Should I push my child ahead in school?

I often have parents ask questions like:

  • can I enroll my 2.5 year old child in a preschool that’s for ages 3 and up?
  • my child will turn 5 in October – should I apply for early entrance into kindergarten?
  • my child is a few months younger than the requirement for the camp – can I sign them up anyway?
  • my child is gifted – should they skip a grade?

I also see in classes my children take that if the class is for ages 5 to 7, it’s filled with 5 year olds, because all the 6 year olds are in the class that’s for ages 6 to 8, and so on.

It seems as if many parents believe that “the best” education is the most advanced education that they can possibly squeeze their children into.

I know that as a parent, we want what is best for our children. It may seem like starting on skills earlier will benefit them, but that is often not the case. If we push a child up a level in classes, that means they will be the youngest child there. They may be developmentally ready in some areas, but they may be behind in others – they may end up successful in some ways, but perhaps also feeling like they’re always the smallest, slowest or least socially skilled. It is so much better to place them in an age appropriate class that is still able to challenge them. In that setting, it is easier for them to feel successful, easier to feel like they fit in, and easier to develop in all areas into a well-rounded individual.

When we push kids faster along a certain track, they may succeed at that track, but that focus can mean they miss out on other learning opportunities. For example, a child enrolled in academic preschool may move further ahead on reading and writing, but may not have the opportunity to fully develop the social skills and independent decision making they would gain at a play-based preschool. A child whose time is all focused on moving forward in baseball never has the opportunity to learn the physical skills they would learn in swimming or gymnastics classes, or the emotional intelligence that could be learned in a theater class.

Rather than trying to jump your child forward to the next level (the accelerated approach), try to think about what other opportunities there are to broaden their learning at their current level (the horizontal or enrichment approach.)

For example, if you have a toddler or preschooler who is doing well with language and literacy type skills, think of ways to enhance their other intelligences:

  • Could they take music classes? There are a lot of learning benefits to music that go far beyond that realm.
  • Could they spend more time in free play outdoors? Learn about the benefits of nature play, and about outdoor preschool.
  • Could they spend more time learning social and emotional skills through pretend play? Or go to a theatre preschool? Or have more playdates to practice their social skills?
  • Could they build their small motor skills and creativity in art classes?
  • Could they build their knowledge of how to use their body (which will help in all sports, or dance, or just moving through the world) by taking aikido classes? Or dance? Or climbing trees and clambering on rocks?
  • Could you choose play-based classes (like co-op preschools) that offer a wide range of experiences and let your child choose the ones that most engage them at the moment? The most learning will occur when your child is fully engaged in an activity of their choice.

You can find lots more ideas for activities to enhance all types of intelligence in this post on Toys and Activities to Build Young Brains.

At whatever level your child is at, there is always more to learn, without needing to push them ahead to an older level.

As a teacher, I also have to say that when I have let children who are younger than the designated age into my class, it has rarely been the best fit for them, or for us. Not that the children “failed.” They were able to participate in class, and learn from it. But not as much as they could have learned if they had waited a year. Also, I had to leave some projects out of my class that wouldn’t have been safe for the little ones, and I had to choose simpler books to read aloud so the little ones would understand, and I had to do more classroom management to keep the little ones focused, and my older children missed out on some learning they could have gotten if all the children in the class were fully developmentally ready for the content.

So, I would encourage most parents, in most circumstances, to trust the teachers when they tell you what age children their program is the best fit for. Your child will learn best when they are in an environment where all the aspects are age appropriate.

Learn More

These articles are all about starting kindergarten, but the concepts could apply to starting preschool early, skipping grades in school, and so on.

Also, be sure to check out my post on acceleration vs. enrichment.

Coronavirus and the Return to School

As a parent, and as a teacher, I look at all the information on rising case rates with the delta variant, and I worry – is going back to in-person school a reasonable choice at this time? I think the answer depends on a large number of factors. I’m going to walk you through questions to consider, using three examples: my current home of Kirkland Washington (in King County), and my home town of Cheyenne Wyoming (in Laramie County) and Dallas Texas. All numbers current from the week 8/16-20/21.

