Formal preschool can be wonderful, but there's also tons you can do to create your own dynamic learning lab for kids. "The way toddlers and preschoolers learn is by seeing, touching, experimenting," says Tovah Klein, Ph.D., the director of Barnard College's Center for Toddler Development. That means a big part of their education comes from simply being out and about with you--whether it's picking up the dry cleaning or catching butterflies. Use our do-it-yourself, don't-cost-a-thing "lesson plans" and declare school in session. Who knows, maybe you'll learn a thing or two, too (pill bugs are related to lobsters?!).
Take off to the local airport to watch the planes arrive and depart. The website Nycaviation.com provides tips on the best places to observe takeoffs and landings at airports across the country. Using the pictures from Bruce's Planespotting Guide (Bruceleibowitz.net/spotting.htm), count the number of engines on each plane and figure out what kind of airliner it is.
Homework: Make a paper airplane and see how far it can fly. Find folding templates and instructions at Funpaperairplanes.com.
Play forest ranger in the park or at a local nature preserve. Teach your kid how to identify the three most common trees in your area by leaf shape and bark texture (get help pinpointing trees at Arborday.org). Bring binoculars and try to spot three different kinds of birds (download pictures to guide you at Wild-bird-watching.com/birds.html). Turn over a dead log to check out a hidden critter hotel; slugs, snails, millipedes, centipedes, and pill bugs--which, by the way, are crustaceans like lobsters and not insects at all--love the dark warmth of a log shelter. Observe them with a magnifying glass.
Homework:Join the National Park Service's junior ranger program at Nps.gov/webrangers. The site features online games for kids that teach about the national parks. Plus, it can help you plan a field trip to the closest one; there's at least one in every state.
Visit a public garden or a local nursery to learn about how plants grow; with permission, take a cutting to replant at home. Help your child find flowers in different colors.
Homework: Pick up a few white carnations while you're at the nursery and separate them into clear vases or cups. Add a few drops of red, blue, and orange food coloring to the water, and watch as the flowers gradually turn Technicolor. It's an easy way to show how plants drink water through their stems.
Learn everything about how your favorite treats get made with a behind-the-scenes tour of a food-manufacturing plant (find one near you at Factorytoursusa.com). Watch raw ingredients come together in gigantic vats, explain why everyone is wearing a shower cap, and, hopefully, sample some of the final product.
Homework: Turn your kitchen into a simple snack factory--blend up fruit and milk for a healthy smoothie; spread cream cheese on crackers; dip strawberries in chocolate.