Essential skills a toddler should have before preschool enrollment

Children aged 3 to 6 at Karambi ECD&F Centre. Diane Mushimiyimana

Preschool/ nursery or an early childhood development centre (ECD) helps children develop important social skills, and lays a steady foundation for primary and other schools beyond.   

Thus, for a child to navigate effectively different stages in preschool, she/he is expected to possess some basic skills to help cope with the new environment, according to early childhood development experts.


These skills may include social, language, play, physical and self-care abilities. When these preschool readiness skills are well established, it makes learning easy for both the teachers and the children by   making a smooth and successful transition and integration into such a new environment and its routines.


Marie Diane Uwamahoro, an early child development professional at Save the Children, Rwanda, argues that getting children ready for school is a journey that starts as soon as the child is born.


However, Uwamahoro notes that because children develop at a different pace, which implies that there is no checklist of must-have skills, there are areas one can look at to see if a child is ready for group learning.

Language and communication skills

According to Uwamahoro, a child’s ability to express his/her feelings is very important before entering preschool. Kids need to be able to express themselves in a way that an unfamiliar adult can understand.

“That doesn’t mean your child needs use full sentences, just that the have an appropriate way of getting her feelings and needs across. That can be through words, gestures or sign language,” she says.

Uwamahoro says that parents can nurture language and communication skills in their children by reading together, talking about the story and imitating what the characters are doing.

“How to say ‘hi’ and ‘goodbye’, or ‘thank you’, are one of the key assists to give your child a foundation in communication and language skills, before starting pre-school. Children can learn their full name, the names of their parents, their address (at least naming their location),” she said.


According to experts, children need a lot of physical and mental energy for preschool. Kids who aren’t used to following a routine or being actively engaged can have a harder time adjusting to preschool.

Uwamahoro suggests that one way to know if a child is ready for the demands of preschool is to look at the nap schedule. If they still take long morning naps, they might not be ready. To prepare a child for preschool, one should merge the morning and afternoon naps into one longer afternoon nap.

Toilet trained

According to experts in child development, parents might see signs that their child is ready for toilet training from about two years on.

Grace Ayebale, a professional preschool teacher at Kigali Parents School, says that some children show signs of being ready as early as 18 months, and some might be older than two years, but normally, they should not go beyond the age of three. As long as they can go to the toilet when they go to school, they will make work easier for their caregivers. 

“Becoming interested in following or watching others go to the toilet is a good way to introduce things.  And at some point, parents can realise that the child has had a dry diaper for up to two hours —this shows he/she can hold urine (which automatically empties in younger babies or newborns). As soon as they start telling you with words or gestures before they have a bowel movement in their clothes or diaper, it is a sign that they are ready for toilet training,” says Ayebale.


Ayebale adds that children aged three and four aren’t expected to do everything on their own, or to solve problems all by themselves, but a little independence is key.

Many preschool programmes have activity times during which students are asked to pick a learning centre (such as a drawing or building-blocks area) and interact for a short period.

“By the time a child enters preschool, they’ll be expected to play games or do projects with other kids for a short period of time (5 to 10 minutes) without needing constant redirection from an adult. It’s also important that they feed themselves and find their way around the classroom once they know it well,” she says.

Emotionally ready

Uwamahoro says that emotionally, there are a few things to look if a child is preschool ready. The first is the ability to say goodbye to a parent or caregiver without too much anxiety.
“It’s typical to be a little nervous, but if your child cries the entire day, they might not be ready to go to a full preschool programme.
“A child who is emotionally ready is more eager to go to school and wants to make friends. They might not have the skills to make friends yet, but wanting to make them is a good start,” she argues.


Eugene Rutijanwa, the head teacher of GS Gahanga, Kicukiro, says that children are naturally energetic and exuberant and cannot be expected to focus completely and not get distracted at all. However, having said that, it is possible to help a child focus on a task and increase concentration skills for a longer period of time. 

“Most preschool-ready kids can pay attention to a short picture book being read aloud. Activities are typically limited to 10 to 20 minutes in a preschool classroom. But a little distraction is typical, especially if this is the first time your child has spent every day around a group of other kids,” he says.

Rutijanwa says that there are some games that parents can introduce their children to improve their concentration.

You can train and strengthen a child’s ability to focus by playing games that require attention and thinking.

He suggests, “Cut pictures out of newspapers or magazines [of things] that start with ‘A’ or look through magazines to see how many ‘As’ can be found. Use blocks to make the letter ‘A.’ All of this helps with fine motor skills. Also, during a walk, parents can stop and point out the colours of flowers they see, or talk about the shape and feel of the rocks they pick up”.

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