, so double check)

How to Prepare Your Toddler for Preschool

Experts agree that while school is invaluable, the learning starts at home. “You are their ultimate role models,” explains Santos-Gaerlan. Parents are in a unique position to model behavior for their children and kick off the learning process, from getting dressed to taking turns. Here are some things to try when preparing for preschool, according to Cantor and Santos-Gaerlan:

  • Teach coping strategies your child can use when upset, like taking a deep breath, counting to 10 or blowing out pretend candles
  • Clearly and consistently set and enforce limits
  • Establish a schedule and routine for meals, bedtime, etc.
  • Have at least one meal a day together as a family
  • Set up playdates with older children
  • Read together often and talk about what you’ve read
  • Do simple art projects together
  • Provide a variety of dress-up clothing to facilitate imaginative play
  • Play board games that emphasize turn-taking
  • Play outdoors as much as possible
  • Play with puzzles to work on fine motor skills
  • Work on teaching your child to dress and undress themselves by using little tips and tricks, like flipping on their coat
  • Get down on the floor with your child and follow their lead in play
  • Visit museums, libraries and other cultural institutions
  • Limit screen time as much as possible
  • Put your own screens away to give your child your undivided attention

Even as you’re thinking about preschool readiness, at this age the most important thing your child can be doing is playing. Make sure that there’s plenty of opportunities for your kid to just be a kid. It’s how they learn best!

Published May 2018

Plus, more from The Bump:

Adorable First Day of Preschool Photos

Study: Public Preschool from Birth Could Boost Your Salary—and Baby's

How the Different Stages of Play Help Kids Learn