The questions to consider are:

  • Chance of Exposure: how common is the virus in your area? How contagious is it?
  • Reducing Community Spread: the more people in the community that have some immunity through vaccination and/or previous infection, the better, because that means fewer people in the community who will catch and transmit the virus.
  • Risk Reduction: what is being done in the community / school to reduce children’s chance of catching coronavirus?
  • Disease Severity: if a child does get coronavirus, how sick will they get?
  • Your Goals for Your Child’s Learning this Year

It’s worth noting at the top that the American Academy of Pediatrics has urged a return to in-person schooling, saying “the benefits of in-person school outweigh the risks in almost all circumstances.”

What are the current infection rates?

So, first, let’s look at: how common is coronavirus in the community – this shows how likely it is that you could be exposed. In King County, over the past 7 days, there were 180 cases per 100,000 or ~1.8 per 1000 in 7 days. In Laramie County, they report 508 cases in the last 14 days in a county of ~90,000 people, so the equivalent of ~2.8 per 1000 people in 7 days. In Dallas, they’re currently reporting 1000+ cases a day, the equivalent of 2.7 per 1000.

How contagious is coronavirus?

The original COVID-19 strain had an R0 of around 2 – if there wasn’t any immunity in the people an infected person came in contact with, each sick person could get two other people sick (who then infect four people and so on).

The Delta variant is much more contagious. If there’s no immunity, one sick person can infect 5 or more other people, who then infect 25 or more people and so on.

With Delta, if there was no immunity and no attempts at prevention, the spread would be very rapid. Thankfully, we can gain some immunity through vaccination or some immunity through previous infection with COVID, and we can reduce risks with practices like masking, distancing, and ventilation.

What percent are vaccinated?

The best protection against COVID is the vaccine. In King County, WA, 71% of the total population has received at least one dose. (On the Eastside of Seattle, WA, vaccination rates are high: amongst people over 12 years old, 91.7% have received at least one shot. And amongst our elders – the most vulnerable to COVID – over 95% are fully vaccinated.) In Cheyenne, 35.4% of the total population is fully vaccinated. In Dallas, 54% one dose, 38% fully.

Vaccines do not completely prevent infection. But they significantly reduce the risk.

May be an image of text that says 'Breakthrough cases are not driving the US Covid-19 surge Reported cases among not fully vaccinated AK 96% Reported cases among fully vaccinated AZ 94.1% AR 96.4% CA 98.6% CT 99.9% DE 99% DC 98.7% ID 98.8% IN 98.9% ME 98.7% MA 99% MI 98.4% MO 96.8% NE 99.6% NJ 99.8% NM 98.9% OK 99.2% RI 98.3% OR 98.1% TN 99.7% UT 96.8% VT 98.4% VA 99.3% WA 98% Source: Kaiser Family Foundation Note: Case data recent months, as of July Vox'

If someone does get a breakthrough infection, the illness will be much milder, and they’re much less likely to be hospitalized or die. (In the U.S., there have been ~8000 fully vaccinated people who have been hospitalized or died, but that is a small number amongst the 166 million people who have been fully vaccinated. With Delta, the numbers are increasing, but still the chance of severe illness or death is lower amongst the vaccinated.)

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What percent have a previous COVID infection?

If someone has already had COVID, they may have immunity against it. (One study found that 92% had immunity 6 months after infection.) It’s recommended that those who have had it also add the layer of vaccination. Amongst people with previous infection, those with no vaccination were 2.5 times more likely to get re-infected than those who had also been vaccinated.

In King County, there have been ~127,000 confirmed cases. That’s about 4% of the population. In Laramie County, there have been 9832 confirmed cases. That’s about 10% of the population. In Dallas County, 287,000 or 11% of population.

Risk Reduction

Look at what is being done in your community and in the child’s school to reduce the risk of transmission. Think about layers of protection – covering coughs, masks, hand-washing, increased ventilation / outdoor activities, and social distancing. (Here are recommendations from the AAP – American Academy of Pediatrics.)

In the parent-child classes that I teach and at my son’s school, we are: requiring vaccines for all adults in the classroom, requiring masks indoors for everyone over the age of 5 and recommending for age 2 – 5, creating routines for frequent handwashing, increasing ventilation and the amount of time spent outdoors, splitting kids into cohorts or setting up rotation between activities to increase social distance. We also live in a community where a large percentage of people are masking everywhere they go, so I know our children have less community exposure in many places. I am feeling fairly confident about our protocols.

