Dr Melodie de Jager

This is the time of year when parents with children between the ages of five and seven anxiously ask: is my child school ready?

But, what does it mean to be ‘school ready’, and what can I do to make sure my child is school ready? Is sending my child to preschool not enough?

School readiness is a term used when a child is ready to take a leap from learning playfully about real things, to learning in a more controlled way about symbols (abc; 123). Readiness means a child has developed in more ways than one – a child needs to be physically ready (body), emotionally ready (heart) and cognitively ready (head) to learn in a group of children speaking the same language.

PHYSICAL school readiness means a child has moved and played enough to develop a strong and willing body that can sit still and straight on a chair. This is only possible if a child has run, caught and kicked balls, cycled with a two-wheeler, skipped with a rope, climbed numerous jungle gyms or trees and rolled down a hill enough times to have control over his muscles and can STOP moving for short periods of time. It is only once the body can be still and straight, that the fingers and eyes learn to work together so a child can learn to read and write with ease.

 EMOTIONAL school readiness is evident when your child can eat, wash, dress, use the toilet and go to bed without any help or constant prompting from you. A child who is emotionally ready for grade 1 doesn’t cry or sulk when he doesn’t get his way, he accepts NO when you say no and he does simple tasks like tidying up his toys or feed his dog without a fuss.

SOCIAL school readiness means a child is more focussed on WE than on ME. A child who is socially ready for grade 1 enjoys being with children his own age. It is fun playing games with others because it no longer has to be all-about-ME all the time, he can wait his turn, follow the rules of the game, negotiate and share.

COGNITIVE school readiness means a child speaks well, reasons logically and is enthusiastic about learning something new. Cognitive readiness does not mean a child can read and write, it means your child is ready to learn to read and write, because he or she has endlessly played: “I spy with my little eyes… something starting with a m” while driving, or “what do you see that you can’t eat?”, “why can’t you eat it?” Cognitive readiness implies that a child can think, reason and express himself clearly in language.

Sending a child to grade 1 who hasn’t developed the most basic skills needed to learn to read and write successfully, is a form of child abuse, because it is emotionally painful for a child to start a 12 year journey through school feeling: I am not good or clever enough. School readiness does not start in grade R, it starts when a baby reaches each milestone in sequence and continues to reach age appropriate milestones every year for the first five years, and when he turns six, he or she is ready to leap from the world of concrete learning, to the world of symbols and abstract learning with shiny eyes.

Quick school readiness quiz

My child can sit up and still for 11 minutes doing an activity he does not necessary like doing (build a 36 piece puzzle / complete a  pattern (for example ○□◊) around the edge of a page) yes / no

My child knows where is – on top, next to, behind, under, in between, and can show me body parts on the left & right of his/her body (where is your right ear, left knee, etc.)  yes / no

My child understands and fluently speaks the language spoken in grade 1  yes / no

My child listens the first time – I do not have to repeat an instruction yes / no

My child’s fingers are agile (he can handle a knife & fork with ease; cut neatly on a straight line; holds a pencil with thumb and index finger while resting on the middle finger) yes / no

For a more in-depth school readiness assessment visit an educational psychologist. You may find handy tips and guidelines in ready to learn, ready for school, by Melodie de Jager:


Factors that help a child to become school ready Factors that can prevent school readiness
Full-term baby Premature birth
Milestones reached in the right order and within the broad time-limit of each milestone Milestones reached early or very late; milestones skipped
A happy family with sufficient food and clothing, and decent housing A disorganised family with members who come and go, and where food, clothing and housing are barely sufficient
A home environment where conflict is resolved and family members cooperate and play together Constant tension between mother and father or between family members, or tension in the home environment
Healthy food Normally only carbs and sugar, little protein, fruit and vegetables
Good health Frequent illnesses that force the child to lie down
Healthy ears without fluid Ears that are often dore or infected
Healthy skin and no circles under the eyes Eczema, dry and/or itchy skin, allergies, dark circles under the eyes
Breathes well and effortlessly through the nose Regular blocked nose or sinusitis, and breathing chiefly through the mouth
Eyes move together as a team Eyes do not move in the same direction
Eyes see clearly and are able to focus on something held at an elbow’s length from the eyes Squinting to see or nose almost touching something in order to see clearly
Good muscular strength and muscle-tone – i.e. he sits and stands without support Weak muscles and low muscle-tone – i.e. he seldom sits or stands upright without having to lean against/on something
A home where family members talk to each other A home where the child is not really spoken to
An abundance of books in the home environment No books in the home environment
Stories are regularly read and told Stories are not read or told
Speaks the language of the Gr. 1-class fluently Mixes languages or only familiar with a few words in the language used in the Gr. 1-class
Frequent and sincere acknowledgement: That’s really clever thinking! Well done, I’m proud of you! Abuse is more familiar than acknowledgement: What have you done now? You’ll amount to nothing! Idiot!
Good age gap between siblings allows each child in turn some self-centred me-time Siblings born close together and where everything, including time and attention, has to be shared.
Senses work well together and the brain processes the impulses easily – good sensory integration/processing Messages from the senses pile up and cause a ‘traffic jam’ in the brain – weak sensory integration/processing
Listens the first time Does not listen the first time, or only when told the fourth time
Hears and follows instructions in the right order – the number of consecutive commands matches his/her age Instructions have to be repeated and only some are followed, or tasks are completed haphazardly
Enjoys touching, handling and investigating Does not like touching and handling
Likes jungle-gyms, swings and slide games Avoids equipment or moving surfaces such as escalators, suspension bridges, rope ladders




