Today we are talking about five of the most important areas to focus on during the preschool years. Preschool can be such a fun time of learning. Everything is exciting. The birds in the trees, the characters in storybooks, how high you can build a block tower—there’s so much to discover and do.
Now before we get too far into it, let me just specify that when we are talking about the preschool years, we are mainly talking about kids between the ages of 3 and 5. Sometimes kids may be ready for these things a little earlier. Sometimes a little later. But, the ages of 3 and 5 is the most common parameter for the preschool years.
That being said, let’s get into the 5 most important areas you need to focus on during the preschool years.
5 Most Important Areas to Focus on in the Preschool Years
1. Gross Motor Skills
A lot is happening in your child’s little body during the preschool years. You may notice your kids like to move a lot during this age because they are growing a lot physically and are needing to learn how to coordinate all those new muscles.
Gross motor skills are the development of large motion actions such as running, jumping, hopping on one foot, riding a bicycle, and skipping. These skills are important because they develop a child’s sense of balance, coordination, speed, and endurance. Many gross motor skills also lay the foundation for future daily tasks such as reading and writing because many of them involve movement that crosses the midline.
Crossing the midline is any action your child does where one side of their body crosses over to the opposite side. An example of this could be something as simple as picking up a block on their left side and putting it on a tower on their right side. In order for children to do these types of activities, they are using both sides of their brain to coordinate smooth, controlled and complex movements.
There are several gross motor skills you can encourage your child to develop during the preschool years including:
- Drawing large figure eights with their fingers, markers, or paint brush
- Hopping on one foot
- Riding a tricycle and/or bicycle
- Throwing , catching, kicking, hitting, and bouncing balls of different sizes
- Jumping rope
- Climbing rock walls, ladders, and trees
- Learning to swing on a swing by themselves
- Going across monkey bars
- Bear Crawling
- Crab Walking
- Walking on stilts
- Jumping down from high places
- Jumping over large measurable distances
- Doing somersaults
- Walking backwards
You can often practice these skills through fun games like hopscotch, freeze tag, Twister, or Simon Says. Taking a beginning dance class, playing with a parachute in a music and movement class, or taking a gymnastics class can also be beneficial to their development during this time. That said, never underestimate the importance of playing at parks during these years, both for the opportunity to get outside and the opportunity for your child to develop his or her gross motor skills.
2. Fine Motor Skills
In addition to gross motor skills, children at this age are starting to develop their fine motor skills…those skills that use fine finger movements like the movements used to pick up beads, hold a pencil, or cut paper. These are often skills that are not innate; they must be taught. Examples of fine motor skills include:
- Cutting objects out of paper
- Holding and writing with a pencil to trace letters and shapes
- Picking and sorting beads with fingers, tweezers, or tongs
- Manipulating clay or play dough into different shapes, especially snakes and balls
- Putting together puzzles
- Coloring in a coloring book and focusing on staying in the lines
- Stringing beads
- Sewing through felt or lacing cards
- Pouring water from one container to another
- Buttoning clothing
- Brushing hair
- Brushing teeth
- Zipping zippers
- Tying laces
Again, developing fine motor skills is another area where children can practice crossing their midline while also developing other skills. When they are sorting beads, you can encourage them to pick them up from a bowl on their left side and sort them into muffin cups on their right side. Or, when putting together a puzzle, you can put the pieces on the floor on their right side and put the puzzle together on their left side to naturally encourage their crossing of the midline while they are playing.
Speaking of fine motor skills, did you know that speech development falls under fine motor skills? During this stage, children are actually trying to develop their fine motor muscles in their face, lips and tongue as well as their hands. This is why so many children’s speech actually becomes clearer during these years. You can expect to hear improvements in most of their consonants including the /t/, /d/, /k/, /s/, ‘sh’, ‘ch’, ‘j’, and /v/ sounds. Keep in mind the /l/, /r/, and /th/ sounds are usually among the last to develop. Activities that can help with speech development include singing songs, reading books, and engaging in a lot of face-to-face talk time.
3. Social Skills
Kids between the ages of 3 and 5 are so much fun to have conversations with. The TV show Kids Say the Darndest Things is a prime example of just how funny kids this age can be. However, that show is also an example of how kids this age can also act inappropriately out of ignorance, which not uncommon. Preschoolers like to ask lots of questions, play with friends, and share….sometimes. However, they still have a lot to learn when it comes to social skills like how to lose gracefully, follow simple instructions thoroughly, and answer appropriately.
