Everyday Ways to Help Kids Learn

by Linda Rodgers

Everyday Ways to Help Kids Learn

You can help your child start learning from physics to problem solving—all without breaking a sweat or boring them silly

It was easy to teach my daughter when she was a baby—all I had to do was keep up a running commentary and she soaked everything up like a sponge. But once she started school, I let the teachers do most of the heavy lifting, especially in science and math. I’m not the only mom who’s hands-off when it comes to her child’s learning. “We think teaching is talking at kids and telling them stuff,” says Barbara Wolf, Ph.D., an associate vice president of family learning at the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis. “Instead, it’s about taking advantage of natural, everyday moments to ask questions and get the wheels working inside that little brain.” And it pays off: Recent studies show that the more involved you are in helping your child learn at home, the better he’ll do at school, academically and socially. So read on to find the best activities for teaching a slew of complex concepts that can maximize your kids’ brain power.

Kids learn best through concrete experiences, Wolf explains, and nothing can be more hands-on than following a recipe and eating the results. From baking muffins to making soup, this mealtime task gets high marks from experts because it covers so many basics.

What kids can learn: You might not think of a recipe for muffins as a set of rules, but that’s exactly what it is—and a preschooler quickly learns that leaving out the sugar can have yucky-tasting consequences. Plus, all that stirring and pouring helps hone fine-motor skills.  Grade-schoolers get early chemistry lessons when they mix a solid (flour) with a liquid (milk) to get batter, which changes back into a solid when cooked. Measuring the ingredients also teaches them fractions, and reading the recipe boosts their sequencing skills—teacher-talk for the ability to identify the beginning, middle, and end of a story, which is crucial for reading comprehension and writing an essay.

Looking at a Construction Site
Most adults think of science as an experiment or equation that has nothing to do with everyday life. But science is the process for figuring out how things work, explains Lisa Niver Rajna, a K-6 science teacher in Los Angeles. When you think of it that way, even a construction site can turn into a physics lesson.

What kids can learn: There’s plenty of physics involved in watching hardhats push wheelbarrows or hoist beams: Point out how hard the person has to push to get a wheelbarrow full of wet cement to move, and ask what he could do to make it go faster. Ask what would happen to the structure if the beams were all on one side, and now you’re on to engineering. If you stop by the same construction site on a regular basis, you’ll be able to sneak in another sequencing lesson when your child notices what comes first (the foundation), next (the beams and supports), and last (the roof and walls).

Going on a Walk
Observation is the basis of science, so do what Rajna does when she takes her students out on a walk: ask your child to put on his imaginary detective hat and tell you everything he sees.

What kids can learn: You can work in a lesson about photosynthesis when you and your child have a conversation about leaves: Why are they green in the spring, and why do they change color in the fall and drop off the trees? See how many different insects you see or different bird songs you hear. City kids can also soak up a little physics by noticing the timing of the traffic lights—do they depend on the flow of traffic to change or are they pre-set?

Making connection with the things kids know best is a great way for them to learn, says Becky Blake, a child behavior and learning expert and creator of the website That’s why mealtimes are a good way to work in a little math.

What kids can learn: Count out the French fries or baby carrots as you serve them on your preschooler’s plate, and you’ll reinforce his counting skills; bump it up a notch when you count how many he has left after he eats one, and now you’ve taught him a lesson in subtraction. Cutting pizza or cake into eight slices gives your grade-schooler a lesson in fractions—especially if you ask him to tell you the percentage of the pizza that’s left after you serve two slices.

Snapping a Pic
Your phone is always with you, so turn its camera into a teaching tool and your child can pick up some very cool scientific principles of light, says Rajna.

What kids can learn: Get your child to snap a photo series of his shadow (or do it for him); by identifying which side of the photo his shadow is on and how long it is, he can learn about the earth’s rotation and the sun’s position. Or teach optics with apps like CamWow (for iPhones) or Effects Booth (for Droids). Both apps, which let you pick a variety of real-time filters that make objects look like something in a funhouse mirror as they bulge, elongate, and split in two, are fun (and funny) ways to talk about how light travels, and how it can be distorted by hitting a convex or concave lens.

