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Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

By Amy Williams

You can’t get started too early preparing children for school. But if you think that means strapping them into high chairs and busting out the blackboard, forget it! Getting kids ready for kindergarten—at least academically speaking—mostly means engaging with them and making sure you expose them to lots of letters and words, books and ideas. (Numbers too, but in this post we’ll be focusing on pre-reading skills.)

There are simple things you can do at home to make sure your child has a solid foundation to build on once they get to kindergarten. And the really good news is that there are loads of fun, easy, and free ways to get them kindergarten-ready using just their imagination and stuff you already have around the house. Below we share four simple and free strategies to get kids ready for school. But first, a note for those of you whose children are on the brink of kindergarten already …

Is it too late?

If your child is about to start kindergarten and you realize you haven’t intentionally prepared them for school, don’t panic! Many of the practical and social skills they will need for school, such as opening snacks on their own and playing well with other kids, they’ve likely picked up through daily life. Those they haven’t, they’ll get an opportunity to learn fast in the group setting. 

It’s also important to know that every child is unique; just because they don’t have every single skill on a checklist down pat doesn’t mean they’re not ready for school. Meanwhile, start working on the strategies below. Finding fun ways to support your child’s reading and writing skills at home will be invaluable for years to come! 

Kindergarten-Readiness Tip #1: Have Fun with Letters

Mastering the alphabet is likely among the first skills you’ve helped your child with, and it’s one of the most important! In addition to memorizing the ABCs, they’ll need to learn to recognize and write both uppercase and lowercase letters, as well as to begin knowing the sounds they make. 

The Wisconsin early literacy standards, for example, specify that kids should initially learn to recognize the difference between letters and other symbols, and then move towards connecting letters with the sounds they make. Recognizing letters and their sounds in familiar words, especially in a child’s own name, is a key intermediate step and a good place to start. 

“Alphabet letters in isolation do not have meaning to the child. When the child is shown that letters grouped together represent his/her name or objects they know, the alphabet takes on new meaning,” the standards note. The advice? “Start with familiar words, talking about the letter names and sounds.”

Alphabet tracing workbooks abound in shops and online, but there are also lots of fun ways to teach letters to your child using what you already have at home. For example, think of an animal or object together that starts with each letter of the alphabet. Then, have your child write the letter out and draw a picture of each animal or object. Or conduct an ABC scavenger hunt, where your child has to find objects that start with the letter in question.

Other ideas include making an easy alphabet card game (all you need is index cards or bits of paper!), crafting sand letters, and printing out our free alphabet bingo card. Kids also love active play, so try alphabet hopscotch and ABC soccer to practice while getting moving. And don’t forget the books: We’ve put together a list of nine great alphabet books to read with your little one.

Kindergarten-Readiness Tip #2: Work Reading Skills into Everyday Activities

One of the best ways to help your child learn literacy skills can be to simply engage them in everyday activities with you. If you’re reading a recipe before dinner, read the instructions aloud to your child and have them point out any words or letters they recognize. If you’re writing a grocery list, let them help think of what you need and write the items down. 

This applies when you’re out and about as well. My preschooler loves to help me read the menu when we go to a restaurant, and even insists on holding a menu of her own and trying to read it herself! When you go to a birthday party, have them write the card; when you’re at a park or in the car, point out the letters and words on signs. Letters are everywhere, and so are learning opportunities.

“Surround the child with print so the whole alphabet is presented in the child’s environment,” advise the Wisconsin standards, which recommend that parents say and point to letters in books, on puzzles or toys, on the child’s clothing, on signs in the community, and so on. 

As alphabetic knowledge progresses to understanding letter sounds in combination, parents can use these same strategies to help kids begin to understand written words. The standards suggest that parents point out words they encounter with their kids and ask, for example, “What do you think this word says on the sign? What sound does it start with?”

Then, the standards recommend that caretakers celebrate with the child when he or she reads a new letter or word. Literacy is a big deal! Give kids plenty of positive feedback for all their wins.

Kindergarten-Readiness Tip #3: Play Pretend!

Pretend play is a simple way to help your child get ready for kindergarten. Not only does it spark imagination and creativity, but pretend play usually involves storytelling and vocabulary exploration. Encourage your child to describe what they’re doing as they play. If they’re pretending to be the Queen of Fairyland, ask them to describe their dress to you, or to describe what the other fairies look like. 

Let your child tell you a story as they play pretend, too. You can even use puppets to engage your child in storytelling. Oral language is an essential part of building literacy skills, so the more they can practice, the more ready they will be for kindergarten.  

The more variety of conversational exchanges a child is involved in, the richer their oral language skills become, directly underpinning their eventual written language skills. As the Wisconsin standards note, “Children who hear more words will learn more words.”

Kindergarten-Readiness Tip #4: Read Aloud—the Smart Way

You may already spend time sharing books with your kids, but reading aloud regularly has such a significant impact on kids, even from a very early age, that it’s worth repeating. And whether you have hours to spend reading to your littles or just a few minutes together, did you know that a few tricks can help you get the most out of that time? Read our post on how to maximize the benefits of reading aloud for tips on how to really make your story times count. 

If you have multiple children, make it a family activity. Have your older kids read to your younger ones. You can even make it exciting by getting into the story and using different voices and expressions. There are many ways to get creative while reading aloud to your kids! And don’t forget to check out our book lists and book reviews for recommendations of awesome picture books to share with young children.

We hope these fun and easy activities will help your child (and you!) feel confident and ready when it comes time for them to start school.

What are some ways you have been preparing your child for kindergarten? Let us know in the comments below. 

Amy Williams is a mother, teacher, and freelance writer who believes in the life-giving power of the written word.