By the end of kindergarten, most children will know their 123s and ABCs and have the necessary knowledge and skills to flourish in first grade. But how do they get to this point? Is there a step-by-step process to helping children prepare for first grade, and where should kindergarten teachers start?
Kindergarten takes an integrated approach to teaching. Subjects and concepts overlap rather than being separated into units and taught in a strict order. Teachers should start with the basics, like counting, letter recognition, and fundamental movement skills. These learning experiences intertwine with the rules and routines taught from day one.
The kindergarten curriculum isn’t broken into lessons focused on one subject at a time. That’s not how young children learn. Effective kindergarten learning involves activities designed to practice many skills and build knowledge of different content areas simultaneously.
The only hard-and-fast rule is to start with the basics. Let’s delve deeper into how to give young learners a winning start.
What Comes First When Teaching Kindergarten?
From the first day, your goal as a kindergarten teacher is to give learners as many opportunities as possible to grasp diverse concepts and develop multiple skills through everyday experiences.
The order in which you introduce most concepts is flexible. Rather than looking for the perfect sequence, focus on filling schooldays with integrated hands-on activities that are stimulating yet simple enough for learners to tackle without feeling frustrated or discouraged.
Creating educational experiences spot-on for youngsters can be tricky, especially for new teachers (or experienced teachers new to teaching kindergarten).
Where do you even start?
I’ve got four tips to point you in the right direction! Here’s my top advice for boosting your kindergarten learners’ full development right from day one.
Tip 1: Introduce Routines Packed With Learning Opportunities
Children experience many cognitive, physical, emotional, and social changes when they start kindergarten. They need time and support to get their heads around all their new experiences and interactions, never mind the learning.
Introducing regular routines will help kids relax and feel ready to learn.
These are some of the routines that contribute to successful kindergarten classrooms:
The Morning Ring
The school day starts with learners singing a greeting song to make everyone feel at ease. The teacher then guides the learners through activities that teach concepts from all content areas.
Here are example activities from the morning ring:
- The class counts the learners, one at a time, to check whether everyone is at school.
- A learner helps the teacher complete a chart with the day, date, and weather. (Every day, a new learner gets a chance to be the teacher’s special helper).
- The teacher introduces the week’s theme (see the next tip for more on this).
- Each learner has a turn to share their news or does show-and-tell.
Math, Literacy, Music, And Movement Rings
All kindergarten learning is integrated, but some activities focus on teaching a new concept from a specific content area.
These are the concepts kindergarten teachers most frequently teach first in math-, literacy-, music-, and movement-focused activities:
- Math: a popular way to start teaching kindergarten math is with the symbol and word for the number 1 and counting to 5.
- Literacy: learning often starts with letter recognition and letter-sound correspondence. Teachers can pick which letter to introduce first and what sequence to follow. Going in alphabetical order might seem the most logical choice, but a different sequence might get children reading faster. Watch pro tips for choosing a sequence to speed up reading results:
- Music: the concepts (rhythm, melody, form, texture, tempo, timbre, and dynamics) can be taught in any order, but teachers often choose to teach rhythm or melody first.
- Movement: starting skills include jumping, hopping, skipping, throwing, and catching.
The kindergarten day usually closes with the teacher reading the learners a story. This routine helps develop skills like prereading, listening, and speaking (when children answer questions about the story after it’s been read) and ends the day’s learning on a light note.
Routines like these easily open up multiple learning opportunities, but kindergarten teachers can turn any moment into a teachable moment. Even a walk to the playground can be educational! For example, children can explore the math concept of seriation (arranging things in order) when they line up in height order before heading out or practice counting while walking down steps.
Tip 2: Plan Learning Experiences Around A Theme
The most effective way to integrate learning is to base all activities around an engaging theme that kindergarteners can easily relate to.
And the best theme for the first week or 2 of kindergarten is All About Me.
This theme is perfect for the start of formal schooling for many reasons:
- It encourages kindergarteners to speak freely. Youngsters are naturally self-interested, so they enjoy talking about themselves.
- It boosts confidence. We know much about ourselves, so kindergarteners won’t feel stressed and insecure because they can’t think of things to say.
- It’s directly relevant to every learner. An essential rule for teaching young learners is to choose themes they can relate to. This tactic boosts engagement and understanding.
- It’s a good icebreaker. Children are often shy when they meet people for the first time. Speaking about favorite things and learning what classmates love can help learners open up and bond with each other.
- It’s the ideal introduction to the theme table. Kindergarten involves learners bringing theme-related objects to class to be displayed. The theme table builds curiosity, encourages exploration, and sparks discussion. Learners might struggle to find objects related to some themes. But everyone should easily find something to add to the All About Me table.
Here’s an idea of how the All About Me theme can shape learning experiences in different content areas:
- Math: the teacher asks everyone who’s 5 years old to stand up. Then the whole class counts to 5, clapping on each number. Next, everyone who’s 6 stands up, and the class counts to 6 while clicking. Finally, everyone who’s 7 stands up, and the class counts to 7 while tapping their tummies.
- Emotional intelligence: learners talk about what makes them happy and sad.
- Social science: learners share how they celebrate their birthdays.
- Natural science: working in pairs, one learner lies on a sheet of large paper while the other learner traces their outline. The learners then swap tasks. After everyone’s outline has been traced, the class looks at the outlines and talks about different body parts.