I would feel much less confident in Cheyenne. Their school district website does not mention COVID vaccines or describe any protocols other than saying they will decide on August 20 whether or not they’ll be requiring masking. I’ll also say that as we’ve been around Cheyenne this week, few people are wearing masks. And in Texas, there are battles between school districts, courts, and the governor about whether schools will be allowed to require masks and a lot of political and popular rhetoric about masks as an imposition on personal freedom.

What if a child gets COVID?

So, I can look at how likely it is my child might catch COVID and what all steps are being taken to reduce the risk, but I also have to ask what the impact would be if these steps did not prevent infection.

For most children, COVID is a mild infection with cough, fever, and body aches, or no symptoms at all. (More about symptoms.)

For some children, it can be severe, leading to severe illness (including MIS-C), hospitalization or death. Children who are obese, have diabetes or have chronic lung disease are at higher risk. Black and Latino children are also at higher risk.

Let’s take a moment to compare COVID risk to risks that we considered normal in past years. Let’s look at flu which has an R0 of 0.9 – 2. In 2019, when we weren’t doing much to prevent flu beyond typical school hygiene, there were an estimated 12 million cases of the flu in our 75 million children age 0 – 17. So, 16% of children had the flu. There 254 deaths, so a 5 in 100,000 chance of death after contracting flu.

Between February 2020 and May 2021 (source), when many schools across the country were shut down and we were taking many steps to prevent COVID transmission but there were no vaccines, there were an estimated 26 million COVID infections in children age 0 to 17. (There have been 3.7 million confirmed cases, but the CDC estimates that we’re missing lots of cases of kids who are asymptomatic or barely sick so don’t get tested.) There were 332 deaths. That’s a 1 in 100,000 chance of death after contracting COVID. The majority of those deaths were in children with other health conditions.

In academic year 20-21, when adults were at higher risk and couldn’t be vaccinated, many schools chose to stay closed. This year, when any adult who chooses to be vaccinated can be, it was looking like an easy decision to have schools be open. There was the risk that more children would catch COVID than caught it last year, and likely more than catch the flu in a typical year, but it also appeared that COVID was milder for many children than flu. If we were talking the original strain, then personally, as a teacher and as a parent, I would feel quite confident with school resuming in my community with our vaccination rates, masking habits and the protocols in place. (I would not feel nearly as confident in Cheyenne or Dallas.)

However, Delta variant complicates things. It is far more contagious than the original. It also appears that Delta may be riskier for kids than the original strain, leading to more cases of severe illness. So, there’s a lot of uncertainty right now. So, then I have to balance the coronavirus risk with all the other factors.

Benefits of In-Person Schooling

The American Academy of Pediatrics says: “Schools provide more than just academics to children and adolescents. In addition to reading, writing and math, students learn social and emotional skills, get exercise, and have access to mental health and other support services. For many families, schools are where kids get healthy meals, access to the internet, and other vital services… Families, schools, and communities can work together to help ensure students can safely return to and remain physically together in school this fall.”

The final factor for each parent to consider is what are the benefits of in-person schooling and whether they outweigh the possible COVID risks. What are your learning goals for your child. What does your child most need at this time to move forward in their learning and development?

Last year, my kid was quite successful at online schooling. As a child with ADHD and autism, he actually did better in many ways at home than he does in the classroom with his peers. Emotionally, he was more stable, and academically, he was solidly on track. But, I feel like he needs to get back in the classroom with peers. I have confidence about my child’s academic skills in any setting, but he needs to figure out social interaction, impulse control and emotional regulation in interaction with others. And he needs to do that this year – his last year in elementary school before hitting middle school.

