Impulse control, self-regulation, and how a child relates to others can often be a better indicator of a child’s future success in school than their initial knowledge of their ABCs and 123s. Children ready for kindergarten have learned to follow simple directions and routines. They’re showing empathy for others and are forming new and lasting relationships with the adults and children around them. They’re able to take turns, play cooperatively with one another, and join other children in play. They’re picking up good health habits and are also learning to concentrate and stick to an activity for more than a few minutes.
Playing simple games like “Red Light, Green Light” can help your child self-regulate and improve executive function and skills that will allow him or her to better pay attention, stay on task, and keep working even when an activity proves challenging. Play for a while using the standard rules (red light means freeze, green light means run or go), and then mix it up a bit! You can make “red light” mean run and “green light” mean freeze (and even add a “yellow light” for walking slowly)! Changing up the rules of the game means that your child will have to listen, pay attention, and purposefully work to break the habit of running on green. The change up encourages him or her to stop, think, and then act!
You can also try fast and slow with songs like “Head and Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.” Start slow, then go fast! Slow it down again, then back to fast! Mix up the body parts (“Head and Shoulders, Knees and Elbows”) or sing the song backwards (“Toes, Knees, Shoulders, and My Head”). Make it fun! All the while, your child is learning to become a critical thinker who’ll make better choices.
Share books together that introduce emotional vocabulary and situations. Give your child the words to express his or her feelings by sharing books like Audrey Wood’s Quick as a Cricket, Molly Bang’s When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry, Mies van Hout’s Happy, or Dr. Seuss’s My Many Colored Days. Talk about the words together. What does it mean to feel lonely, frustrated, scared, and angry? How do you feel? When do you feel that way? What can you do to change those feelings?
Make time for imaginary play with your child. Let your child set the rules of the game to promote independence. Whether you’re playing restaurant, school, post office, or rescue the princess, be sure to provide lots of props to encourage talking. Pretend play stretches your child’s imagination, vocabulary, and creativity and also provides lots of role-playing opportunities to work through real life situations your child may struggle with. Taking on different roles also helps your child develop empathy as he or she takes on new roles and considers new perspectives.
Play simple games with your child like Candy Land, Memory, Go Fish, or Connect Four that encourage you to take turns. Taking turns helps your child to learn to wait, to self-regulate, to be patient, to concentrate, and to listen.
Cook something together in the kitchen. Follow a simple recipe, even if it’s just for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or garden salad. Practice the recipe several times, always adding ingredients in the same order. Cooking together, you’re helping your child to learn to follow instructions, to concentrate on an activity, to follow a routine, and to clean up after himself. Time in the kitchen is also a great opportunity to practice healthy habits, whether it’s selecting nutritious ingredients for your meal or remembering to wash your hands before you dig in.
Share music with your child that gives him an opportunity to self-regulate. Any songs that encourage children to alternate their bodies’ movement from fast to slow, from one activity to another (like skipping to jumping), or from stop to go, help children to learn self-control and to follow simple directions. Want to give your child a challenge? Ask her to dance slowly to fast music, or quickly to slow music. Jim Gill, singer-songwriter and educator-extraordinaire, has written a number of songs that contain dramatic pauses that encourage children to wait, and make the waiting fun! Sing, dance, and play along with “Jim Gill’s Lullaby” from the album Jim Gill Makes It Noisy in Boise, Idaho or “Jumping and Counting” from Jim Gill’s Irrational Anthem: And More Salutes to Nonsense. These and other storytime favorites from Jim, including “Silly Dance Contest” from Jim Gill Sings the Sneezing Song and Other Contagious Tunes and “Truck Stop” from Jim Gill Presents Music Play for Folks of All Stripes, are stop and go games that encourage kids to listen to musical cues and change their behavior accordingly.
Collect pictures of faces showing different emotions. Have your child sort the pictures into piles of sad, happy, angry, silly, frustrated, and so on. While sorting, talk to your child about emotions, asking questions like: “Why do you think the girl is mad?” This can help your child develop empathy and recognize emotions in others. This is also a great opportunity to talk through how we can act out our feelings in an appropriate way. Remind your child that it’s okay to be angry, for example, but we have to make smart choices with what we do with that anger. Talk about a situation that might make your child angry: “What would you do if your friend took your favorite toy?” Write down your child’s suggestions and discuss which would do the most good in that situation.
Set up play dates for your child. Exposing children to new social situations and people provides the practice they need to perfect their newly developing social and emotional skills. A play date in the park can give your child a chance to take turns on the swings or to introduce him to new children and join them in a game of soccer or tag. A play date at another child’s home gives your child an opportunity to practice following instructions from an adult other than yourself and to learn to respect other people’s belongings. A play date at your home gives your child the opportunity to exercise control over her own belongings as she selects which toys she’ll share with her guests. Repeated play dates can also help your child to form lasting relationships with a specific friend.
Further exploration and more activities:
Jim Gill videos