A preschool teacher for 26 years, Geralyn Dunckelman of Houma, La., says she has never forgotten how to be a child. When it's raining outside, she takes her children at Oakshire Elementary School out to touch the rain, and she comes to school dressed as a chicken or in other costumes.
"There are small things in life children just love," Dunckelman says. "We lose sight of the importance of that rainbow or having ice cream in the middle of the day. If they get dirty it's OK. If I'm covered with paint, we laugh."
Dunckelman is one of several national preschool teachers of the year who offered advice to parents about how to get their children ready for kindergarten.
Kindergarten, they say, is the new first grade. For parents of preschool children who want to teach their children at home, the demands are greater than ever.
According to the teachers, it's not necessary to put your child in an organized pre-kindergarten program, but it is essential to expose them to group activities such as playgroups and basic math and reading concepts. The women, who were selected by Publications International Ltd., the makers of Story Reader products, believe in helping children learn through play.
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Teach Every Day
Karla Lyles of Chicago, Ill., another national preschool teacher of the year and mother of one, says she has a housekeeping section in her classroom at Our Lady of the Gardens in Chicago. Her preschool children, who range in age from 3 to 5, learn about table manners and etiquette. She says parents do not need to spend a lot of money or read scientific journals to come up with experiments to do with their children at home.
"My suggestion is parents take their everyday experiences and teach their children," Lyles says. "We had a snack with Cool Whip one day. I colored one red and one blue and we made purple and put that on our fruit. We just used the Cool Whip and food coloring." Lyles sings with her students and makes everything into a game. She points out shapes to her own daughter, such as the clock, which is a circle. "It's going through your lifestyle and pulling out key concepts," Lyles says. "You can say, 'Let's count how many forks we have.' You count everything. When you are driving, count the trees and ask, 'What colors do you notice?' You teach your children about colors and nature and pull in math skills and science concepts."
Reading Between the Scribbles
While most parents might discourage their child from scribbling on the walls, Lyles recommends giving your child plenty of paper, markers, crayons, pencils and textured surfaces such as Styrofoam or cardboard for scribbling.
"Even scribbles are important, even if you can't read them," Lyles says. "It helps with prewriting skills and fine motor skills. At this stage, they are learning how their muscles work. It's also helping them to be creative. It helps them to express themselves."
Parents need to read to their children, Lyles says. Make time to read even if you work outside the home. Also, take advantage of library programs.
Lyles says her own child often wants her to read a favorite book 15 times. "Definitely read," she says. "Read, read, read. I promote literacy. Children grasp everything at this age."
Wendy Butler-Boyesen of Eugene, Ore., a mother of two grown children and grandmother to an infant grandson, says that as the lead teacher in the pre-kindergarten room at EWEB CDC Child Development Center, she reads to her students every day.
Butler-Boyesen says parents often make the mistake of underestimating their children. In addition to reading, she suggests taking your children on excursions other than McDonald's playland. "Get out and about and do all kinds of different experiences, whether it's going to museums, going out to lunch and sitting down and eating at a little café, not just fast-food places that are quick and child-friendly," she says. "Most children can order from a menu and sit and wait and have a conversation and talk about things you see."
While sitting with your preschooler, talk to them about what they see on the menu. Ask them to find words that start with different letters, she says.
Butler-Boyesen says she does send homework home with her pre-K students, but it's not "heavy-duty homework." Her purpose in sending home homework is to help children get used to the idea of responsibility. Also, parents get used to taking an active part in their children's academic lives.
Releasing Social Butterflies
Decades ago, kindergarteners spent most of the day socializing with other children. With so many national standards in place, kindergarteners need to already have social skills in place. If your child does not attend a pre-K class, consider getting him or her involved in playgroups or music lessons.
"It can be very hard for a child who has been home with Mom and had Mom's full attention and go into a class," Butler-Boyesen says. "It can be very daunting. They have not learned how to share adult attention. They can be overwhelmed by all those other kids."
In addition to having social skills, kindergarteners need to be able to read and write simple sentences, according to Butler-Boyesen. "It used to be kindergarten was getting used to being in a social group," she says. "Now there are so many more academic loads on top of that. There is a much higher demand on kids."
She says your child should not just be able to recite the A-B-C song, but recognize the letters represented by sounds. Also, some parents today are letting their child type on the computer, which is excellent, but should not take the place of writing letters by hand, Butler-Boyesen says. "There are a lot of little boys who feel they are allergic to paper and pencil," she says. "Have pencils, have crayons, markers available and encourage them to use them and create with them so they enjoy using them."
Parents as First Teachers
Dunckelman, who has two almost grown sons, says much of what she learned about being a teacher started when she became a mother. "I think, first of all, we have to realize parents are the primary educators of our children," she says. "It's more important to be a good parent. Who is a primary role model of a child? It is the parent. If I want reading to be important to my child, I bring literature into my home. I read with my child and show him or her the importance of reading."
Dunckelman says parents should also teach their children about the importance of community service. Her students visit nursing homes.
As your child's first teacher, let him or her know it's alright to make mistakes. Be non-judgmental. "I think sometimes we have a misconception that if a person enters kindergarten and knows all the letters of the alphabet and they can count up to 100 [then] automatically they are going to be a good student," Dunckelman says. "That's inaccurate. I believe a person has to feel security within themselves and their environment. I need to teach my child you are important. Mistakes are acceptable. If I enter school thinking I can never make a mistake, I will have a child who will be unable to take a risk and challenge himself or herself."
Finally, she recommends parents keep photographs and school papers and drawings to show their children when they become older.
Dunckelman is often invited to her former students' weddings or is asked to serve as a godparent. "I always tell people I never forget that face or the impact the child has had," she says. "I always remember to bring something I kept of that child. I keep little notes on my own children and students."
She has also buried time capsules with her students so they can remember their special memories. "Sometimes in life we need to be validated," Dunckelman says. "It's been a wonderful experience being a parent," she says.
Tips for Cutting the Apron Strings
When your child enters kindergarten, he or she may be a little nervous about the first day of "big school." More often than not, parents are the ones who are the most upset when their babies leave the nest for the first year of kindergarten.
Many elementary schools have "boo-hoo breakfasts" to help parents cope with their child's first day of kindergarten. Experts say parents should get used to being apart from their children by getting them involved in play groups, sending them to Sunday school or mini-camps during the summer.
The following tips may help you and your child prepare for the inevitable first day of kindergarten, which will happen before you know it:
- Take your child to supervised library storytelling hour or playtime at the recreation center. Make a point to let your child play on his or her own instead of hovering.
- Help your child get used to the idea of a schedule by creating one at home that includes naptime, snack time, playtime and reading or academic time.
- Take your child with you for back-to-school shopping and let him or her pick out some favorite items for kindergarten.
- Go to open house at the school with your child and take advantage of tours offered.
- Don't criticize your preschooler when he or she makes mistakes. Say to your child, "It's OK to make mistakes as long as you learn from them."