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Teaching While Parenting: On Kindergarten Readiness

By Jennifer Serravallo

I sent my youngest off to Kindergarten this morning. At drop off in the classroom with all of the other parents, there was nervous/excited energy as we all wondered how our little one’s day would go, and whether each was ready for what lays ahead this year.

Kindergarten readiness. For many it might mean phonics related games and apps, following a bestselling book promising to teach reading in a set of easy lessons, introducing sight words with flash cards, and practicing the alphabet. I’m a teacher — so would you believe me if I told you I did none of those things?

I support a redefinition of kindergarten readiness. I believe in open-ended, hands-on, student-driven play to help them be ready, reading them lots of stories and teaching them to tell their own stories, and working with numbers in real-world ways. Unfortunately, when it was time to enroll my older daughter in preschool, I noticed that most of them were emphasizing sight words, letter recognition, and abstract math concepts. I placed her in one of those schools, assuming that would properly prepare her for kindergarten. The result was that she did learn how to read and write conventionally before entering elementary school, however, she then spent kindergarten reviewing all of the things she did in preschool! I saw that this made school disengaging for her because she was over ready. For other children, research shows that pushing them this much this soon may actually have negative effects on student achievement down the road.

With this information and my own observations as a mother in mind, I reevaluated where to send my younger daughter to preschool. I spoke with friends and colleagues, pored through the research, and ultimately decided to enroll her in a play-based preschool. And I’m so glad I did! She will enter kindergarten knowing how to share and interact with others, how to investigate new concepts, and how to use her imagination in exciting and productive ways. She also developed a robust vocabulary and did so many things independently. She can zip her own coat, tie her own shoes, and open her own applesauce container! Basically, she has learned how to learn about the world. Her school’s playful environment and philosophy supported her academically, too — as she can “read” books by understanding the story of the pictures and she can use manipulatives to tackle tricky mathematical problems. As Kristi, Alison, and Cheryl so beautifully explain in their powerful book, Purposeful Play: A Teacher’s Guide to Igniting Deep & Joyful Learning Across the Day, “Play is a natural learning environment for children, and it is something they have been doing their whole lives before coming to school. Because play is safe and familiar, children feel free to take risks and try on new learning.” That was certainly true for my youngest and her classmates. And I know Kindergarten will be engaging for them because the content will be new yet their ability to tackle it will be well honed.

When preschools position themselves as “academic” rather than “play-based” (which the majority of them do) it sends the message that there is discord between play and academics. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Play is not a way for youngsters to learn, rather, it’s the way. During play, children mimic roles they’ll take on in personal and academic settings later on. And while they are building, drawing, and dressing up they are also talking — a lot! It’s that language use that is one of the most important reasons why play is so crucial to students’ development. As Erika Christakis so bluntly puts it in her groundbreaking book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups, “Studies show that we’re unlikely to hear, during [craft] time, the kind of really rich, expressive language that emerges when children are engaged in creative work, building a fort or playing house.”

Unfortunately, these kinds of play-based preschools can be hard to find and, once you find them, they can be very expensive. In fact, Vivie’s school was twice as expensive as the more academic ones in my neighborhood. The cost alone can make these play-based schools prohibitive. So, what can you do as a parent if your child is in a more traditional, academic focused preschool? Here are some thoughts:

  • Carve out unstructured play time for your children that is not prescribed or controlled by an adult
  • Provide materials for play that are open-ended and battery-free (i.e. cardboard, household items, kitchen items, costumes, blocks, etc.) so as to encourage creativity and language use
  • Read to your children and encourage them to read to you, either by reading the words or reading the pictures
  • Invent stories together, and act them out
  • Play with numbers and math concepts in the real world — for example, divvying up snacks fairly between friends, doing a scavenger hunt for shapes around the house, or counting how many steps it takes to go from home to the playground.
  • Sing silly songs that help them hear rhymes (like “Down By the Bay”)

**To read more about ways that parents can support play at home, check out this recent article from The New York Times.

If you’re a kindergarten teacher, it’s important to get a sense of if and where your students attended preschool. If students went to play-based preschools and aren’t yet reading or writing conventionally — don’t worry! Continue to provide ample time for all students to read books by reading the pictures. Observe students in play and offer them books related to their interests or choice time preferences. And know that their letter recognition and phonemic awareness will follow. Alternatively, if your students attended more academically-focused preschools, try to make time for play! Purposeful Play and Choice Time offer a multitude of ways for teachers to make learning more playful and student-centered across the day.

First day of school pick up is in one hour and I can’t wait to hear how her day went. And I can’t wait to see her grow and learn this year.

Jennifer Serravallo

Jennifer Serravallo is the author of New York Times bestseller The Reading Strategies Book as well as other popular Heinemann titles, including The Writing Strategies Book; Teaching Reading in Small Groups; Conferring with Readers; and The Literacy Teacher’s Playbook, Grades K–2 and Grades 3–6. Her newest book is Understanding Texts & Readers. She is also the author of the On-Demand Courses Strategies in Action: Reading and Writing Methods and Content and Teaching Reading in Small Groups: Matching Methods to Purposes where you can watch dozens of videos of Jen teaching in real classrooms and engage with other educators in a self-guided course.

Jen began her career in education as a teacher in Title I schools in NYC and later joined the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. Through TCRWP and now as an independent consultant, she has spent over a decade helping teachers across the country to create literacy classrooms where students are joyfully engaged and the the instruction is meaningfully individualized to students’ goals.

Jen holds a BA from Vassar College and an MA from Teachers College, where she has also taught graduate and undergraduate classes on urban education reform and children’s literature.

Learn more about Jen and her work at, or connect with her at @jserravallo.

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