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The Best Ways to Prepare Your Toddler for Preschool

It’s a big day in any child’s life when they start Preschool.  Perhaps you can (just about!) remember your own first day at Preschool?  You may have photos recording this big day in your own life.  It will soon be your child’s chance to make the transition to beginning Preschool.  As a parent, preparing for this momentous occasion can be a wonderful experience that supports connection with your little one. Sure, you and your child might both have mixed feelings about them leaving home and beginning Preschool.  Excitement can easily sit alongside nervous worry. 

As with most important stages in life, preparing in advance can give you and your child a helpful way to navigate through these different feelings. In this blog, we cover a range of practical steps you and your little one can take to ensure they are “Preschool ready”.  We’ll look at ideas to support their physical, social, emotional, and cognitive readiness for Preschool, and consider also what you need as a parent in the process. 

preschooler ready for the first day of school, The Best Ways to Prepare Your Toddler for Preschool

What does School Readiness mean?

Sometimes the phrase “school readiness” is used to describe the skills, abilities and attitudes that are helpful for children to thrive in an educational setting, including Preschool.  Preschool is a social setting where children are learning informally, with some structured episodes,  alongside other children. Such a setting can be a big change for many children. Feeling ready and equipped to navigate this change is what we mean by “school readiness”.

Preschool staff have an important role to plan in helping children in this process.  Parents and other caregivers also have a critical role in helping their little one towards Preschool readiness. The physical, social, emotional, and cognitive skills that contribute to overall school readiness can be learnt and honed within the family home setting. In fact, you may have already been supporting your toddler with many of these school ready skills without even realizing! 

Why is it Important to Prepare your Toddler for Preschool?

Preparing your toddler for their transition to Preschool is important. Like adults, children can find change challenging. It can feel very daunting to face a sudden change without any pre-warning or time to warm up to the transition. That can lead to a child feeling unhappy and confused.  Preparing your toddler for Preschool gives them the optimal chance to thrive through the change process and settle quickly, getting the most out of their time at Preschool.    

When Should I Start Preparing my Toddler for Preschool?

As we’ve already seen, it’s quite possible you’ve already begun preparing your toddler for Preschool without even realizing! If you’ve been reading a bedtime story to them, you’ve already begun the process of supporting their listening skills.  If you’ve encouraged your child to wash their hands after toileting, you’ve begun to support their physical self-care and their move towards independence and autonomy. And, if you’ve encouraged them to give new foods and new experiences a try or answering their many “why?” questions, you’ve been cultivating a sense of open curiosity in your child which can help with their cognitive readiness for Preschool.

That said, it’s helpful to consider a more deliberate preparation for Preschool where you are explicitly talking to your toddler about staring Preschool.  The timing of this deliberate preparation is important. If you begin too early, your child may struggle with the concept of waiting for school to start and become frustrated. Left too late, you run the risk of your toddler being overwhelmed with too much information and expectations to handle in short space of time. 

You will know your child best and have a sense of what works for them. One calendar month is a useful timeframe for most toddlers – this allows time for you to speak about starting Preschool, to visit and shop for supplies as needed, without making the wait feel unbearable for your toddler (and you!)

Dad and daughter at preschool drop off, The Best Ways to Prepare Your Toddler for Preschool

Taking a Holistic Approach to Preparing Your Toddler for Preschool.

As you think about implementing specific strategies to prepare your toddler for Preschool, it can be tempting to home in on one aspect of school readiness.  For example, some parents can invest heavily in ensuring their toddler can identify letters and numbers or perhaps might see physical development as a priority. This can result in a lopsided approach to your child’s development. Child development is best seen through a holistic lens where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Considering the various aspects of your toddler’s development includes paying attention to their physical, social, emotional, and cognitive needs and how each of these domains can support and reinforce the others. 

For example, when children succeed at a physical challenge, it can give their overall sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy a huge boost, supporting their emotional development and leading to a confidence in interacting socially with others.   It also involves allowing your child to develop at their own rate and in their own way. Check out The Best Self-Esteem Activities for Preschoolers for some great ideas.

Avoid the temptation to compare your child to others in terms of what they can do or which developmental milestones they reach as they prepare for school. Instead, offer holistic support and encouragement to your toddler across the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive domains of development and trust that your child will then thrive at being their unique self as they transition to Preschool. 

Physical Preparation for Preschool

Physical preparation includes personal self-care such as toileting and washing hands as well as the development of gross and fine motor skills.  Here we consider each of these aspects in turn:

Personal Self-Care Preparation:

 It’s likely you’ve been supporting your child with many different aspects of self-care already.  As your child draws closer to starting Preschool, consider visiting your chosen Preschool with your child and talk through the location of the toilet and washing facilities and ask about any routines your child’s Preschool has. Help your child to navigate the classroom setting – where’s the door?  Where’s the cloakroom? Where will they keep their packed lunch? Consider taking some photos (with the teacher’s consent) of the classroom setting to use to later chat through the physical layout and what to expect in child-friendly terms with your toddler. 

a happy preschool classroom

Gross Motor Skills Preparation:

Gross skills develop when children can use their whole body to become physically confident, agile, and flexible.  Build in balancing games and offer plenty of physical play opportunities.  Trips to the local play park tick these boxes.  You can also chat with your toddler about the different types of outdoor play equipment they can enjoy when they start Preschool. 