Dr Melodie de Jager

Imagine you are holding a bowl filled with big red, ripe and juicy strawberries, the smell is deliciously sweet, you reach out your hand and you pick one.


Imagine waking up to the song of birds, cool fresh air and then being greeted by a little voice that says: “Good morning Mommy” while she puts her warm little arms around your neck.

Aren’t these the moments we live for?

Now imagine the same scenarios, but instead of experiencing these moments you are handed a drawing of them. Not a photo, but a hand drawn image of a bowl of strawberries in black and white, or, a hand drawn image of a family hugging. It is not quite the same, is it? Yet these are the images we find in preschool worksheets – one dimensional, no smell, no taste, no sound and no touch experience whatsoever. It’s not quite the same experience, is it?

While recently visiting Barcelona, I stumbled upon a fresh produce market very early one morning. I was overtaken by awe, wonder, and excitement, and then… even a little bit of sadness. I was in awe and wonder about the hustle and bustle of the market– it was filled with happy active people eager to sell their goods; the way they displayed their goods, the colours, the smells, the sheer energy of the whole place was amazing! Even the way they engaged with their buyers was worth observing, and even educational! The early morning greetings, the banter, the hackling, and the on-the-job-coaching as one seller says to his fellow seller “say: take two” and their laughter at the ingenuity of their sales pitch, was all experiences that made Barcelona a place I will never forget. And then in strong contrast to the experience above, an image of a person sitting in front of a computer, browsing the internet for usual day to day shopping items, flashed through my mind and I was overtaken by sadness. How did this happen? How did we allow two dimensional images to replace rich multi-sensory experiences that are daily within our reach? Have we become so afraid to live?

According to the Autism Society the prevalence of autism in children in the United States is increasing rapidly. Where one in 150 children were previously diagnosed with Autism in 2010, one in 68 children are now being diagnosed, making Autism the fastest growing developmental disability. And if you listen to conversations at children’s’ parties you will hear chatter mirroring the above mentioned statistics – numerous children between the ages of 3 and 9 are either on medication or receiving therapy, or both!

The colourful three-dimensional preschool years (concrete learning) are being replaced by black and white two dimensional worksheets (abstract learning) because so many teachers (unfortunately very often caring but unqualified preschool teachers) misunderstand the importance and educational value of concrete experiences and the invaluable social interactions that go with it.


Every week a preschool child should learn something new about concrete or tangible everyday objects. They will learn what it is (language), what it does (science and maths), and what you can use it for (life skills). Once a child has experienced life -not looked at life in books or on screens (books and screens are wonderful add-ons to reinforce what has been experienced tangibly) then learning about faraway things and places (like dinosaurs) are wonderful. Real must come first. The more we remove children from what is real and prevent them from exploring life playfully, the more we cultivate a sub-specie. A sub-specie where children (and adults) feel disconnected, anxiety-ridden, worthless, isolated, lonely and confined to existing on line.

CAUTION: The following factors can undermine the purpose of the preschool years:

  • Relying on workbooks and colouring books to please parents and prove what the child has done at school
  • Teaching children to read and write, before the children have mastered the skill to listen (the first time) and hold a crayon properly
  • Recommending an unhealthy number of compulsory extramural activities that evoke stress and the pressure to perform.

The preschool years are a marvellous opportunity for the child to discover the world he or she lives in so they know it and belong. The discovery should be hands-on and PLAYful and not WORKsheet-ful.

October is such a happy month to be playing and experiencing things outdoors:

Connect. Touch. Smell. Taste it. Live life!