August 15th, 2016
For many families, kindergarten marks the start of “real school”. Whether your children attended full day preschool, a part-time program, or had no formal experience, the start of kindergarten is a major milestone. Over the past decade in American schools, there has been an increased academic demand placed on young children, starting with strict curriculum and expectations in kindergarten, and continuing on as they face state testing as early as age 8. This trend appears to be a result of many factors, including increased pressure on teachers and admistrators, parental expectations, a national awareness of America’s lagging behind other nations with regards to math and science, and legislation including No Child Left Behind. Whatever the reasons, many people are stating that “Kindergarten is the new first grade”.
As an occupational therapist, developmentalist, and parent, I am in favor of keeping play and exploration at the heart of the kindergarten experience. (Our family has been blessed to be part of a progressive, public school in Brooklyn, where my son just completed a wonderful year of inquiry, community field trips, and project-based learning.) Whether you have chosen a play-based setting, a more academically-focused kindergarten, or something in between, there are several foundation skills that will help make the year successful for your student. This article will explain the various motor, perceptual, and social skills that can help prepare your child for the school year ahead. Games and activities that you can do at home are provided under each area of developmental. If your child is lagging behind significantly in any of these areas, please consult your pediatrician, OT, PT, or SLP to determine if professional intervention is needed.
As children enter kindergarten, most are at the age where they should have a fairly mature grasp on a writing tool (crayon, marker, pencil). For a 5-year old child, Occupational Therapists expect to see a dynamic, tripod grasp (the pencil held with the thumb, index and middle finger; other fingers tucked under; wrist movement used in lieu of whole arm movements). A typical progression of grasps is seen here:
If your child is stuck in one of the earlier developmental grasps, below are some activities you can do to help facilitate a mature grasp. (NOTE: if your child is utilizing an alternative grasp, it could be indicative of hand weakness or delayed dexterity; you should consult an Occupational Therapist to explore).
Many children enter kindergarten without ever having held a pair of scissors. Parental fears and our protective nature are often the culprit, since it is developmentally appropriate for children to learn to hold and snip with scissors by age 25 months, and be able to cut a paper in half by 37 months. By age five, accurate cutting on a line and cutting simple shapes (circle, square, and triangle) are emerging. Scissor cutting should play a big part in preschool and kindergarten activities, because learning how to use scissors correctly can also help with developing pencil control skills. Some key points to know about the development of good scissor use: Scissors should be held with the thumb in the top loop, with the middle finger in the bottom loop. The index finger is placed on the outside to be free to guide the hand around curves. Holding the scissors in this way enables the tripod fingers to work together well. You can help your child keep the ring and little fingers tucked away by putting a little piece of paper under them. If the child’s fingers are very small and/or if the finger hole is large, it is acceptable to put the index and middle fingers through the same hole.
Cutting straight lines
All those wonderful sensory table activities are not just for preschoolers! Your rising kindergartener still enjoys getting their hands messy, and they are gaining valuable experience from it, too. A child’s tactile skills continue to develop well into their school-age years. Through tactile exploration of water play, Playdoh, clay, sand, and dried rice and beans, kids are learning about the qualities of objects and how they interact, working on vocabulary to describe tactile materials, and improving their tactile discrimination skills. All the input to their hands helps kids improve their “stereognosis”, which is the ability to perceive the form of an object by touch alone. Some activities you can do at home include:
Peek into any kindergarten classroom at circle time (aka “morning meeting” or “rug time”) and you will likely see several children in some alternative position to the teacher-requested cross-legged position. I would even venture to say that several children would be sitting on, leaning on, flopping over, or in some other way touching their nearest neighbor(s). Besides being adorable, sweet, and cuddly…many kindergarteners often have underdeveloped body and spatial awareness. Some ways that you can help your child improve this “hidden sense” are:
Ask any kindergarten teacher and this is probably the biggest request. They’d like their students to be better listeners. Good kindergarten teachers employ a multi-sensory approach to getting kids attention in a noisy active room (meaning that raising your voice is not the best practice). She will often ring a bell, flash the lights, do a call-response, or raise up two fingers….all ways to tap into a child’s other senses, when that pesky kindergartener auditory system is not responding as it should. You can help improve your child’s ability to listen and follow directions (wouldn’t that be great?!) through several fun activities and games.
A really meaningful way in which you can ready your child for school is to give them the confidence to know that they can take care of their own body and belongings. As caring parents, we want to help our children any way we can (or we are just so busy and want to get out the door!) Either way, after the age of four, we are actually NOT helping our child if we are helping them too much. They need to develop good self-care skills, from eating, to toileting, to dressing and grooming. One of my son’s fears going into kindergarten was that he’d have a bathroom accident if he couldn’t’ unbutton or unzip in time. His solution was to ask for only elastic-waist pants. I’ve found that preschool teachers are often quite involved in helping kids with managing their backpacks, lunches, and coats. There is typically a higher teacher to student ratio in preK which gives teachers (and kids) this luxury. A lot changes come kindergarten! In my son’s school this year, he had 24 classmates and one teacher! She did not have the time to help each child unzip their backpack, take off their coat, take out their lunch, and put their folder in the bin. The bathroom was down the hall, and kids were expected to be fully independent with their clothing fasteners, toilet hygiene, and hand washing. As your child prepares to enter kindergarten, you should be preparing him or her for the important job of being in charge of his/her body and belongings. You can practice buttons, zippers and snaps on dolls, on stuffed animals, or on a younger sibling…but there is no substitute for practicing on themselves. It is not only a fine motor task, but also great confidence builder for our growing kids.
Good visual-perception is a foundation skill needed for reading, writing, and math. There are many ways that you can help your child hone their skills in this area of development. Visual perception is the ability to see and interpret (analyze and give meaning to) the visual information that surrounds us. Visual-perception has several areas, including the following which are key to success in school:
Some fun, play-based ways to help your child improve visual-perceptual skills include:
Children will learn many new social skills throughout the kindergarten year. It is a time of huge growth, independence, and confidence building for these young learners. By the end of the school year, my son was much better at expressing his needs and emotions, and negotiating with peers (without getting upset or immediately asking for an adult to intervene). There are many things that parents can do at home and in the community to help your child have some of the key social skills to be ready for Kindergarten. As an OT, we address play skills in our daily practice, since play is a child’s main “occupation”.
My final words of wisdom as an OT and the parent of a kindergarten “graduate” are: Enjoy this exciting time! Each school year will bring its own challenges. Making the kindergarten year fun and enjoyable can help set a positive tone for years to come. If we as parents can maintain a healthy attitude towards school, our children will see this example. If we give them the building blocks for education from an early age, they can succeed in school. It is important to include math and literacy in fun activities, this will instill a love of learning much more than doing worksheets, math problems, or pushing reading skills on them too early. And finally, if you have any concerns about your child’s development (whether it is fine motor, visual-perception, language or social skills), seek professional help from the appropriate provider as early as possible to ensure your child has the foundation skills she/he needs to thrive.
Lynn-Marie Herlihy is an Occupational Therapist in private practice in Park Slope, Brooklyn. She has over 12 years experience treating children from birth to school-age, with a variety of sensory and motor deficits, developmental delays, and learning issues. You can also visit her website at www.ParkSlopeOT.com.