Preparing preschool and Kindergarten students for the first day of school through play, consistency, and honest conversations.

Preparing to start school is a big step. Whether it’s preschool or kindergarten, all future students need a bit of guidance to begin their school career successfully, and that’s before considering the implications of learning during a pandemic like COVID-19. Establishing expectations and rhythms will help new students succeed, even if the format and location of that learning shifts a few times over the next year.

Kimberly Bloemen is the executive director of early childhood education for the Boulder Valley School District, and she is focused now more than ever on integrating play and fun into  education for this age range. Her goal is to support the five big areas of preschool and Kindergarten development: social-emotional, cognitive, physical, literacy
and math.

“By age five, 85 percent of the brain is developed,” Bloemen said. “[So] we see Pre-K and K as a partnership with the family.”

No matter what school format a family chooses for their preschool or Kindergarten future scholars this year, there are several ways families can help nourish these rapidly changing and expanding brains.

Set a schedule
Early on during BVSD’s pandemic response of switching to distance learning in the Spring of 2020, Bloemen recognized the challenges students faced when this change happened. Mimicking at least some of a school day flow helped kids stay on track and more comfortable with the shift to at-home learning. Creating a similar flow for the fall of 2020 will help in both distance and hybrid scenarios.

Diane Lauer is the St. Vrain Valley Schools District assistant superintendent of priority programs and academic support, and she also advocates for setting up schedules for preschool and kindergarten-aged students.

“It can be helpful for them to think about their schedule for the next day the night before, maybe at bedtime,” she said. “Going over what the day might look like at breakfast can help reinforce the schedule … [this] helps them understand the connection between what they are doing and what they are learning.”

Jessica Scott is the senior program director of early learning for the YMCA Inspire Preschool in Longmont, and she recommends continually forecasting the schedule of the day.

“One of the things that I think is really beneficial for especially these little [kids] is something visual that they can see,” Scott said. “In my mind that looks like a tangible schedule for the day, that they can see and keep track of. Sometimes it is hard to know what is coming next, especially when you are a little kid who can’t think in [an] abstract manner.”

Create interaction and play
Kids thrive on moving fast and in play, so why not add academic components to those natural tendencies?

“I don’t want kids to have passive experiences where information is just coming at them,” Bloeman said. “It can be simple things like when you read a story to a child asking ‘what do you think is coming next?’ Or when you are at home, activities like sorting pots and pans by shapes, or sorting closets by color and patterns.”

Play learning can be affordable and also based entirely around what is already in the home. Just giving preschool-aged children opportunities to explore and touch will help their brains to thrive.

“Pull weeds and talk about why they grow,” Bloeman said. “Take a hike and look for leaves that are different colors and shapes, and talk about why they have different colors and shapes … You are using your words to help neurons fire in their brains. So there’s literacy, math, language development – all included.”

Scott also advocates for learning through play.

“Parents have a tough job, no matter what happens with the school district,” she said. “So find new ways for kids to use the things that they really like. I encourage parents to help their kids learn through what they love.”

She offered an example of one of her preschool kids who really loves the TV show “PJ Masks.” His mother created a simple PJ Masks bingo board with learning and home tasks for the day where he can choose activities to do that are associated with a PJ masks character, and there’s a song she sings with him for transitions throughout the day.

“And make sure to build in breaks,” Scott said. “We all need breaks.”

Have honest conversations
It can be difficult to strike a balance between sharing too much information and not enough information with young children, but modeling honesty and helping them express their emotions will help young children learn resiliency through tough times.

“Like when we teach our kids about the danger of streets and of looking both ways before we cross the street, for the pandemic, we have to front load it and teach our children about what it means to be safe,” Bloeman said. “We can talk about our boundaries and our safety.”

Scott mentioned that while it is important to be honest with young kids about the pandemic and how it affects their schooling, those explanations don’t need to be very detailed.

“Say ‘I know things are different right now; we are still going to have school, but it will be a little different,’” she said. “Kids are perceptive and smart, and if you are honest with them, that can help relieve the anxiety. And it is okay for them to feel what they are feeling.”

Laurer also advocates for talking with children about their emotions on a regular basis

“It is important for families to help students be able to name their primary emotions,” she said. “Using that language to make connections to the characters when you are watching television programs or reading a story can help your child make a connection to their own emotions. There are also age-appropriate self soothing techniques that families can use, like breathing strategies, having a comfort blanket, or taking time for quiet reflection.”

Scott recommends checking in on emotions everyday.

“ [Ask] ‘how are you feeling today?’” she said. “Make a feelings chart. [Ask] ‘Why are you sad today? And do you want to talk about that? And whenever you want to talk about why you are sad, you and I will talk about it.’  You need to be there with them and tell them they are okay.”

By Rhema Zlaten for Raised in the Rockies.