Over the years, we realized that elaborate toys, expensive computer programs, and special tutors aren't the answer. There's much that parents can do themselves to stimulate a child's imagination, nurture his confidence, and encourage a love of learning. You can make a big difference if you:
Seize The Day1. Seize the day
As your child's primary and most important playmate, you have many chances to teach her throughout the day -- simply by living life and going about your routine. Martha and I looked for those moments when doing errands with our children, for instance. On trips to the grocery store, we'd ask our daughter Lauren to locate her favorite cereal, point out round items, and help count how many potatoes we needed for dinner.
There are lots of opportunities around the house too. While folding the laundry, let your baby feel the difference between Mom's silk pajamas and Dad's jeans, or a warm towel versus one that's already cooled. As she gets older, ask her to find a yellow flower, a green leaf, or a black pebble while you're gardening.
A good way to take advantage of these everyday lessons: Watch your child for cues. If she looks up at the sky and points at a bird, tell her about different kinds of birds, their various feathers, or how they build their nests. When you focus on the things she brings up, she'll likely be interested in finding out more.
Bottom line: Turn every outing into an exploratory expedition. While strolling through your neighborhood, make frequent stops to inspect bugs, touch the grass, watch squirrels scurry up trees, or literally smell the roses.
Talk It Out2. Talk it out
Learning how to express himself can encourage a child to speak his mind -- which can help him forge relationships, do well in school, and stand out among his peers. Since kids develop their vocabulary and speaking style in part by copying their parents', the way you talk can have a huge influence on your child's verbal development. So:
Provide a running commentary. Even before your baby understands you, describe what you're doing while dressing him, bathing him, or cleaning the house. As I made breakfast for my kids when they were little, I told them: "Now I'm cracking an egg open, mixing it in the bowl, and pouring it into the pan."
Make eye contact. By connecting before they speak, people convey the idea that what they're saying is important. Throughout the years, I always told my children -- even when they were toddlers -- that I needed their ears and their eyes when I was talking to them. They tended to take me more seriously and listen to what I had to say.
Be animated. When you speak to your child, you not only pass along information but also teach him that how he expresses his thoughts is often as significant as what he says. He'll learn as much or more from your facial expressions and your gestures as from your words. That's why I reinforce my messages with actions when I talk to children. I'll wave when I say "bye-bye" and give a big smile with my "hello."
Emphasize Healthy Eating3. Emphasize healthy eating
The right nutrition doesn't just build strong bones and healthy bodies -- it helps nourish brains too. And since approximately 60 percent of the human brain is composed of fat, I always remind my patients' parents how essential this food group is. Breast milk and DHA-fortified formula provide babies with all the fat they need. Once your child is on solids, as much as 50 percent of her daily calories should come from fats, especially those found in foods like salmon, olive and canola oils, and avocados. After age 2, she can start eating a lower-fat diet -- about 30 percent of calories from fat.
Of course, along with fats, kids need a balanced diet loaded with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. I also suggest these healthy habits:
Start the day off right. Studies show that children who eat breakfast have a longer attention span and do better in school than those who eat junk food or nothing in the morning. After a night of fasting, kids -- and adults, for that matter -- need to refuel so they'll have enough steam to get through the day. Offer a meal that includes some protein, carbohydrates, and fat, such as a cheese omelette with whole-wheat toast.
Think small. Consider feeding your child frequent mini-meals throughout the day, rather than three big ones. When a person eats too much at one sitting, her blood-sugar levels can fluctuate. The result: sluggishness and the inability of the brain and body to function optimally. Grazing, on the other hand, keeps those levels stable.
Offer smart snacks. Since about 50 percent of a child's calories should come from carbohydrates, snacks are a great way to sneak them in. The key is to choose the right kinds of carbs -- namely, complex carbs like whole grains and vegetables -- partnered with fiber, fats, and protein. They're digested slowly and provide a steady energy release.
Emphasize Creativity4. Get your child's creative juices flowing
Some techniques that have worked for me:
Let 'em doodle. Martha and I would often ask our kids to draw their thoughts. This stirred their imagination and clued us in on what they were thinking (and provided me with a steady stream of art to hang on my office walls).
Maximize storytime. There's a lot more to reading books with your child than following the text on the page. Talk about the feelings of the characters in the story, ask your child what he thinks will happen next, or -- if reading an old favorite -- quiz him on details.
Schedule some downtime. Kids don't need to have every single minute of the day filled with planned activities. Let your child mess around with toys and safely explore his environment by himself. Sometimes he can wind up being his own best teacher.
Keep an open mind. When you're in the car, it's fine to listen to the same Wiggles tape again and again, but other times it's good to flip through the stations and expose your child to different types of music -- whether country, gospel, or opera -- to help him develop his own tastes. And once he's old enough, take him to museums, concerts, and the theater. Introducing your child to such cultural events can only help him find his own passions.
Make Playdates5. Make the most out of playtime
Children learn by playing. But they don't need a closetful of games and gadgets that drill them on numbers, colors, and shapes. These playthings are fine -- but in addition to, not instead of, interactive objects that you can use together. Things to keep in mind:
Look at every toy you buy from various perspectives. For example, a block might seem like a simple plaything, but it provides so many learning opportunities: A child can touch its smooth sides, edges, and corners; experiment with how the blocks balance on top of one another; build a fortress; learn about cause and effect when they come tumbling down if stacked too high.
Consider which everyday objects can double as playthings. Pots, lids, wooden spoons, and other items around the house can offer kids great potential for play. While you're cooking, give your child a bunch of plastic food containers to sort by size or shape. When our son Bob was little, he learned that if he held the edge of a toilet paper roll and let go, it would unfold into a long stream. Sure, it wasn't my favorite of Bob's discoveries, but I loved seeing how happy he was!
Provide toys that help your child practice social skills. For instance, playing with a doctor kit can teach a child empathy, while enjoying a simple card game with you or an older sibling can teach her how to play fairly with others.
Focus On Fitness6. Focus on fitness
Regular exercise not only strengthens the body, it also energizes the mind, and may spark creativity and help improve memory and concentration. In fact, research shows that kids who are active tend to do better in school than those who aren't. That's most likely because physical activity increases the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain, which perks up the neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that speed information throughout the brain. Plus, exercise stimulates "happy" hormones (especially serotonin and endorphins) and generally improves a kid's well-being. And I've always found that a child who feels good tends to perform better in every aspect of his life.
William Sears, M.D., is a contributing editor and coauthor of The Baby Book and The Successful Child: What Parents Can Do to Help Kids Turn Out Well.