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Close-To-Home Adventures

By around age 3, a toddler becomes an enthusiastic explorer of her environment. "Until then, many of a child's ideas about the world are acquired by what her family shows and tells her and through books and television," says Steven Reznick, Ph.D., a research scientist in psychology and child study at Yale University.

Short, simple trips are perfect opportunities to teach youngsters about how things work away from home. Nearly all communities are chock-full of places to investigate that require little planning and don't cost a dime.

FIRE DEPARTMENT

Fire trucks, hoses, and poles are just some of the things to see at the local firehouse. Discuss the function of each item and how the uniforms protect the firefighters. To prepare, read a story about firemen, play with a toy fire truck, and locate a hydrant near home. Call ahead to schedule an appointment or find out when they're having an open house.

AIRPORT

Watching planes take off and land can be mesmerizing for youngsters. Visit a small airport, because the crowds are less intimidating, parking is easier, and you may even get an up-close look at an airplane.

CONSTRUCTION SITES

Though you probably won't be able to wander around, just viewing a construction site from a distance can teach youngsters about how buildings are constructed and help them identify such machinery as dump trucks and cranes. To prepare for the visit, read books about building (for instance, Richard Scarry's Busy Town books) and play with a toy dump truck.

FARMERS' MARKET

Many areas, whether small towns or big cities, have a farmers' market where fresh produce and flowers are sold in a friendlier, more intimate atmosphere than a grocery store. Farmers are on hand, ready to answer questions about how the produce is grown. Have your child identify different fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Invite him to pick out his own goodies and pay for them. At home, talk about the fruits and vegetables as you eat them.

ANIMAL SHELTER

Young children can learn about dogs and cats, as well as about the humane treatment of animals, at a shelter. If you're uncomfortable explaining that the creatures are put down if they're not adopted, consider a visit to a dog breeder: Many are happy to have young visitors  -- and to show off their puppies  -- even if you're not in the market for a pet. Beforehand, discuss the proper handling of puppies with your child.

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