The first day of pre-kindergarten launches a child's long academic career.
But pre-k is far from a typical classroom setting.
Pre-k pupils follow no structured academic curriculum. They learn through exploration, play and interaction in a kid-friendly environment.
"It is more social than academic, for sure," said Stephanie Brooks, a South Columbia Elementary School pre-k teacher. "It is very much child-centered. It is just for their exploration, to build language."
Pre-k introduces children to school with the goal of preparing them socially, emotionally, physically and mentally to face the more structured kindergarten curriculum.
Children do not need to know their letters, numbers and colors to be successful in their first school experience.
"It's routines, just really getting them used to what a school day looks and feels like," said Michele Sherman, the director of elementary education for Columbia County. "For the most part, we really want them to learn the social skills, learn how to work within structure."
However, parents can help make pre-k a fun and productive year for their children, Sherman said.
Reading to children is important to develop vocabulary, which is the model for writing. Children with larger vocabularies typically do better in school, Sherman said.
"If (parents) could do one thing, it is reading to (their children) every night," Sherman said. "Establishing that routine early will really pay off for kids."
Brooks said talking to and listening to their children also helps build important language skills. At the dinner table, ask about their dinner or ask them about the surroundings while driving, she suggested.
Independence will grow during a child's pre-k year.
Brooks recommended encouraging that autonomy by allowing children to make simple choices like what to eat for lunch or which shirt to wear.
Giving more than one-step directions will help a child learn to listen and follow directions.
Assigning children regular tasks or chores will help children build responsibility, Brooks said. They can handle small jobs, including picking up toys, turning off lights or even helping cook or clean.
Make sure children learn important self-help skills like toileting, dressing and eating.
Brooks said parents need to keep a positive attitude toward school and introduce their children to "their" school before classes begin to make them more comfortable.
"If the parents model it, the children will follow," Brooks said of how a parent's attitude can ease a child's qualms. "A lot of them will have trouble in the beginning, coming in and adjusting to a new place, a new setting."
Of course, creative activities -- coloring, cutting and drawing -- promote the development of fine motor skills.
Parents should understand that pre-K is designed to build on a child's natural curiosity and encourage exploration and interaction.
Children will learn their letters and numbers naturally. They don't need to know them before pre-K, or even by the end of the year.
"Most of them will have picked up on letters and colors and numbers, at least the very basics with that," Sherman said. "We are not concerned when they don't."
When it comes to preparing for school, parents play the most important role, Brooks said.
"The (parents) really are the child's first teacher before they ever get here," she said.
For information on preparing children for pre-k and what to expect , visit www.decal.ga.gov/prek/schoolreadiness.aspx.
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