Starting school is a big step for a four-year-old, and (of course!) his or her parents. One of the most common issues which parents worry about is what a child needs to know before he gets to the school gate.
They wonder if it's better for him to be reading, or if he will fall behind if he's not already ahead of the game. Personally I don't think it helps a child to be pushed too much at an early age. In any case, if your son or daughter is going to be attending a state school, it may not be that beneficial for them if they are already very adept at reading and writing when they start. It actually risks them getting bored (sad but true).
However that's not to say you shouldn't encourage your little ones to explore and develop before they start school. This will make the transition to learning easier. In particular, knowing their letters is a real help.
Seven sensible tips to help learning
1. Talk, talk and talk some more
Don't let your child sit in front of the television or computer the whole time and don't spend your time with him on your blackberry or mobile. Instead ask questions and initiate conversation.
Any psychologist will tell you that too much screen time affects how a child copes in a school setting and can result in poor attention control. Talking on the other hand, can only be beneficial (and it's fun).
It should also help when they start school as they may be more open to your inquiries about what they have done all day (although don't be too disappointed if they just say "nothing").
2. Read books together
Show your child which way words are read, talk about the pictures and ask questions too (what happened, what would they like to have happened, what might happen next and who their favourite character was). Reading together will really help with communication, language development and phonics skills (as will singing nursery rhymes).
The library is, of course, a great place for books. Your local library should also stock dual-language books, which are great if English isn't your family's first language.
I can't stress how important reading is, both before starting school and once your child is there. If you don't do anything else, make sure you read with your child pretty much every day. It needn't take long – five minutes or so – but it will make such a difference. And it will give them confidence. Do this throughout Reception and into Year 1 and you will be amazed by your child's ability.
If your child is very keen to read make sure you help him to do so, but be warned that most children are now taught to read phonetically. This means they need to know the sounds of the letters rather than their names (the letter "c" makes the sound "c", as in "cat", rather than "cee" as in "sea"). The school should be able to help you more on this (or, of course, I have a lot on this topic in my book).
3. Encourage dexterity
Fine motor skills are responsible for the body's small muscle groups. They are used in tasks such as sewing, playing musical instruments and (rather vitally for small children), drawing and writing.
Your child needs to develop strength in his fingers and control when writing. Although this will come with time (many young children soon get over any problems simply with age, as their muscles get stronger), you can help too.
So, buy/borrow (large size) beads and play with them. Also use playdough and clay (all that finger work is very useful) and thread laces too. Encourage your child to paint, draw, use scissors, trace, colour in and do dot-to-dots. You can also buy some really good pencils to help (I would recommend Stabilo) and pencil grips as well.
4. Encourage writing – if your child is ready
You can encourage writing, but don't be too disheartened if your child (especially if he's a boy) finds this hard. Holding the pencil correctly is very important, but some children are simply not physically ready for this at age three or four. Don't worry too much about this as it will come eventually! What you can do instead is work on their fine motor skills (see above) and show them the right way to hold a pencil so at least they have this in their mind.
You can also do "writing" in other ways. Try swirling your finger in sand, for example, or using a paint brush. Some children love drawing pictures for stories and dictating the words, so creating their own book.
5. Help develop concentration
There are so many ways to do this, from putting together a jigsaw puzzle, creating something out of old junk (those loo roll tubes come in very handy) or simply playing a board game with your child (Orchard Toys have some excellent examples of these. My favourites include Shopping List and Tummy Ache).
6. Be creative
You've probably been doing this already, but all that cooking, cutting, sticking and painting is great, not just for fine motor skills, but also for developing creativity and enhancing a child's imagination. It's also a lovely way to spend time with your child (as long as you're not averse to mess).
7. Think of a number!
Writing and reading aren't the only things your child will learn to do at school. Maths is the other main focus of attention. Help them get a head start here by following a few useful (and fun) tips.
Compare things and match them: are they the same, different, bigger or smaller? Get them to help you to put socks together, play odd one out and see what your child picks up on.
Measure things – show your child the scales when you cook for example, and count things, from building blocks or stairs, to the number of red cars you see parked on your street.
Sing number rhymes (anything from Ten Green Bottles to One potato, two potato). Look at car registration numbers and numbers on street signs too.
Sarah Ebner is the author of the Starting School Survival Guide: everything you need to know when your child starts primary school, published by White Ladder.