Last year, I taught children ages 2 – 7 online. And they did far better than I could have imagined in engaging with the activities, learning the concepts, and even in connecting with the teachers and the other children. But I also feel like it’s time to get them back in the classroom with other children. In a typical year, my programs are play-based. The majority of class-time has children choosing their activities and having lots of one-on-one interactions with other kids and the teachers. We only spend a third of class time in a structured teacher-led format. We do some great stuff in that structured time, but it’s the play-based portions of the class where the most learning takes place. Our online classes were all structured teacher-led learning. (We, of course, encouraged parents to do lots of hands-on projects at home with their children. But that’s different than the free choice, child-led way we do it at class.)

I believe children are remarkably resilient. I believe adults are incredibly adaptable when pushed to be. I’m so proud of everything we did last year, and I think our kids are all pretty much on track despite all the learning disruption. And yet, I think the time has come to return to in-person learning. Yes, the COVID risks scare me. But for me personally – again, in my community with the vaccination rates, masking and protocols, I feel that returning to the class is the right answer.

Your choice for your family in your community with your local protocols may be different. I think, as always, every parent needs to decide what’s best for their child, taking into account the best information available.

Playdates

Playdates have always been a powerful way to help children build social skills. In 2021, as we’re coming out of COVID, playdates are especially useful for helping your child make up for lost time on social development. Getting together with other families for small group playdates can allow you to manage COVID risks better, and those one-on-one or small group playdates are the single best environment for your child to learn social skills! Learn how parents can help to plan and have successful playdates.

The Benefits of Playdates

Many parents focus on the importance of academic skills for children, but relationship skills and emotional literacy are perhaps even more important for your child’s long-term happiness. Your child will learn some social skills at preschool or school, and in extracurricular classes they attend. But even if those teachers are trying to prioritize social-emotional learning, they also have to stay somewhat on task for teaching the alphabet and numbers, or how to do a somersault, or how to play an instrument, or whatever other learning goals you have for your child in that program. The social interaction in a structured class just can’t replace the essential social skill building that happens in one-on-one or small-group free play with peers.

So, when planning your child’s activities, make sure to leave plenty of room for free, unstructured play with other children. Opportunities include: play-based preschool, lots of time on playgrounds in the park, nanny shares or small home-based daycares, time with cousins or neighbor kids, and playdates. When children are allowed to just play together, without too much intervention from parents, they learn:

  • Bids for Connection: How to invite another child to play, asking to join someone’s play, how to notice that someone else is inviting them and how to join in. (This is primarily non-verbal bids for younger children, like when they hand a toy to another child, or take a toy from another child.)
  • Sharing and taking turns, advocating for themselves, making space for other’s needs.
  • Collaboration: coming to an agreement on what game to play, and what the rules are.
  • Teamwork – working together on a common goal, and re-negotiating what the goal is when conflict arises.
  • Empathy and social cues: how can you tell if they other child is having fun, or when they’re not having fun, how you can be sensitive to that and adjust your play.
  • Emotional regulation: how to stay calm when things don’t go as you wished.

At a playdate, children can work on all these skills, as they engage in whatever activity captures their attention – playing with toys, building with blocks, pretend play, playing in the playground, or digging in the sandbox.

How to Set Up a Playdate

First, find the family. You may meet possible playdate partners at preschool or school, in a class, at the park, in your neighborhood, or you may find them on social media. For younger children, like under 3, they’ll play with almost anyone and parents typically stay for the playdate, so I look for parents that I feel like I’d like to spend an hour with. That usually works out, but if the children are radically different temperaments – a super rambunctious child and a calm and meek child – it may end up not being a good long-term match.

For older children, definitely 5 and up, you need to pick kids that your kid likes – someone with a similar temperament and similar interests. Keep your eye out for who your child is connecting with, volunteer in their classroom to observe for this, or ask their teacher.

Test the waters: start a conversation with the parent to feel out whether this seems possible, and if so, issue the invitation. I live in the Seattle area, where we have a cultural phenomenon known as “the Seattle Freeze” where many people find that it’s hard to develop connections and that they get rejections and they give up. I would encourage you not to take any rejections personally – they might just be really busy, or might be shy, or new to navigating parenting just like you are. Try to feel out – are the interested in the idea in general and they were just turning down the exact details you proposed, or are they really just not interested? If they’re not interested, just move on to another family.

