It may seem too early to start prepping for kindergarten, but little things you can do now will help your child make a smooth transition later. Don't worry—we're not talking drilling facts and figures. Experts say playing with him is the best way to help him learn. “Flashcards and worksheets are going to turn kids this age off,” says Kim Hughes, a former preschool and kindergarten teacher of the year and an educational consultant in Wake Forest, NC. That's where these games, matched to the skills kindergarten teachers say are most important, come in. Bonding—and learning—can be a blast!
Fishing for fun: Ages 2 to 4
Help your child make different-color fsh out of construction paper, and number each one. Then glue a magnetic strip (available at crafts stores) to each. Make a fishing rod by tying a string to a wood craft stick and attaching a small magnet (also sold at crafts stores) to the end. Then spread the fsh out across the carpet, call out a number, and take turns fshing.
Matchbox math: Ages 2 to 5
Number cars with washable marker. Build a simple ramp using wooden blocks and a piece of cardboard, and then pretend to be race announcers as you send the cars down the ramp. He'll practice basic numeral recognition by calling out which car wins. (Introduce engineering by altering the ramp's height to see when the cars go farthest.) Older-kid upgrade: Take it one step further by telling him that the “race rules” require the car with the bigger number to be in one particular lane, or to put multiple cars in order before they race. Don't forget to keep score, another way to build number smarts.
Make your own board game: Ages 4 to 5
The more board games children play, the better they perform on math tasks. But that doesn't have to mean endless rounds of Chutes and Ladders. Instead, make your own game together, suggests Sally Moomaw, Ed.D., a child-development expert at the University of Cincinnati and coauthor of More Than Counting. Get a piece of poster board and draw a squiggly line all the way around it. Help your child cut different-color squares out of construction paper, and then glue the squares side by side to cover the squiggly line. Encourage her to use her imagination: Is the squiggly line a snake? A road through a magical kingdom? A race track? Decorate the board accordingly, using markers, glitter, stickers…whatever she likes! Now make action cards in the same colors as the squares. They can be silly: “Take a nap. Miss a turn” or “Set the table. Move forward two.” To play, roll a die and move forward that number of spaces. Then pick a card in the color of the square you land on and follow the instructions. “This type of game is especially beneficial because you're working with a number line, a concept that children work with in kindergarten,” Moomaw says.
Number match: Ages 3 to 5
Divide 20 index cards into two sets of ten. On the first set, write the numbers 1 to 10 or make numbers your child can trace. Then help him with the second set: Put one sticker on a card to match up with the card that has the number 1, and so on. Lay the cards out faceup, and challenge your child to make matches. Once he's got that down, turn the cards over to play a traditional game of memory. You'll both get a right-brain workout, and he'll master counting.
Silly songs: Ages 2 to 3
Tell her that you're having trouble remembering the right words to a song she knows. Can she help? Then sing a familiar song incorrectly by changing one word; for example: “Mary had a little worm.” Wait for your child to laugh and correct you. The next step is distinguishing sounds in words. Play the game with rhyming words: “Mary had a little bam.”
Think inside the box: Ages 3 to 5
Most preschoolers can “read” the name of their favorite cereal, notes Malia Hollowell, a kindergarten teacher who blogs at playdoughtoplato.com. Decorate a shoebox to make a “Words I can read!” box. Hunt for words in the pantry and toy chest. In the car, watch for names of stores and restaurants your child likes. Cut out or write words on cards to add to his collection.
Mirror, mirror on the wall: Ages 2 to 3
Arm your child with dry-erase markers or finger paint, sit with her in front of a large mirror, and let her go wild. Encourage her to trace her head or ears, or adorn your reflections with silly glasses, a beard, a hat! Not only is this a hoot, but writing or painting on a vertical surface “promotes better muscle coordination of the hand,” says Christy Isbell, Ph.D., an occupational therapist in Milligan, TN, and author of Everyday Play: Fun Games to Develop the Fine Motor Skills Your Child Needs. Kids even like the cleanup: a few squirts of glass cleaner and a squeegee.
