It's not about knowing how to read, but knowing how to sit still in a circle on the carpet.
It's not about knowing your numbers, but knowing how to make a friend.
That, at least, is the view of seasoned childhood educator Sharon Keplinger, who last week welcomed Palo Alto's 35th group of "Young Fives" to the first day of school on the Greendell campus near Cubberley Community Center.
In an age of ramped-up academics from K-12, the Palo Alto school-district program for children on the immature side of 5 is as popular as ever with parents.
Demand could increase if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signs a bill requiring kids to turn 5 by Sept. 1 in order to start kindergarten, instead of the current Dec. 2 birthday deadline. The bill, sponsored by State Sen. Joe Simitian, a former Palo Alto school-board member, promises new "transitional kindergarten" programs for children born between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2.
Demand for Palo Alto's Young Fives has held steady over the years, though it is slightly up recently, Keplinger said.
Two classes of 22 began last week, and Keplinger said there's typically a waiting list long enough to fill a third class.
In Young Fives class, kids learn to cut paper, hold a pencil, tell a story and sit still — things they used to do in kindergarten, but now must master ahead of time.
Parent Donna Noyman's son has a late October birthday. She heard about Young Fives when he was enrolled in Parents Nursery School.
"In many ways he seemed ready to go (to kindergarten) but in other ways — right before I had to make up my mind — it was clear he could use a little extra time on the social-emotional things, so we made the decision to put him into Young Fives.
"I'm so glad we did," Noyman said. "He's confident now. He knows what to expect, how to be with people socially — there's no clinginess — knows how to behave in the classroom," she said of her son, now a kindergartener at Ohlone School.
For decades, admission to Young Fives was by lottery. Two years ago the program moved to an observation-based admission process, using what Keplinger said are now widely accepted criteria for kindergarten readiness.
"Social-emotional development is more important than pre-academics because the pre-academics will come if they know how to regulate themselves, make a friend, how to share, open their lunchbox, hold a pencil," Keplinger said.
"We get kids into Young Fives who are reading, but it's not about that.
"It's about 'How do you behave in a classroom when you've got all these other kids, a teacher and an aide?'"
When kids come in for observation, Keplinger and her team watch to see whether they know how to share toys, take turns, ask for help, join a group or put on a jacket.
"I look at, 'Do they know how to sit in a group and not completely shout out loud all the time? When they don't get their way, do they know that crying isn't the answer?'"
Both of Christine Hodson's boys went through Young Fives. They are now in kindergarten and third-grade at El Carmelo School.
"Even from the age of 1 it was something we were thinking about," said Hodson, who first pondered Young Fives after reading blogs about it through the Parents Club of Palo Alto and Menlo Park.
Her sons' birthdays fall in September and October.
"As the time got closer, it was clear he would benefit from one more year and having the opportunity to work on skills he was going to need for kindergarten — social skills and fine-motor skills, things you're expected to do like cutting and writing."
"I feel really lucky that we had it," she said.
In addition to Young Fives, there are at least 20 privately run transitional programs on the Midpeninsula, according to Keplinger.