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.
So you failed macroecon in college; you can still teach your kid the basics. Dump out the change bowl and explain to her what each coin is called. Distinguishing quarters from dimes and nickels from pennies introduces the concept of bigger and smaller. Then take the booty to a coin-counting machine and exchange it for paper cash. Give your little tycoon two of the dollars you collect and head to a local dollar store. Let her pick out two things and pay for them herself (you'll have to spot her the tax!).
Homework: Set up a "store" in your living room with pretend food, and give your tyke eight or so coins. Tell her each item costs one coin, and let her shop away.
When you're driving or walking around, encourage your kid to find and point out the passing shapes, from the "circle" car wheels to the "rectangle" house windows.
Homework: Let your kid watch Sesame Street's Guess That Shape and Color DVD. (Hey, don't you remember watching videos about photosynthesis and the solar system when you were in school? Plus, you need a break. Teaching toddlers numbers and shapes isn't exactly a raucous funfest.)
Collect a small memento from each of your day's activities (a rock from the park, a napkin from the pizza shop, the receipt from the grocery store, etc.) and let your child carry them in a bag. When you get home, dump out the contents and, together, remember your day and put the items in chronological order. For example, "First we went to the store for bananas, so we'll put the receipt first. What did we do next?"
Homework: Talk about the order of your daily routines. What do we do after the bath? "Put pajamas on and read books!" And then what? "Mommy drinks wine!"
Visit the nearest art museum on its free-admission day. Depending on the exhibit, set out on a simple search: Find three paintings with children or animals in them; identify three photos of buildings; or spot a painting with lots of purple or brown or [insert favorite color here]. Buy the postcard versions of your preschooler's favorite works of art so he can start his very own art collection.
Homework: Get out crayons, markers, or paint and challenge your child to make his own art inspired by what he saw at the museum. Upload it to Artsonia.com, where it can be part of an online gallery of children's art.
Art in Literature
Get a stack of children's art books from the library. We love all of the titles in the Touch the Art series by Julie Appel and Amy Guglielmo, the entire Mini Masters collection by Julie Merberg and Suzanne Bober, and all of the How Artists See Jr. books by Colleen Carroll.
Homework: After reading each book, ask your child how the pictures (of paintings or other art) inside made her feel. Did Matisse's bright colors make her feel happy? Did Degas's ballerinas make her feel like dancing?
Call around to local musical-theater groups or chamber-music societies that are staging performances soon and ask if you can attend a dress rehearsal. Stay for as long as his attention lasts.
Homework: Make your own instruments. Fill empty lidded containers with dried beans for maracas (for older kids), use pot covers as cymbals. You get it!
Hurry, hurry, drive that fire truck! Call your engine company and set up an appointment for a firehouse tour (for help finding one nearby, check out Fire-find.com). See where the firefighters cook and sleep when they're on duty, and try on as much equipment as possible. Get some fire-safety tips along the way.
Homework: Log on to Firesafety.gov/kids/flash.shtm for online coloring pages and fire-safety games, as well as information about becoming a junior fire marshal.
The next time your child draws a picture for a grandparent or a friend, take a trip to the post office to mail it to the recipient. Have your kid choose the stamp and stick it on. Bring along a map, and try to find the delivery route the letter will take.
Homework: Hand over your junk mail so your child can play "post office."
Go to a flea market or antiques shop to look for relics from different eras. Or visit a historic home in your area (find one at Nationalregisterofhistoricplaces.com), then point out the similarities and differences with your own house.
Homework: Show your tot some old photos of yourself from when you were a child. What were you wearing? What kinds of toys did you have? How bad was your hair?
Language & Literature
Beginning Fiction Workshop
Hit the children's story hour at the library or a bookstore. Afterward, talk about which books you liked and why.
Homework: Ask your child to read you a book for a change. Actual reading skills are not required: You'll be surprised how much he remembers and what he can figure out from just the pictures.
Next time you're at a Mexican, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, French, Thai, or what-ever-type restaurant, talk about the items on the menu (pad thai or parmigiana cheese, for example) and explain how, in other countries, people speak different languages and eat different foods. Teach your child to say "thank you" in the corresponding language: "merci" in French, "gracias" in Spanish, and "domo arigato" in Japanese.
Homework: Check out the Putumayo Kids collection of CDs, including French Playground, African Playground, and Latin Playground, to expose your kid to more foreign languages through incredible music. ($14.98 each; putumayo.com)
Hear ye, hear ye: Head downtown, to the mall, or anywhere else that your little one might be able to spot each letter of the alphabet on signs. Bring a camera and snap a shot of each letter found. The prints--with some hole-punches and ribbon ties--can become the pages of a handmade instant favorite: My Very Own A to Z Letter Book.
Homework: Download printable alphabet pages from Atozkidsstuff.com/springalpha.html and assemble them into a coloring book.
Students of life travel light. Check out a few of the essentials:
DIGITAL CAMERA to record adventures and make photo books
BINOCULARS to get a closer look at wildlife, planes, and other neat stuff
BUCKET OR STURDY BAG for collecting "specimens" and souvenirs
ART SUPPLIES for when your little student gets inspired