Five-year-old Amanda hadn't paid any attention to the clasp. All that mattered was that she had finally found the very best lunch box in her favorite color with the perfect design. But then she discovered she couldn't get it open.
Try as she might, pulling and pushing, the stiff plastic hook wouldn't budge.
Within seconds the object of such pride had become a stumbling block, a source of frustration and then of panic.
Luckily, Amanda wasn't sitting down to lunch with her kindergarten class on that all-important first day of school.
Instead, she was in the park with her dad. He gently made a few suggestions, and Amanda conquered the insurmountable obstacle with surprising ease.
``We forget that doing these things is not obvious to a five-year-old,'' says kindergarten teacher Pat Holmes.
``You'd be surprised,'' she says, ``at how many children can't get a sandwich out of its wrappings, open a container of yogurt, or unscrew the lid from a thermos - let alone put the cap back down, the lid on, and fit it all back into the lunch box again!''
These seem like such little things. Yet teachers maintain that children need the chance to master independence skills. These skills may make all the difference in how much a child can relax and enjoy those early days in the ``real'' school.
``The important thing is to provide opportunities for children to have concrete, specific experiences of learning and growing in their own competence,'' says Suzanne West, director of the Cornell Nursery School. ``Then when they go off on the first day, they have a repertoire of experiences in feeling capable.''
The last few weeks of summer are the ideal time to expand such a repertoire. Taking a few lunch box picnics is one such opportunity, even when eaten right at home.
Using the school backpack or carry bag for summer outings is another. Doing so now allows a child time to practice packing it, using the fastenings, and getting it on and off his back or shoulder. (Not always such an easy trick!)
Clothing requires the same kind of practice.
``If the child can even get his own jacket on, it's a big plus, because he doesn't have to ask for help,'' says Ms. Holmes.
``He feels good because he can take care of himself,'' she adds. ``He can always look around and find someone else who can't and then perhaps he can help. This can start a friendship.''
The ability to recognize one's own name in print is another step toward independence. Knowing his name when he sees it over the coat peg and the cubbyhole enhances the child's feeling of belonging in the classroom, right from the start, according to Holmes.
And he can find his special places all on his own.
Opportunities to practice these self-help skills have another virtue. They show children through their own experience that learning takes time.
``Many children are crushed to find they can't read the very first day,'' says Patricia Ziegler, author of Cornell Cooperative Extension pamphlet, ``Off to a Good Beginning: Getting Ready for Kindergarten.''
``They need assurance that all teachers and children are different, and that there is no magic time for learning,'' she adds.
Often there are changes in family routine when school begins.
If mealtimes and bedtimes are to alter or a different parent will be helping the child in the morning, make these shifts ahead of time.
Include a few practice runs in how the child will get to school - whether it's walking the route, riding the city bus, or going to the school bus stop.
``I can't emphasize enough how important it is to rehearse these routines,'' says Ann Halpern, a first- and second-grade teacher. ``When the child knows exactly what to expect, he feels in charge, in control of the situation.''
If no formal preschool orientation is offered, parents might plan to make an appointment for a brief visit when the teacher is setting up the classroom.
While there will be many new and exciting things, some of the materials (blocks, paints, puzzles, etc.) may be familiar from nursery school or day care. This is not only comforting, but shows the child that there will be things in the big school he has already tackled and knows he enjoys doing.
Take a few minutes to find the other important places in the school, like the bathroom, the drinking fountain, and the bus stop. This reassures the child that he can find these places when he needs to.
Don't forget the playground. ``It's probably the single most difficult adjustment a child has to make,'' Holmes says.
Visiting a few times, especially with friends, allows him to know what's there, to find what he likes, and even to get some practice on equipment he hasn't tried before - without the intimidating presence of other children, who can be as much as five years older. Providing such opportunities in the last weeks of summer not only reassures the child, but the parent as well.
``For parents the beginning of kindergarten centers around the issue of letting go,'' says Suzanne West.
``It helps parents to feel good about a child's growing up,'' she says, ``if they can see that the child feels good about himself growing up.''