In our hurry-up, competitive world, it’s no longer left to the Six-Million-Dollar Man to be better, faster, and stronger. We’re pressured to expect the same from our young children before they’ve even entered kindergarten.

In interviews with teachers in both public and private schools, a consensus emerged about school readiness. Summarized by Lisa Marshall, “In my class, I had children who came to school already reading but were otherwise entirely unprepared. Other children, who had prepared by climbing trees, listening to stories, engaging in free play, and doing chores were socially, emotionally, and intellectually ripe for every kind of learning.”

The bottom line: take a deep breath and pause, worry less about worksheets and flash cards, and focus more on your children’s childhood. Children do childhood really well when we let them, and – bonus –a healthy childhood is more than enough to prepare them for school. Here are seven ways to nourish childhood and, at the same time, help your child be ready for school:

1 | Surround your child with stories and language

“Children who have been surrounded by stories at young ages are better readers and writers. Having an internal and deep understanding of ‘narrative’ makes a huge difference in developing literacy,” notes Theresa Souchet.

Stories are seeds: of imagination, of play, of empathy. Tell stories. Tell the same one over and over until your child can say it with you. Read stories. Sing to and with your child. Recite nursery rhymes and snippets of poems – or whole ones, if you can remember them. Your child doesn’t need to be able to make absolute sense of a poem to benefit from the language and rhythm.

2 | Encourage imaginative play

“The research on play is unequivocal: it is the essential work of childhood. Nothing else serves children’s development better. In my classroom, children with the richest experience of play, of nature, of household chores, were the best prepared to take on every kind of learning challenge,” states Lisa Marshall.

Play lays the groundwork for later learning. The child’s body and mind are engaged in so many different ways: sorting, constructing and de-constructing, imagining scenarios and their outcomes, experimenting, developing fine- and gross-motor control, noticing patterns, succeeding and failing and trying again and giving up, cooperating and fighting…the list is endless.

Provide access to open-ended toys, sticks, rocks, boxes, pieces of fabric, and the like. These objects can turn into anything or everything with a dash of imagination.

3 | Provide time in nature

“One of the most important issues facing young children is their increasing levels of stress and anxiety. Many children have a hard time coping with the demands of school. Children who have a more balanced lifestyle, one that includes play and time outdoors, seem much happier and better adjusted. If I could make one recommendation to parents it would be to encourage their children to unplug and go outside,” explains Mary Jo Wood.

Unstructured time outside in nature is a tonic for the child’s soul. It also instills a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world, which will serve well as a platform for a lifetime of learning. Let your child experience the forces of nature: the implacable weight of earth, the power of fire, the persistence of water, and the ever-changing wind.

4 | Establish family rhythm

“A home filled with routine provides a sense of predictability that reduces stress on the young growing body and mind. This prepares an inner foundation upon which intellectual development can begin. A school-aged child who enters the classroom from a home that is filled with a reliable rhythm has typically developed the fundamental inner order for success in academic learning,” states Regina Selig Mason.

In addition to a regular schedule of events, routines can be especially helpful during those tricky transitional times of the day: waking and sleeping, meal times, leaving the house, and returning home again. 

5 | Invite your child into the world of chores

“When I taught in a small farm community, the children were more responsible and self-disciplined. I attribute this to a life of rhythm and chores, a life circumstance that required they participate in the daily functioning of their homes. They carried this sense of responsibility into the classroom,” notes Theresa Souchet.

Young children don’t need assigned chores (those are more appropriate around age six or seven), but they do need to be around while you are engaged in chores, and they need you to invite them into that world of work. Let them join you in cooking, cleaning, fixing, and maintaining. Let them see you enjoying those things so they can imitate your actions and your attitude.

The sense of accomplishment and belonging that children derive from doing real work together is essential to their sense of being worthy and able to contribute to the world.

6 | Model self-discipline and good manners

“Parents have to be ever vigilant of their behavior and demeanor in front of children, who respond immediately to the models in front of them, mimicking positive and negative behaviors. When parents and teachers are self-disciplined, children feel safe and comfortable, an important prerequisite for learning,” explains Theresa Souchet.

Harness the power of imitation, which is at its strongest in the young child. They will do what you do. They will also say what you say. Make sure you are worthy of their imitation!

7 | Minimize choices

“When a young child is given too much freedom of choice in areas that are better decided by adults, he has been forced to make sense of complexities beyond his capacity for understanding, which is overwhelming and confusing,” Regina Selig Mason notes.

Reduce the number of choices you offer to your young kids. Let your children experience the reassuring certainty of living in a world in which caring, experienced adults model good decision-making. Let them see that you know how the world works and that you have learned how to navigate through life. This will inspire them to learn from you, from others, and, ultimately, from their own experience.