One month prior to my twin daughters' first day of preschool, we began to work in earnest on their numbers and letters and colors. At snack time we'd count cheddar Goldfish or sort green M&M's from the blues and reds. At nap time we'd sing the alphabet before they drifted off. By the time 3-year-old Hannah and Elizabeth danced into their classroom in crisp lilac-and-white dresses with matching backpacks, I was confident they would be ready.
Okay, so I wasn't all that confident. Not after I began chatting with other parents who were also about to fling their unsuspecting offspring out of the nest and had been readying their little chickadees in ways completely different from mine. One mom had spent mealtimes interrogating her son Barney Fife-style, hoping to make him more expressive. Another had her daughter, an only child, speed playdating. Then there was the dad who was ratcheting up the potty training. Our approaches were all over the map, which of course set my anxiety-fueled mind to wondering what vital lesson I might have neglected in my girls' pre-preschool sessions.
My friend Joshilyn was the one who pointed out the irony of this. "I think of preschool as prep for school," she said, "and you shouldn't have to prep for what is, essentially, prep." Theresa had a different perspective. She had gone the letters-and-numbers route with her son, but told us that shortly before classes began, his preschool had sent home a list of skills the teachers wanted parents to work on with their kids. There was no mention of ABCs or 123s — it was all about the basic skills essential for a child to make it through the day with some degree of independence. "It makes sense," Theresa reasoned, "that teachers would not want to stop everything to tie shoes and snap jeans multiple times through the day."
I had to agree with Theresa there. But I thought Joshilyn had a point too. So I went to the source, asking a dozen or so teachers around the country: How best can we parents prepare our kids for preschool, if at all? I was struck by how similar their answers were. It all comes down to what I call the Three S's: Self-Care, Sitting Still, and Sharing.
One of the primary components of preschool is circle time, when children sit and listen to a story or sing songs or even do some simple academics as a group. The act of sitting in a circle calms the children down, say teachers, and helps them focus.
Practice sitting still, they say, by having a circle time at your home. Okay, you're wondering how you and your one child can sit in a circle. Well, this circle time is not so much about the circle as it is about the time. Liebman recommends planning a time each day to sit with your child and sing or read. In addition, she suggests setting specific times for snacks, so that your child will learn to sit and eat: "Something simple like having a set snack time is really helpful. It teaches children that the snack must be eaten then and that they can't graze all day."
"If I could say just one thing," says Sara Platz of the Little Red School House in Trumbull, Connecticut, "it would be that parents should teach their children how to put on their own coats." She is not wagging her finger in my face as she speaks. But she is speaking with the fervor of someone whose 25-plus years as a teacher have shown her that "children would have more time to learn, to play, if we didn't have to put on 14 coats a day."
You can use dramatic play to teach these skills, suggests Adrianne Liebman, director of the Tot Spot, the preschool in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, that my girls attend. Teach them to get dressed and undressed by playing mall — go to a shoe store, a coat store, you get the idea
"It's diffcult to teach sharing," says Trish Nodolski, director of the Cedarville Nursery School here in Pottstown. "When you teach a child a letter, you may have to go over it a couple of times and they get it. When you're teaching your child to share, you'll be repeating yourself 50 times, and the child still won't always share."
Not that sharing is a piece of cake for adults either. Paul Murphy, who teaches at Nonotuck Community School in Florence, Massachusetts, empathizes with children in his classroom who struggle with sharing. Even he can find himself getting frustrated if one of the kids wants to play with a block tower he's building. It's important for adults to model good sharing behavior, of course, but also to recognize that sometimes it's simply hard to share. "It's not that they don't understand it," he says. "It's just that they are so into what they're doing, they don't want to share."
Play groups are a natural place for children to practice sharing, say teachers, especially when parents join in. You needn't be heavy-handed about it. Just encourage kids to ask for toys rather than grab them. And keep your expectations low. Character building is a lifelong process, so don't stress out about not seeing results right away.
My little barbarians aren't quite where they need to be yet, social skills-wise, but there are times when they manage to be downright civil with each other. "Hannah share with Lizzie," Elizabeth recently demanded of her sister. "No," Hannah said. So Elizabeth smacked her. "That's not nice," I told Elizabeth. "What do you say?" She thought for a second and then: "May I please hit Hannah?"It's a start.