Other parents may reach out to you – sometimes it’s obvious, like they say “want to do a playdate?” but often they may be just testing the water and make slow approaches – tune into those… if someone regularly chats with you at preschool drop-off time, maybe they’re working up toward an invitation. It’s helpful to learn about Gottman’s idea of “bids for connection” – if someone invites you to do something, and you just say “sorry, I’m busy on Wednesdays”, that can feel like a turn against. Instead, first turn toward, and then work out logistics. “I’d love to get the kids together! Wednesdays don’t work for me – what else could we make work?”

Planning a Playdate – Tips for Success

Lots of people advise that it works better for children to do one-on-one playdates first. So, if that works for you, great! If it feels easier for you socially to have a few families get together, that’s OK too – it’s just more people’s schedules to negotiate.

Keep playdates short! For toddlers, start with 45 minutes to an hour. For preschool, an hour is plenty. Frequent short playdates with pleasant endings are better for building friendships than infrequent, long, and cranky ones. Schedule for a time of day when both children are at their best, not when one is heading toward naptime grumpiness.

Choose a location mindfully. Many parents may feel more comfortable if your first get-togethers are in a public place rather than at one of your homes. But… also take your child’s temperament into account. Shy or anxious children may do best on their own familiar turf. If you choose a public place, be sure to choose somewhere that the children can play freely, since that’s the whole point! Choosing to meet at a coffee shop or restaurant can make it hard for the children to connect. Choose a place where there won’t be tons of other kids there – that can make it hard for your child to actually connect with the child you planned the playdate with.

Discuss expectations in advance with the other parent. First, be clear on whether the parent will drop off or stay – my assumption is that for children under 4, the parent stays and for children over 6, it’s usually drop-off, but there’s a gray area in between and other parents might have other assumptions. So, be clear! Talk about illness rules – if anyone has signs of illness you’ll re-schedule the playdate. (During COVID times, also be sure you have similar expectations about vaccination status, masking and indoors / outdoors.) Figure out what the ground rules are and how you’d like to handle discipline issues that arise. With casual acquaintances, I’ve tended to say “if the kids are having a conflict, we’ll step in and I’ll handle my child and you’ll handle yours.” So, if the discipline issues can be handled with simple positive discipline techniques like distraction or substitution, I’ll do that, but if more is needed, I leave that to the other parent.

But I’ve also had other families where we’ve agreed that we’re on “sibling and cousin rules” together – which means we’re accepting the fact that our kids might squabble and we’ll try to let them work it out on their own so they get that practice with problem-solving and conflict resolution. But that if it hits the point where an adult intervenes, we trust any of the adults to step in and handle it.

Activities for Playdates

Plan playdate activities that are engaging, are collaborative (like building a fort or playing with blocks), not competitive. If there are especially cool toys, try to have two of them so the children don’t have to fight over them. It can help to have toys with many pieces (Lego) rather than single items (trikes). If your child has a hard time sharing their possessions, you could put away their most treasured toys on the day of the playdate to minimize conflict, or you may be better off having the playdate elsewhere on neutral territory.

Have an activity idea so that if the children aren’t doing well, you have a new distraction to try: “hey – who wants to blow bubbles!” or “shall we make cookies?”

Snacks? Snacks can be a great option for shifting the mood – if kids are squabbling over a toy, sitting down for a snack together can help. But make sure you talked with the other parent in advance about what the snack plan was, and what kind of snacks work for their kid and what doesn’t (e.g. no sugar, or avoid allergens.)

Plan an ending. It’s good to think about how you’ll signal that playtime is coming to an end. Maybe that’s with a snack, or a story, or maybe just a heads up that “we’ve only got five more minutes together – what do you want to be sure to do before we’re done?

For the first few playdates, expect to be very hands-on, helping the children learn how to play with each other. As they become more independent, you can fade back. If your child is autistic or has issues with sensory processing, you may need to remain close by for longer. (I still have to keep an eye on 10 year old who is autistic, and can escalate quickly.)

What if it’s not going well?

If they start to have a conflict, don’t feel like you have to intervene the moment it begins. Small disagreements often work themselves out, and children learn through the process. So, try sitting back and seeing what happens. Sometimes, things will start to go south, and they may need help negotiating a compromise. Rather than telling them they have to share, it may be more helpful to say let’s take turns – you can have it for one more minute, then it’s their turn.