- Art: the learners paint features and clothes inside their outlines.
- Language: each learner brings a photo of themself as a baby and a recent photo. They discuss how they’ve changed as they’ve aged.
Another secret to integrating and enlivening concepts from different content areas is music. Walk past a kindergarten class anytime, and you’ll likely hear singing, chanting, moving feet, clapping, or cheerful tunes! These elements make learning anything from vocabulary to math rules easier and enjoyable, so they’re part of almost every lesson.
Tip 3: Determine Your Learners’ Prior Knowledge
I’ve given general guidelines for what to teach first in kindergarten. But these guidelines can’t be applied to every kindergarten class. Learners have different prior knowledge, so their learning needs differ.
Most learners have some understanding of shapes, colors, numbers, and letters of the alphabet when they enter kindergarten. But not all learners will have the same level of understanding.
Some learners won’t have attended preschool or been exposed to many concepts developed in kindergarten. Teachers must introduce basic concepts to the learners before they can build on them.
So, you can only know what to teach your kindergarten learners first after you find out what they already know.
Tip 4: Start With The Basics
A big mistake is throwing kids into the deep end at the start of their first formal school year. Spoiler: They’re likely to sink, not swim!
Experienced kindergarten teachers set challenging yet manageable learning objectives. The aim is to stretch kids cognitively, socially, physically, and emotionally without overwhelming them. Teachers can get this balance right by ensuring learners understand basic concepts and skills before taking the complexity up a notch.
Here are examples of how teachers can gently teach kindergarteners concepts for the first time:
Make The Abstract Concrete
Young children struggle with abstract thought. So, teachers are unlikely to be successful if they expect kindergarteners to make sense of abstract concepts before exploring them through movement and interactions with real objects in familiar situations (concretely).
For example, when kindergarteners first learn to count, they must experience counting. Teachers can bring numbers to life by giving learners plenty of opportunities to move (like jump, stamp, clap, or flat their arms) and use real objects (for example, counters or fingers) while counting.
Likewise, abstract music concepts mean nothing to youngsters until they experience them. Music concepts are explained through opposites. Think of melody. It consists of high vs. low notes. Teachers can help the concept of melody to sink in by presenting lessons where kindergarteners stretch high while singing high, then bend low while singing low.
Create A Strong Foundation
You’ve heard you shouldn’t run before you can walk. Well, this applies to teaching kindergarteners physical education. Literally!
Kindergarteners must perfect basic movements (referred to as fundamental movement skills) before performing more advanced actions.
Fundamental movement skills are the everyday movements we make most when we’re active, like running, jumping, throwing, catching, kicking, skipping, hopping, and balancing. When we have these movements in our skillset, we are more confident and prepared to attempt complex moves in sports and play.
Remember that fundamental movements might come naturally to us, but they’re new to young children.
Children tend to have explored most fundamental movement skills before their first day of kindergarten. Still, they might not know how to perform them correctly. It’s up to teachers to observe learners as they move and guide them in proper form and technique. And to create daily opportunities for learners to practice the skills.
A challenge with teaching movement skills to kindergarteners is that children develop at different rates. There’s a clever way to defeat this challenge: create activity stations.
Here’s how to present movement lessons that accommodate kindergarteners of every developmental level:
- Divide a large free area into four sections (you can mark the separate areas using tape or rope).
- Set up activities focusing on different fundamental movement skills in three areas. For example, you could put hula hoops and beanbags in an area to develop throwing skills and hand-eye coordination. Create an obstacle course that practices multiple fundamental movement skills in area 4.
- Plan each activity to have a simple and more challenging option. So, for the hula hoop and beanbag station, you could lay down several hula hoops, each further away. The easy option would be to get as many beanbags as possible into a close hoop; the more challenging option would be to aim for hoops further away.
- Ensure that you set up an activity for every learner. So, if you have a class of 16, set up four activities per station (the learners take turns doing the obstacle course).
- Learners line up at their stations, and when a whistle blows, they start their activity. Once all learners at the obstacle course have completed the course, the learners rotate to a new station. This process continues until every learner has completed every activity.
The beauty of activity stations is that every learner gets to perform the movements in their time according to their ability without feeling insecure.
It’s not just physical skills that need to start with basic building blocks. Take reading skills, for example. If you were handed a book for the first time, you probably wouldn’t know what to do with it. So, the starting step to becoming a reader isn’t something like letter recognition or letter-sound correspondence but understanding how books work.
Kindergarteners must first be guided in how to hold a book correctly, turn the pages, and read from left to right, up to down. They also need to know about titles and authors and that we read the words, not the pictures (but that the illustrations add to stories’ meaning).
Young kids understand and remember what they learn, not when content is separated into neat units and taught in a specific order, but through hands-on activities and everyday experiences that explore multiple concepts in one go.
Integrated learning is also more enjoyable, increasing the chance that children develop a passion for learning in kindergarten that lasts a lifetime.
- Personal work experience in education
- The Primary Program: Growing and Learning in the Heartland: Integrated Curriculum in the Primary Program
- Edutopia: Using Themes to Give Young Students a Sense of Purpose
- Participatory Educational Research: Mathematics Learning from Concrete to Abstract (1968-2021): A Bibliometric Analysis
- ACT Government: Fundamental Movement Skills
- Active For Life: What Are Fundamental Movement Skills?