When my daughter, Lily, was 4, she watched in fascination as I pulled back the mulch in our vegetable garden to reveal a cache of fat red worms. She soon found out that the unraked leaves on our patio were home to dozens more, a revelation that delighted us both. I didn't realize it at the time, but that discovery was one of many small moments that helped to fuel Lily's desire to learn -- one that followed her to school and will, I hope, remain with her forever.
"Instilling a passion for learning is one of the greatest gifts you can give your kids," says Linda Acredolo, Ph.D., a Parents advisor and coauthor of Baby Minds: Brain-Building Games Your Baby Will Love. That's not to say you should overlook skills such as reading and arithmetic. But keep this in mind: "Kids who enjoy learning tend to explore things more deeply, work harder, and be more successful in school and in life," says Kathy Seal, coauthor of Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning. These strategies will keep the learning process fresh throughout the early years.
Leave time for independent play.
If you've ever watched a toddler endlessly fill, empty, and refill a bucket with sand, you know that all kids are scientists by nature. But this process of experimentation can't happen unless you let your child check out the world on his own terms. "Give him time and room to do things on his own," says Margery B. Franklin, Ph.D., professor emerita of psychology at Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, New York. Resist the urge to jump in and help him at the first sign of frustration; children need to learn how to solve things themselves. "The answers, in learning and in life, don't always come right away," says Kyle Pruett, Ph.D., a Parents advisor and coauthor of Partnership Parenting. "Most kids need your help to develop perseverance."
Taking a closer look at everyday objects will make them seem more intriguing to your child. Point out details she might not otherwise notice, such as the whorls of a fingerprint or the patterns on a lace curtain. On walks around town, Marla Barr, of New York City, used to play "Tell me what you see" with her then 2-year-old daughter, Julia. "I showed her the American flag and asked her to point out all the flags she could find on our stroll," says Barr. In turn, Julia asked her mom to identify any new thing she observed (such as a mailbox or a garbage truck) and then tried to find other examples of it.