If the children are heading toward hitting or biting, step in immediately. State firmly what it not OK, and tell them what to do instead.

It may help you to think in a flow chart mode, like this discipline flow chart. You’ve tried to prevent problems with good planning. If something starts, but it’s not a big deal – pick your battle and sit this one out, or tell them what TO DO. If it starts escalating, I do an “if/then” – “if you keep fighting over the toy, then I’ll have to put it away for today. So, let’s say that A gets it for two minutes then it will be B’s turn. B, what would you like to do while A takes their turn?” Praise good interaction as soon as you see it.

When it comes to playdates with small children, it helps to go in with low expectations, and celebrate success however big or small it is. If the first playdate fails – at least you tried! And it doesn’t mean every playdate with that child will fail – we all just have rough days sometimes. So, just think “well, they’re learning new skills and they got to practice today some things that don’t work well. That’s a learning opportunity.” And you know what skills you can work on at home to help give them a better chance of success next time.

More Resources

Social Skills After Quarantine

In 2021, as we are beginning to come out of the isolation of COVID-19, parents may feel a special urgency to make up for lost time on social development. Learning about developmentally normal stages of social development can help you to prioritize what support your child needs and how to help them make connections.

Making Up for Lost Time

Early childhood is prime time for learning social skills. For children that were socially isolated during those years due to coronavirus, parents may worry that their child’s social skills will be irreparably damaged. But children are so resilient – when social play opportunities open up, they’ll catch up!

First, remember – your child has been practicing social skills! Even if it was just one child and one adult living together, there was plenty of opportunity to practice talking and listening, taking turns, playing together, and conflict resolution. (If there were additional people or animals in the mix, even better.) If you want to evaluate whether they’re on track with social skills, check out this checklist of play skills (or this one) that children typically develop at each age – you may discover they are right where they should be developmentally. If they haven’t yet mastered some of the typical skills, the checklist will give you a sense of what to work on.

Learn what’s normal / what’s next:

It’s helpful to know what we’d typically expect at each age for children so as they start to play together, you can watch for these skills. It’s also helpful to know what’s next in typical development, so you can foster opportunities for learning.

Infants – if your baby was home with only you during the first few months, that’s fine! A young baby can get all the social cues and interaction they need from just one or two caring adults. Just practice serve-and-return interactions, where your baby smiles at you and you smile back. Your baby coos and you coo back. (Learn more.) And learn about infant cues to guide your responses. If your baby has the opportunity to interact with additional adults or older children, they will likely happily engage with anyone.

Older Babies. From 6 – 12 months, your baby learns to play more interactively with you and will likely enjoy peek-a-boo, copying your actions, clapping with you, passing toys back and forth, and finding toys you have hidden. Some babies may play happily with all they encounter. However, it is important to know that even in normal times, many infants develop a fear of strangers at around 7 to 8 months, so interacting with other people in person prior to that may help to reduce that. If you’re just introducing your child to other people at this age, reassure yourself that stranger fear is developmentally normal, not just a product of coronavirus quarantine… they will outgrow it just as all babies have always outgrown it. Here are tips on reducing separation anxiety. And more tips.)

Young Toddlers – up to 2 years. Before 18 – 24 months, children primarily engage in solitary play, where they engage with toys, but often appear uninterested or unaware of other children. So, if your child was in isolation during this period, don’t worry about it! If you bring them back into connection with other kids during this period, know that it’s normal for them to not really engage much. They do engage with adults or older children more effectively than they do with peers, so if you’re choosing only one COVID playmate to help build your toddler’s social skills, 71 year old grandma or 17 year old babysitter may be as good a match as a 17 month old buddy. To build social skills, try Floortime play, which begins with child-led play, then “stretches” the play to be more interactive and turn-taking.

Onlookers: Around 2 years old, they begin to shift to spectator play, where they may begin observing other children more. This is a great time to take them to public parks where they can watch other children at play, up close or from afar.

Older Toddlers – 2+ years. Children begin to engage in parallel play. They will play next to each other, often mimicking what the other child is doing. They may not often engage in reciprocal back-and-forth play with a peer, but they are learning from each other. If your child was isolated during this stage, they almost certainly did parallel play with you. If you’re re-integrating them into social play at this age, they can do fine one-on-one or in groups, with familiar kids or with children they’ve just met.

