3. PLAY'S THE THING
What even chart-busting toddlers and preschoolers don't need are special "gifted" programs or learning tools such as flash cards, educational DVDs, or brain-building computer games. There's no evidence that this "edu-tainment" does anything to boost children's intellectual ability.
Most educators believe kids don't benefit from academically oriented preschools, either. Far more important is having opportunities to explore without constraint -- and teachers and parents who know how to keep learning fun.
"When it's fun and playful, that's when it gets into your head," says Robin Schader, Ph.D., parent resource advisor for the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC). Neuroscientific research confirms that pleasure is what makes our brains want to repeat and remember an activity, and it's that kind of natural repetition that fuels learning.
This helps explain why play is everything to young children. It's how they learn, experiment, tinker, express creativity, work through feelings, practice socialization, develop language and math skills, and see the world in new ways. Pre- schools should mainly be play schools, centered on this kind of discovery learning and the teaching of basic social skills. Many parents want their kids to start kindergarten being able to read Dr. Seuss, write their names, and count to 100.
But a kid who can do all that is actually going to have a harder time than his peers in school if he can't also sit still and listen, take turns, share, and follow directions. Those are the real skills teachers expect kindergartners to have.
4. TUNE IN TO YOUR KID
If, for example, your child is very verbal, "you can make your language a little more complex, use more adjectives," says Nancy Robinson, Ph.D., a professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. "Expand a little on where the child is."
That's what Jackie Brezinski of Apple Valley, Minnesota, did. She credits talking to 21-month-old Seth and reading to him from infancy for his big vocabulary. "I talk a lot. I tell him what we're doing, what we're eating, where we're going," she says. Now he wants to "read" the books to her.
Building on ability is known as "scaffolding." It means presenting experiences that are challenging but not overwhelming and doing it in a positive, supportive way to help the child reach the next level, higher than she could on her own, explains Schader. For example, if your child asks about a stop sign, you can describe the sign and explain its meaning. Point out the letters S-T-O-P. Later, you can point out an "S" on a store name, then ask if she can find some more.
Another idea for a curious, verbal child: Make Question Books. Scatter three or four notebooks around the house. If your child asks a question you either don't know the answer to or are too busy to answer, say, "Let's write it down." Later, you can explore the question together -- find a book, go online, visit the library or a museum.
Enrichment doesn't have to cost money. There's learning in practically everything you do with a young child.