By the time my third child, Ben, was 4, we had been to the children's museum, the local playground, and all the kid-centric places in town dozens of times. We were ready for some new adventures—but where to go? Experts suggest exploring everyday places like a dentist's office or a grocery store's back room. "Every new experience helps expand your child's vocabulary and broaden his knowledge," says Daniel Willingham, Ph.D., author of Raising Kids Who Read. With a little advance planning, these mini field trips won't be just another place to take your kid; they'll teach new concepts and words in a way that will stick in his memory.
Many pizzerias, including chains like CiCi's Pizza, Uno Pizzeria & Grill, and California Pizza Kitchen, give educational tours, but you can also call your local pizzeria and ask if you and your child can visit. Simply seeing a restaurant kitchen—with its industrial-size bowls, walk-in freezer (brrr!), and giant ovens—will pique your preschooler's curiosity and get her thinking about how food is prepared, Dr. Willingham says. To keep your child safe, have her wear closed-toe shoes, pull her hair back if it's long, and remind her not to touch anything during the tour. Encourage questions: What are the kitchen tools used for? What happens to cheese when it's heated? Why do they throw the dough in the air? You can replicate this field trip at a bakery, a chocolate shop, an ice-cream parlor, or other eateries to cater to your child's interests.
This adventure provides a great opportunity to talk about different types of pets and how to take care of them, says developmental psychologist Betty Bardige, Ed.D. When you call, explain that your child is interested in animals and request a tour during a quiet time at the clinic. As part of the experience, ask if the vet or vet tech will show you an X-ray or let your child listen to an animal's heartbeat through a stethoscope. The vet can also talk about the importance of exercise and good nutrition for pets and introduce new health-related vocabulary words such as "surgery" and "prescription." Ask your child: How are animals different from people? Can you read the numbers on the scale? How can you tell if a pet is sick, since she can't speak? Afterward, help your pint-size doc set up his own clinic for his stuffed animals at home.
Local Creek Don your wellies, dress your child in clothes that can get dirty, and enjoy a hands-on lesson that incorporates physics, ecology, and biology by exploring the bank of a stream. Express your curiosity to your child: "I wonder if an animal lives in that hole" or "Where do you think the water comes from?" Collect rocks and talk about how they differ from each other. Or throw them into the creek and examine their ripples for a simple lesson in cause and effect: Do bigger rocks make bigger ripples? See if your budding engineer can build a bridge or a dam that stops the water. Or challenge her to make a boat. What will float? A leaf? A branch? A flower? Encouraging her to guess and then testing each object to see if she's right are the first steps of the scientific method, Dr. Bardige says. To bring in some biology, look for living things (tadpoles, dragonflies, earthworms) and then talk about where they live, how they move, and what they might eat. Be sure to bring a bag so your child can take some riverbank treasures home afterward.
The next time you need a tune-up, ask in advance if the mechanic can give your child a look around. When your child peeks under the hood, sees a tire-mounting machine in action, or watches your car get raised by a hydraulic lift, he'll get a taste of the wonders of engineering and robotics. "He knows what your car looks like on the ground, but all of a sudden here's your car up in the air," says Jeri Robinson, vice president of early-childhood initiatives at the Boston Children's Museum. "So much learning can happen when you take something that's familiar and look at it from a new angle." Ask the mechanic to point out some car parts (spark plugs, battery, dipstick) and show your child a few basic tools, explaining how he uses them. You can even take advantage of a routine oil change to encourage your kid's observation skills. Let him look at the old oil and the new oil, and ask him how they're different. While you're waiting, you can count tires or talk about the various types of cars in the shop.