Fine Motor Skills Preparation:

Fine motor skills are a further aspect of a toddler’s physical development. Developing fine motor skills helps with eating, writing, manipulating objects and getting dressed. Gross motor skills development can support fine motor skills, so try not to panic if your toddler prefers climbing to mark making just now.  You can offer your child the chance to explore fine motor skills by offering finger foods at mealtimes and providing crayons and paper and toys that require some element of manipulation. 

Social Preparation for Preschool

You can support your child’s social development with a wide range of activities and interventions.  Aim to model kindness and manners, so your child learns by example. You can also introduce turn taking games and role play activities with your child to explore social cues.  Books are also a fantastic way for toddlers to learn about the world around them and how other people think, feel, and behave. Be sure to check out The Best Social and Emotional Activities for Preschoolers for more.

Chat about what happens in any books you read to support your child’s speech development – an important tool for social interaction.  You may like to organize play dates for your child with others – including other children likely to start Preschool at the same time as them.  Finally, it’s helpful to be open and honest (at a child- appropriate level) about the realities and challenges of social interactions – sometimes people can hurt our feelings or say or do mean things. Help your child work out and work through socially appropriate ways to respond to such difficulties. 

Mom and son reading a book together, The Best Ways to Prepare Your Toddler for Preschool

Emotional Preparation for Preschool

Toddlers benefit from having some emotional literacy to prepare them for navigating Preschool.  You can begin to build your child’s emotional vocabulary by naming feelings when you see them in your child.  “Are you getting frustrated with that puzzle?” and “do you feel excited about that” are just two of the many phrases you can use to narrate your child’s emotional experience and support them in having words to describe the experience of different emotions. 

It can be tempting as a parent to shield your child from any of the feelings we often label as “difficult” such as sadness, irritation, or jealousy.  However, these emotions are part of what it is to be human. Try to see your role as there to support through rather than rescue from these varied emotions. This can prepare your toddler to be resilient when they feel such feelings at Preschool.

Talk through in advance some of the specifics of what will happen at Preschool.  A visit beforehand can also help to quell any anxieties.  Storybooks with a plot line centering around starting Preschool can be a useful resource to support emotional preparation. Use the book to chat through how your child thinks the characters in the book might be feeling about starting school, and how they are feeling about this. 

Mom and daughter at preschool drop off

Cognitive Preparation for Preschool

Many of the activities, ideas, and suggestions we’ve already covered here will have the additional benefit of supporting your toddler to prepare cognitively for Preschool. Toddlers learn through play and their exploration of the world, so cognitive preparation need not be formal. Keep talking with your child as you engage in activities together to support language development and give your child a great start at having language to describe what they are learning. You can also build simple counting, color, and shape recognition into your everyday life with your toddler by asking, for example, “can you pass me two green apples” when you’re shopping together at the store. 

You can also help your child to begin to get used to a classroom setting by introducing some printables and activity sheets with your toddler that support cognitive development. Aim to keep things positive and upbeat – avoid overloading, and only introduce one concept at a time.  You can also use praise to encourage your child’s efforts to support enjoyment of the learning process, equipping them for Preschool.

What do Parents Need when Preparing their Toddler for Preschool?

Whilst starting Preschool is a big day and significant life transition for your toddler, it’s also an important and significant event in your own life, too. Parents can feel a whole range of emotions about their child starting Preschool, including a sense of loss and anxiety for their child.  These feelings are valid.  However, left unchecked, they can negatively influence your child – who may pick up on your fear and trepidation. Responsible and emotionally aware parents are a huge asset to their child and finding ways to meet your own emotional needs through this process can support you in remaining calm and regulated so you can continue to offer a reassuring presence to your child. 

See if you can build in time, space, and resources to identify and honor your own emotional reactions, taking responsibility and ownership for these feelings.  Some people find speaking to a licensed therapist helpful for processing feelings. Scheduling some down time for yourself, or some child-free time to connect with friends or with your partner can also be a huge support in remaining regulated in the face of challenge. 

The Takeaway:

As with many things in life, preparation helps!  When it comes to your child’s transition to Preschool, preparation can be a great support for both you and your child in navigating this life change.  As we’ve seen, preparation need not be onerous and can work well when it’s incorporated in an organic way into your daily life with your little one.   You can easily strike the balance between spontaneous preparation and more deliberate and structured input across the different domains of physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development.  Let me know what works for you and your little one in preparing them for Preschool.  Good luck!

 

Our Lead Contributor, Claire Law has a background of almost 20 years of teaching experience. She now works as a relational psychotherapist, writer and trainer. Claire is passionate about supporting children’s and young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

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