Social skills are skills that are learned by interacting with others. While playdates with other similar-aged children can be helpful, time with siblings, family, friends, and even imaginary friends all provide a practice field for them to learn how and when and what to say and do when around others.
How can you help your child develop positive social skills?
- Model good language skills by speaking in complete sentences and by using “grown-up” words
- Help your child work through his or her problems when upset
- Let them talk about their day and have them tell you about their highs and the lows
- Encourage play and sharing with others
- Play games that involve corporate fun more than individual winners. Hoot Owl, Hoot is a good example of a corporate game. Everyone is working together to get the owlets into the nest before the sun sets instead of individually accomplishing a task.
- Talk about the books you read together and how the characters respond to different situations.
- Talk about and encourage safety actions around streets, pools, playgrounds, and other more vulnerable places
- Keep TVs out of bedrooms and off as much as possible. The more children are exposed to TV programs, the less creative, the less focused, the less productive, and the more socially inappropriate children tend to become.
- Encourage your child to talk about his or her feelings
- Let them ask lots of questions and explore
- Give your children the opportunity to make choices—Would you like the blue toothbrush or the red toothbrush this month?
Yes, kids this age tend to be very selfish, moody, fearful, and even aggressive at times as they are learning to and desiring to do things more independently. However, by the end of preschool, as their confidence in themselves and their abilities tend to grow, most preschoolers tend to be more cooperative, happier, and more responsible. So keep encouraging them—it will pay off in time.
This fourth focus can actually be an extension of number 3, but for me, deserves its own bullet point because where social and emotional skills involve actions on the outside, character development involves thoughts in the heart. As a Christian, I want my daughters to grow up loving the Lord and showing that love to others. How do they show that love? Through their character. I want children who are honest, kind, and trustworthy. I want girls who are patient, encouraging, and humble. Yes, I want them to develop those characteristics of love found in 1 Corinthians 13. And those skills don’t develop on their own. They also need opportunities for development. How can you encourage this?
- Read stories that provide good character examples worth following
- Practice good manners throughout the day, encouraging the use of “please” and “thank you” regularly
- Let your child be responsible for the completion of certain daily chores or tasks
- Be clear and consistent in discipline when needed
- Demonstrate and/or practice how to respond to a situation differently when a child makes a wrong choice
- Compliment good behavior
- Demonstrate good behavior
Ultimately, a child’s character will hopefully become an extension of knowing Christ personally. During these early years as they learn about Jesus and hear the stories of His love and redemption, they will see what that looks like as they watch you demonstrate character in their day-to-day. And, as with most children, they will naturally want to do things like you do. So remember, you are being Jesus to them.
5. Academic Skills
I mention academic skills last of all because, although academic skills are important, they only make up a small portion of what children should be learning at this stage. As parents we want our students to succeed academically and therefore, we begin teaching our children to read and write at earlier and earlier ages. However, if a child does not have the gross and fine motor skills, character skills, and social skills they need at this time, they will forever fall behind physically, emotionally, socially, AND academically.
So let’s just assume at this point you are working with your child to develop their gross motor skills, their fine motor skills, their character, and their social skills. What academic skills are preschoolers capable of? A lot! By the end of preschool, most children should be able to:
- Identify basic shapes
- Recognize both upper and lowercase letters and recite the alphabet
- Read numbers and count from 1 to 20
- Identify basic colors
- Complete simple patterns
- Identify at least 6 body parts
- Know basic personal information such as his or her full name, age, birthday, address, and phone number
- Know 8 or more nursery rhymes by heart
Again, much of this can be learned through day-to-day interactions with letters, numbers, words, and shapes and songs. After all, how many nursery rhymes can you say just because you grew up singing the nursery rhyme in a song? Mary Had a Little Lamb? Three Blind Mice? Row Row Row Your Boat? The list goes on and on.
Make It Easy
So let’s review. The five most important areas to focus on during the preschool years are gross motor skills, fine motor skills, social skills, character, and academic skills. While you don’t need a curriculum during the preschool years, if you are anything like me, you like having a guide to help you remember different things to work on throughout those early years. That’s why I wrote the Encompass Preschool Curriculum. In it you will find opportunities for your child to develop each of these focus areas while also having fun cooking, painting, singing, playing, and more.