Baking-soda art: Ages 3 to 5
Fair warning: You may want to take this one outside! Dump a 12-ounce box of baking soda into a 9 by 12-inch pan, and then fill four or five small bowls with white vinegar dyed different colors with food coloring. Give your child medicine droppers of different sizes (squeezing develops the hand and finger muscles he'll need for writing). First show him how to pinch and release a dropper to fill it up, then drip the different colors of vinegar onto the baking soda, and—surprise!—watch what happens. He'll love the way it froths and fizzes into a rainbow, so work in a little lesson on color-mixing.
Treasure hunt: Ages 3 to 5
Put some candy or small trinkets in a “treasure chest” and hide it in your house or yard. Create simple picture clues (a plant, a couch, a step stool, or other items around your home), either by drawing them or cutting them out of a magazine. Then start a scavenger hunt with the clues. Your child will follow them to find the treasure. This will enhance the listening and direction-following skills that help children in the classroom, Hughes says. Plus, you'll whet your child's appetite for problem solving. Add a twist by writing a few clues you'll read to your child, ranging from the simple (“I wash dishes”) to more elaborate (“I rhyme with ‘think’ and I'm in the bathroom”).
Total recall: Ages 4 to 5
Read her a story, telling her to listen very carefully. Then see if she can re-create it with her stuffed animals or puppets. Another version: Read a book without letting her look at the pictures. When you finish, give her a few sheets of paper and ask her to draw her own pictures. Then compare them to the ones in the book.
The touch bag: Ages 1 to 3
Collect items from nature—a flower, a stick, a rock, a feather, a leaf—and put them in a bag. Have your child feel each item to guess what it is. Once she pulls it out, ask questions: How long do you think it hung on the tree? What animals did it see?
Alphabet store: Ages 2 to 5
Appeal to kids who love imaginary fun with this twist on playing store. Go through magazines with your child, helping her spot and cut out big capital letters. Tape the letters to a bunch of small containers or empty food boxes. Hand her a grocery or tote bag, lay out the containers, and have her shop for letters. Afterward, it's her turn to be store manager, helping you find the letters you want to buy. Once that's easy, you can start naming what you want to buy, asking her to find the letter that “broccoli” or “swiss cheese” starts with. “Many young kids love to go shopping, so this one is usually a hit,” says developmental psychologist Betty Bardige, Ed.D., coauthor of Your Child at Play.
Camera letter hunt: Ages 4 to 5
Grab your camera or smartphone. The challenge? Spot everyday objects shaped like letters, such as the “Y” in a tree branch, and help your child photograph them so that they're the focal point of the picture. For inspiration, pick up the book Alphabet City, by Stephen T. Johnson, which is filled with his striking photographs of letters he found in the urban landscape, including an “M” in the arches of the Brooklyn Bridge and an “A” formed by a sawhorse at a construction site.
This game will boost your child's observational skills while reinforcing the letter shapes, Bardige says. “Some children may find the ‘S’ on a stop sign rather than something in the shape of an S, but that's OK,” she says. “You can build from that and look for more interesting examples together.” Once you've found the whole alphabet, print the pictures and put together a flip book.
Letter scramble: Ages 3 to 5
Cut eight big letters out of foam or cardstock. Have your child trace each a few times, and then tape them to a plastic tablecloth you've laid on the floor. Call out a letter, and challenge your child to race to it. Another variation: Make him jump to the correct letter, as if you're playing alphabet Twister. Once your child is familiar with that group of letters, tape new ones to the plastic. Phonics upgrade: Shout out a word and have him race to the first letter.
Rainbow plates: Age 2
Snag a package of white paper plates (basic, not coated). With your child, paint eight of them a different color each, emphasizing the color name. After they dry, bring him to the kitchen to see if he can put fruits and veggies on the right plates based on their colors. Then search the house for more items that belong on each plate. Two-year-olds love any kind of “I spy” adventure, Hughes says. Make sure you talk about all the different shades of each color, like lavender, aquamarine, peach, and forest green. If you don't have those colors around your home, just show your child what you mean with a big box of crayons.
Scene-stealing blocks: Ages 4 to 5
Hit the recycling bin and dig out colored flyers, catalogs, and old magazines. Look for animals, places (settings), and colors. Once your child has six of each category, help him glue them to the sides of three blocks: one for animals, one for settings, and one for colors. To play the game, take turns rolling the blocks and telling a story using the character, setting, and color that come up on top. A 4-year-old can think up funny stuff with a chihuahua, a hot tub, and something yellow.