“Stealing” toys is very common at this age. They are not intentionally trying to deprive the other child of something… it’s just that they noticed what the other child was doing and they want to do it now. One of the most effective ways to handle this issue is distraction – let the child who seems more focused on the contested toy keep it, and distract the other child with a new toy. That will work better, and is more developmentally appropriate than telling children to share.

Three Year Olds. Around age 3, children begin to do more associate play. They start to interact more with each other, trading toys, copying each other, or “inviting” the other child to participate in what they are doing. They become more interested in the other child than in the toy. They may work together on a goal – like building with blocks, but there aren’t usually “rules” to the game. They can learn social skills by playing with adults or with older children, but it’s great if they can have peer interaction at this age. It does not have to be in a large group pre-school. One-on-one or a few children at a time is fine. It may be tempting to enroll in classes as your primary place to connect with other kids, but if your main goal is social skills, it is easier for children to learn those in settings that allow lots of free play (a playground, playdates with other families, a play-based preschool, or a family size child care setting) than in a structured class (like a gymnastics or soccer class where the teacher is trying to keep them on task.)

Check out the “skills to practice at home” section below.

Four and Five Year Olds. At this age, they have moved into true cooperative play. They share toys, they share ideas, they create “rules” or agree on which role each one will play in a pretend game, and work together toward goals. They start learning more about cooperation, compromise, and fair turn-taking. Whereas at younger ages, it’s fine to have your child play with lots of different kids, this is an important age for children to have a few consistent buddies to play with repeatedly, to build friendship skills. If they are enrolled in a group setting, like preschool or extracurricular classes, look for children there that they most connect with, and try setting up playdates with that family to give them more opportunity to connect. Or, if you’re still limiting exposures to other kids, find just one to three families for a low COVID risk playgroup. Check out “skills to practice at home” below, and my post on “Teaching Friendship Skills.”

Reducing Coronavirus Risk

Every parent has to make their own calculations, but here are some things to consider.

  • If the number of vaccinated people in your community is high, and the number of current cases are low, there is less risk of community transmission than when there are fewer vaccinated folks and case numbers are growing.
  • The risk of transmission in outdoor, socially distanced settings is lower. The risk at indoors, poorly ventilated, non-distanced settings is higher.
  • If the parents at the playdate are vaccinated and wear masks, the risk is lower.
  • If children (over age 2) wear masks, the risk is lower.
  • Fewer people involved means fewer exposure risks.
  • You can plan activities that make it easier for children to stay distanced, or provide supports to help them remember to be distanced (like hula hoops or sit-upons to mark places to sit.) Teach them to wave hello rather than hugging or high fiving. Have them wash hands before and after play. Save snacks for after the gathering.

Skills to Practice at Home

You can boost their social skills by practicing in advance of playdates. Do lots of pretend play, puppet shows and role plays, and talk about the social and emotional experiences of characters in stories that you are reading.

When teaching about emotions, I have always taught children to recognize how facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice all communicate emotion, but especially when masks cover up much of our facial expressions, the other non-verbal cues are especially important to teach.

Practice give-and-take conversations, where you take turns fairly, don’t interrupt each other, and ask the other person questions about what they said rather than always just telling them things. Role model social skills by how you interact with friends, family and people in the community.

Introduce the ideas of taking turns. Play side by side with your child, and occasionally ask: ‘can I play with that toy now?’ Or say ‘you can have that toy for one more minute and then it’s my turn.’ If they try to take a toy from you, say ‘I’m playing with it now. You can have it in a minute. Here’s another toy you can play with now.’ Don’t expect 2 – 3 year olds to be good at sharing and taking turns! It’s a skill that needs to be learned and practiced, and they just have to reach a stage of development where they can empathize with another child’s feelings. But practicing at home gives them a chance to build trust in the idea that if they let you have your turn that you will give it back when it’s their turn.

