Kindergarten used to be all about developing social skills. These days, it’s more about learning to read and getting ready to tackle academic subjects in 1st grade.

Still, a primary intent of kindergarten is to teach children to work together, share, accept each other’s differences, solve problems by communicating, and enjoy playing with each other.

Luckily, these things come naturally for most 5-year-olds. “Children are so cheery at that age,” says Nancy Davenport, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. “They are bright, full of energy, and just love school.”

For some kids, it’s their first chance to interact with other children all day long and to be part of a learning community. It can be an adjustment, especially for children who are used to spending every day at home, whether with Mom or another caregiver. But most kids have had loads of kindergarten readiness and school-like experience by the time they enter kindergarten.

Parents should expect occasional bumps in the road as their children adjust to the kindergarten classroom. Some kids might cry a little. Some might have a hard time sharing toys or understanding that the toys belong to the class as a whole, not just to them. But after a week or so, most kindergarten classrooms are humming along beautifully.

“Whenever a principal has a bad day, you go down and visit a kindergarten class,” Davenport says.

Fostering Cooperation

Kindergartners are innocent. They believe, for the most part, that everyone is their best friend. Most will happily play with a child of the opposite sex and join in with a group of kids they don’t know well. They aren’t picky about whom they sit next to at lunch. They crave being around other children and might beg for play dates with their classmates even after spending all day with them at school.

Many kindergarten activities are built around encouraging kids to socialize, even if they appear more academically oriented. Teachers often set up centers and allow children to choose which activity they want to do. Many activities require children to work in groups or pairs.

Some kindergarten classrooms have play areas, such as a kitchen, where kids can “play house,” a game that fosters cooperation.

Kids of this age need hands-on activities, such as decorating a pumpkin or gathering leaves in autumn. Kindergarten teachers are often creative in coming up with ways to build upon a theme so their students will be engaged. “There are so many things that can accompany a lesson,” Davenport says.

Young children have shorter attention spans and need to move from activity to activity. If they’re left too long on one task, many will lose interest, which could lead to misbehavior.

Another characteristic of the kindergartner is the tendency to ask question after question. Parents should seize upon that curiosity, Davenport says. “It’s so important to take advantage of those early years,” she says, noting that answering a child’s question gives the parent an inside track to finding out about her day, what she’s thinking, and what her interests are.

Patience is required when a child is in kindergarten. Children develop at their own rates; some will not be as outgoing as others. This is not an indication that a child will be shy for life, just that the child may need more time to adjust to being surrounded by so many people.

Sensitivity Toward Others

Kindergartners are extremely attuned to the world around them, says Masha Rudman, director of the elementary education teaching program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. They notice everything and find simple things like a trip to the grocery store or a walk around the block fascinating. Parents can take advantage of this by bringing number facts, letters, and words into everyday activities.

Children of this age are also sensitive to others and may become sad when they see that a classmate is sad or be genuinely distraught over a story, even if the characters are animals. Because of the socialization mission of kindergarten, children are often encouraged to express their feelings. They may lack the vocabulary to share how they truly feel, relying on basic statements like “I feel sad” or “I feel scared.”

Teachers and parents can help children fill in the blanks as they try to express how they are feeling—for example, “Maybe when you heard in the story that Mary’s grandmother got sick, that made you think how you would feel if your grandmother got sick.”

In kindergarten, children are finding their way in a world that is suddenly bigger and more complex than they ever imagined. Parents and teachers are the tour guides, but they can only guide. The kindergartner has to cross the bridge from preschool to 1st grade on his own two feet, a realization that may be exhilarating for children and more than a little scary for their parents.

For more information, read “Kindergarten Academics: What To Expect”

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.