How to Prepare Your Toddler for Preschool
If your child is starting preschool this fall, you may be approaching this major milestone with conflicting emotions. You’re probably excited about all the fun (you hope) your child will have and the new friends he’ll make.
At the same time, you may feel a little sad that your baby is venturing out into the big world without you. These emotions are normal. Your child is also bound to have a host of feelings about this transition, feeling proud to be a big kid but at the same time worried about being separated from you and starting something unfamiliar.
Having Fun With Preschool Prep
There’s a lot you can do in the weeks before to get ready for the big day. But try to keep your efforts low-key. If you make too big a deal out of this milestone, your child may end up being more worried than excited. Here are some ideas to keep the focus on fun.
Use pretend play to explore the idea of preschool.
Take turns being the parent, child, and teacher. Act out common daily routines, such as saying good-bye to mommy and/or daddy, taking off your coat, singing songs, reading stories, having Circle Time, playing outside, and taking naps. Reassure your child that preschool is a good place where she will have fun and learn. Answer her questions patiently. This helps children feel more in control which reduces their anxiety.
Read books about preschool.
There are many books about going to preschool available from the public library in your area. Choose several to share with your child over the summer before school starts. Talk about the story and how the characters are feeling. Ask how your child is feeling.
Make a game out of practicing self-help skills.
These skills include unzipping her coat, hanging her coat on a hook, putting on her backpack, fastening her shoes. For example, you might want to have a “race” with your child to see how quickly she can put on her shoes. When you play school together, you can give your child the chance to practice taking off her coat, zipping her backpack closed, and sitting “criss-cross applesauce.” If your child will be bringing lunch, pack it up one day before school starts and have a picnic together. This will give her the chance to practice unzipping her lunch box and unwrapping her sandwich—important skills for the first day!
Play at your new preschool.
Visit your child’s preschool together. Ask when you can tour the school with your child. Play on the school playground a few times before your child starts the program. These visits increase your child’s comfort with and confidence in this new setting.
Worries and Watching
Your child may also have some questions or concerns about starting preschool, either before or after he starts in the fall. Help him get ready with these two key strategies:
Listen to your child’s worries.
Although it’s tempting to quickly reassure your child and move on, it’s important to let your child know that his worries have been heard. No matter what they are, big or small, children’s worries about preschool can significantly influence their experience there. Will you remember to pick him up in the afternoon? Will his teacher be nice?
Let your child know it’s normal to feel happy, sad, excited, scared, or worried. Explain that starting something new can feel scary and that lots of people feel that way. It can be helpful to share a time when you started something new and how you felt. When you allow your child to share her worries, you can help her think through how to deal with them. For example, if she is worried about missing you, the two of you can make a book of family photos to keep in her cubby and look at when she is lonely.
Notice nonverbal messages.
As much as 3-year-olds may talk, most are not yet able to fully explain how they are feeling or what they are worried about. Your child may “act out” his worry by clinging, becoming withdrawn, or by being more aggressive. Another common reaction as children take a big move forward is to actually move backward in other areas. For example, if your child is fully potty trained, he may start have toileting accidents. He may ask that you feed or dress him even though he can do these things by himself.
It is natural to be frustrated by this regressed behavior, and you may be concerned that if you do these things for him, he won’t go back to doing them himself. In fact, letting him play this out often leads to children returning to their “big kid” selves sooner. Remember that your child is facing—and managing—a big change in his life. He may need more support, nurturing, and patience from you while he makes this transition.