Family Life

Pre-school blocks
Mar 08

Earlier this week we confirmed Little I’s start date for pre-school. Her birthday falls in May and so her free early education place will begin on 1 September, but since she doesn’t yet go to any nursery, my husband and I have decided that it would be good for her to begin two mornings a week after her third birthday, as a way of gently easing her into things. I also think she’s more than ready for it!

We have selected a lovely pre-school for her, which is attached to the primary school that I attended and has come highly recommended by friends. We loved the way in which this will be a gentle introduction to school life for her, as she will be attending assemblies and have access to the school music room and IT suite. But of course there are many options when it comes to selecting a pre-school, and you choose what feels right for your child and meets the criteria that you feel are most important.

Since the start of this year I have been thinking a lot about how I should begin preparing Little I for pre-school, both socially and developmentally. Just like any loving parent, I want to do what I can to give her the best start. It was a subject that I realised I needed to do some research on.

Here is an insight into what some of the experts say. I have spoken to a range of Early Years education experts to gather their views and share them with you.

Fundamentally, early years expert and author, Hilary White, believes that “perhaps the most important thing (and probably the hardest to achieve), is not to feel under pressure to prepare your child – or feel that your child must meet certain targets in order to be ready for pre-school. Pre-school practitioners are used to having children arrive at all stages of readiness – and they are there to help the child develop from whatever stage they are at.”

If I am completely honest, this made me realise that I had wanted Little I to be meeting certain targets before she started at pre-school. I want her to be as ‘ready’ as possible. Maybe this is because she is who she is, and I know she is capable. But speaking to Hilary White certainly made me question my motives.

Gill Roberts, who is a senior lecturer in Early Years Education at Birmingham City University, explains that “Mums often talk about their child’s readiness for pre-school, but really they should be thinking, is the pre-school ready for their child? It has to have the child, their needs, and the child’s own development at the centre.”

All of the experts I spoke to suggested the benefits of a home visit from the pre-school. Amanda Gummer, who is a specialist in play and parenting explains: “having a teacher accepted into the home will help the child to see that they are a friend and not a stranger. The pre-school will then also have a better idea of the child and their needs. You could make it an exciting thing and make biscuits with your child in preparation for the teacher coming round, or you can play it completely down and keep things low key. It completely depends on your child – it’s a judgement call.”

The big question for me has been should I be teaching Little I anything before she starts at pre-school? She’s already showing a lot of interest in mark making, which I have written about in a previous post, and so should I be helping her to recognise letters of the alphabet, for example, or be practising writing her name with her? I have a couple of friends who made sure their child could write their name by the time they turned three, and so of course I feel a little influenced by my peers.

Speaking with Hilary White, she explained: “It is very useful for your child to be able to recognise their name – or at least the first few letters – as it will appear in so many places at pre-school. If they are keen and ready to learn how to write their name, that’s great – but don’t worry if they’re not, it won’t be expected. Introduce writing names by writing the letters in yellow felt pen for the child to trace over with their pencil – and once they can write their name, help them get into the habit of writing it on every drawing etc.”

It seems that observing and encouraging the interests of your child is key, while avoiding being ‘pushy’. “More damage can be done by driving a child into something that they’re not ready for. Your child might be able to learn the alphabet, but personally I think there are more exciting things,” argues Gill Roberts. “If children see their parents reading for pleasure, then they are likely to share that interest. It’s not about whether your child can read at five, but it’s about whether they still read at 15 or 25. Just give your child opportunities, as they want it.”

Since speaking to Roberts, I have taken this particular message to heart. Whereas I hadn’t even attempted reading in front of Little I before, other than a quick magazine article maybe…I have now started bringing my reading book downstairs with me on a weekend and reading for a little bit while she is colouring in, for example. It’s made me realise that while interacting and playing with your child is important, role-modelling certain activities and interests can also be a good thing. Plus it means I get a little more reading time!

Amanda Gummer believes there are three key areas that a parent should be thinking about when it comes to preparing their child for pre-school. Those areas are: confidence, independence and personal management.

“Social development has been undervalued,” argues Gummer. She talks about the importance of encouraging “confidence and self-esteem, and a can-do attitude”, so that “when given something new [your child] will give it a go.”

To encourage confidence and self-esteem, Gummer advises that parents should think about praising efforts rather than results. So for example, saying “I can see you’ve tried really hard with this drawing”. She also flags the importance of showing your child that everyone makes mistakes, via your reactions to their mistakes and failures. She suggests that parents should occasionally set themselves up to make an idiot of themselves in front of their child, and then showing by their reaction that they aren’t bothered about it. I have to say that my husband does a very good job of this with Little I…they are continually laughing at themselves together!

In terms of independence and personal management, Gummer suggests that a good way of preparing your child for this is by giving yourselves an extra half hour to get out of the door, and encouraging your child to get themselves ready. “If you get the personal management stuff sorted, it will really help your child’s confidence at pre-school,” she explains.

To summarise, parents and teachers serve very different purposes in a child’s life (unless you are thinking of home schooling!). Maybe remembering this takes some pressure of us as parents. Hilary White sums it up nicely: “I think it can be useful to remember that parents are great at doing the ‘broad brush’ stuff such as sharing lots of books and conversing one-to-one (and parents make more valuable conversational partners than teachers because they know the child’s references, putting them in a much better position to understand what their child is talking about!). Schools actually don’t have time to do as much of this as children need – but some children do accept the ‘technical stuff’ (phonics, word recognition etc) more readily from their teacher. This is not at all to suggest that parents shouldn’t do sounds and letters and encourage early reading and writing if that’s right for them and their child. It just shouldn’t become a worry if your child is resistant.”

If you have any views on the subject, I’d love to hear them. Maybe you have a child at pre-school already and there are things that you might do differently a second time round, or you feel you prepared your child very well. Please share any feedback below.

About the Author

Wendy McAuliffe

Social media & online PR consultant and trainer, and ex-journalist. Founder and Director of Populate Digital and Mum of two. Living by the sea in Bournemouth. @wendymcauliffe.

  • Helen

    “Its not about whether your child is reading at 5, it’s about whether they’re still reading at 5 or 15″.  This is such an important statement. I believe children form their opinions about the education process really early on.  They also form their opinions of ‘school’ based on their parents’ views.  We have lots of really young children at our school who are already disengaged from the idea of school and you hear their parents saying things like “I never liked school”.  I think the best preparation is to ensure they are excited about it and see it as a positive thing.  The learning and skills will come if they are engaged and motivated.  If they are not, it won’t matter how much you do with them.  Curiosity, excitement in new things, determination – they’re things to focus on.
    A friend of mine has recently sent her daughter to ‘big school’ (she was rising 5) and the school sent out a list of things to try and help your child to do before they started school.  None of them were learning based!  Wipe your own bottom, blow your nose, do your coat up, get dressed (PE issues!)…….  I thought this was interesting.  No ‘write your name’ or ‘read a book’. 
    Excuse the rambling….seem to be quite opinionated on this one!!
    Good luck Little I – you’ll have so much fun!

    • wendymcauliffe

      Thank you Helen for sharing such great insight. I loved school and have such fond memories of secondary school in particular, and so I think I naturally talk about school positively with Little I. But I guess for parents who had a less positive experience of school, they may need to think more carefully about how they discuss their own personal experiences of school with their child. I agree regarding the statement about still reading when they’re 25, and I also loved the comment about there being more exciting things than learning the alphabet…as it’s so true!

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