Mix things up.
Sure, blowing bubbles is cool. But what would happen if you used a bigger wand, or a paper tube, or tried to make your own bubble juice the next time? "Even little changes in the way you do things help kids stay excited about a subject," says Parents advisor Kathleen McCartney, Ph.D., dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. When her own kids were young, she used to rotate art supplies at the craft table, setting up watercolors one day, construction paper and chalk the next, and magazines and glue for collage-making the day after that. Finding fresh materials or a novel use for a familiar object is essential to learning (and, by the way, it helps grown-ups maintain interest in things too).
Learning isn't always neat or orderly, and that's a good thing. "Children watch to see what happens to objects when they throw them, put them under the water, get them dirty, and so on," says Dr. Acredolo. "It's not at all unusual for a young child to repeatedly throw things out of the crib, splash in mud puddles, or stick a toy in the DVD slot." Allowing a little messiness into your life (and your child's) can help foster the kind of free discovery that sparks learning. If possible, provide a space where your child can explore and be creative without doing any damage, such as by putting newspaper on the dining-room table and letting her finger-paint or mold with clay.
Be his guide.
While you want your child to become self-motivated, you're also his most important teacher. So look for ways to augment his interest in a subject. When 3-year-old Sam Kuo, of Seattle, asked his mom, Elena, why the moon changes shape, she checked out books on the subject, then bought a lunar calendar so they could observe and record its shape every night. As a parent, your mission is to make him aware of the resources that can provide answers, unlock secrets, and further his knowledge.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Parents magazine.