Going to the Store
Whether you’re at the supermarket or Target, your child can pick up valuable experiences in reading, writing and arithmetic while you shop, says Wolf.

What kids can learn:  Recognizing patterns helps kids understand how things work together—and how to predict what comes next, which is crucial for learning math and algebra. Help your preschooler spot the patterns and shapes on clothes, bedding, or furniture the next time you’re in a department store. At the grocery store, he can hunt for the letters of his name or for numbers. Your grade-schooler can help you write out the grocery list, read the labels to check if foods are healthy enough to buy, and make change.

Doing Arts and Crafts
How can finger-painting or making a crafts project turn into a scientific experiment? Ask your preschooler the first principle of scientific inquiry, says Blake: “What would happen if…?”

What kids can learn: Ask your child what would happen if he mixed red and yellow, and then tell him to identify the new color (orange). Or see if he can figure out what makes tissue paper stick better—glue or water—and ask him why one worked better than another. Mix different substances: cornstarch and water to get paste, or oil, water, and glitter. You can hone an older child’s powers of observation (also good for budding scientists) by putting a flower, a piece of fruit, or a toy in front of him and telling him to draw everything he sees, suggests Wolf. And of course, all that mixing, touching, and drawing helps kids perfect their fine-motor skills, which they need for writing letters.

Doing Chores
Giving your child a tasks around the house not only gives him a sense of responsibility, it can help him pick up some math and critical thinking skills, says Blake.

What kids can learn: Sorting helps little kids learn to classify and compare objects, and notice how they are alike and different, the groundwork for learning algebra and becoming a logical thinker. When you do laundry, unload the dishwasher, or pick up the playroom, let your sweetie sort socks and towels, silverware, or toys by color, size, shape, or type. While he’s putting things away, say, “You’ve only got a few crayons left,” or “We have several blue washcloths,” so he can begin to associate numbers with math terms like “many,” “several,” and “few.” Your preschooler can organize your loose change by size, but by first grade, he’ll be able to arrange the coins into piles of pennies, nickels, and so on.

Driving Around
From choosing whether or not to punch Katie when she swipes the red crayon to figuring out how to multiply three times three, your child solves problems on a daily basis. Your aim is to get him to become a creative, flexible, empathetic thinker who looks at situations from multiple angles. The key is empathetic; as Wolf says, a lack of social skills can get in the way of academic progress.  

What kids can learn: Telling stories packs a powerful learning punch; stories boost reading scores, listening comprehension, and empathy, and sharpen problem-solving skills, especially if they involve who/what/why/where elements. And what better place to spin a yarn than in the car, where your cutie is a captive audience?  Not feeling creative? “Ask ‘What would happen if that person ran a stop sign?’ or “What would happen if people didn’t obey speed limits?’” suggests Blake. Or have your child tell a tale based on the passengers in the car next to you, or the pedestrians on the sidewalk.

From babyhood, playtime is how your little one has been making sense of the world. But asking questions can take play to a whole new level, say experts.

What kids can learn: For preschoolers, playing with stuffed animals or puppets lets them work through an experience that happened to them; by asking them if Teddy is sad or happy or confused, you build their emotional vocabulary. You can maximize your kid’s problem-solving abilities while he’s doing puzzles or building a structure by asking him why he thinks a puzzle or Lego piece doesn’t fit. Or sneak in a little math by asking your child to count his jumps on the trampoline or while he’s skipping rope. Then time him: Ask him to count the number of jumps he does in one minute or how fast he can jump for that amount of time, and see if he notices any correlation between the length of time and the number of jumps, suggests Blake.

Taking a Bath
Bubbles and stick-on letters can get old after a while, but these activities can turn bath-time into a blast and prep a preschooler for bigger-kid learning.

What kids can learn: Let your preschooler figure out what floats and sinks—a sponge? His boat? The bar of soap?—and see if he can figure out why. Or have him hunt for the letters he knows on the shampoo or body wash bottle. After the bath, he can sort through his playthings and put them away according to type—first the boats, then the duckies, and so on.