If your child seems shy or withdrawn, don’t assume it’s because of COVID. It could just be their natural temperament. Just search online for tips to help with a shy or introverted child, or what I like to call a “slow-to-warm-up” child. Some simple ways to help them are: get together in smaller groups in quiet, not chaotic environments; arrive before the other child(ren) to get settled; sit on the ground and let your child sit on your lap till they feel ready to venture out. Don’t push.

Learn more in my post on “Teaching Friendship Skills.” Also check out “Making Up for Lost Time” from Bright Horizons, Helping Your Child Make Friends Again from PBS, and my tips for Successful Playdates.

Using the King County Library

If you live in King County, Washington, you have access to one of the best public library systems in the entire country! And it’s all FREE of charge. Here’s an overview of the services they offer for parents with young children, both in person and online.

Going In Person

There are LOTS of library locations. (Click on that link for directions AND hours.) You may choose a favorite one to go to over and over, or you go on a grand tour and check out a new one every week!

Note: as of July 2021, libraries are all open, but all unvaccinated people over age 2 are asked to wear a mask when visiting the library.

When you arrive, you can go to the children’s section – if you don’t see it right away, just ask someone to point you there. You can choose any book on the shelf and read it to your child then and there, or you can choose to take it home. If you want to check it out, you’ll need a library card. Just go to the information desk and they’ll help you set up an account. You can check out up to 100 books! You can keep videos for up to 7 days and books for 28. You can often renew for longer. (More details on borrowing.) When you’re done with them, return them to any KCLS library.

When my children were little, I allowed them each to have ten library books out at a time. We kept them on a special shelf at home. We went to the library once a week and they could choose which ones they were ready to return, and which they wanted to keep a while longer. If they brought 3 back, they could get three new ones. If they brought all 10 back, they could get 10 new books that week.

Accessing KCLS Online

To get started: If you don’t already have a library card, go to https://kcls.org/library-cards/ to set up an account.

On their website at https://kcls.org, you can search for any book you want. The results will look something like this:

You can choose a physical book (and sometimes a book with a CD of the book read aloud); an ebook that you can read on a browser or download to a device; or a downloadable audiobook.

If you choose an ebook or audiobook, and a copy is available now, you can download it right away. (Learn more about downloading e-books.) If a copy is not currently available, put it on hold, and you’ll get an email notification as soon as one is available for download.

If you want a physical book, then place a hold. You’ll then choose a library branch to have it delivered to for pick-up. There are lots of locations all over King County.

If no one else has requested it, you’ll typically have it within a week. If you see that there are something like 83 holds on 12 copies, you know it will be longer. When your book arrives, you’ll get an email. You can go to your library to pick up the book during business hours any time in the next few days.

Once you’ve checked out a book, you have it for 28 days (21 days for e-books). You’ll get an email when it’s due. If you want it for longer, you can renew online, unless someone else has placed a hold on that book.

KCLS has books available in over 20 languages. You can do an advanced search that limits your results to books in that language. Learn more at: https://kcls.org/world-languages

Online Resources available through KCLS

There are several libraries of online children’s e-books. We can access, for free:

  • Libby – ebooks and downloadable audiobooks
  • Hoopla – movies, music, audiobooks, ebooks, comics and TV shows to stream or download
  • Tumble Book Library Video storybooks and read-alongs for readers in grades K-6, including some in Spanish and French
  • BookFlix Classic video storybooks paired with non-fiction eBooks. Preschool to 3rd grade.
  • Kanopy – Watch thousands of films from independent filmmakers and popular producers. Titles include The Criterion Collection, The Great Courses, and PBS.

Learn more about these, and other services at https://kcls.org/resources-types/ebooks-format/). You can see samples of what kinds of books and videos they have at: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2021/10/13/online-resources-kcls/

For more information on where to find book recommendations and how to preview books on YouTube and through online reviews, check out https://gooddayswithkids.com/2020/09/29/choosing-books-for-your-child/.

Hopefully soon library storytimes in person will return. They are a fun free outing, a good learning experience for your child that will help get them excited about reading. If your family speaks a language other than English at home, they do have storytimes in some other languages, or the English storytimes offer a great opportunity for children (and parents!) to get more familiar with English. They are offering some online storytimes in summer 2021 – learn more at https://kcls.bibliocommons.com/events.