The world is a stimulating place for a toddler -- everything's new and exciting! "Kids this age are absorbing new information all day long," says Elaine Ellis, M.D., medical director of the Phoenix Children's Hospital's Neuro-Developmental Evaluation Program. Even the most mundane experiences help build important skills. Think about it: An activity as simple as helping you fold the laundry can teach your child preliminary lessons in counting and sorting, while also strengthening his motor development.
With just a little effort, you can boost the educational value of everyday tasks. "Toddlers learn best when they use all their senses," says Dr. Ellis. "The more they see, feel, hear, and manipulate things, the better the lessons sink in." Our smart strategies will turn your daily routine into fun learning games.
Shapes and Sizes: Children as young as 2 can understand the concept of big and small. When cooking, ask your child to help you choose the right container for what you'll be serving. Say, "Do you think the strawberries will fit in the little bowl, or do we need the bigger one?"
Sounds: While kids may not be able to tell you which note is an A versus a high C, they do understand that different tones sound, well, different. This is a building block of musicality. "Clink an empty glass with a spoon, and then tap on a full one," says Lewis P. Lipsitt, Ph.D., a child-development expert at Brown University, in Providence. "Talk about how the teakettle makes a whistling noise when the water's boiling." Pointing out such things also demonstrates cause and effect -- kids learn that they can intentionally make things happen.
Counting: Set the table by the numbers. Ask your child how many napkins and forks you'll need so everyone gets one. Take it a step further by asking, "If Dad doesn't eat breakfast with us tomorrow, how many spoons will we need?"
Colors: "Tell Mommy when the light turns green" is a great game that teaches kids to anticipate change. Another idea: Challenge your child to look for and count out red cars. When she's spotted five, tell her to shout "Bingo!" Repeat with blue, black, or green vehicles.
Letters: As you pass billboards, signs, sides of trucks and storefronts, ask her to shout out letters she sees in the order of the alphabet. That may take the entire two-hour trip to Grandma's!
Shapes: Kids love pointing out all the shapes they spot from their car seat: Your steering wheel is a circle and a sign is a square. Show your child a stop sign and explain that it's an octagon, while a school bus might look like a rectangle.
Vocabulary: When choosing food at the grocery store, point out, for example, how the skin on an apple is smooth, while an orange feels bumpy. Identifying items in your cart by their proper name as well as describing them with one or two adjectives will help boost language development.
The Same and Different: Pick up two boxes of crackers. Talk about what they have in common ("Both contain snacks that are shaped like small squares") and what they don't ("This box is red, that one is yellow").
Money: Two- and 3-year-olds may be too young to grasp what a quarter is worth, but they are old enough to learn that it costs money to buy things. This can build into a discussion about needs and wants. You might say, "Is ice cream something we need to live, or is it a treat we'd like to eat after dinner?"
Social Cues: This is a great activity to play while standing in line: Suggest that your kid look at people's faces and tell you how he thinks they're feeling: Are they happy? Sad? Bored? Practice manners too. When you reach the checkout person, make sure you and your child say hello and goodbye.
Numbers and Sorting: Count the people standing in line. Then ask questions to sort them into categories. "How many people have black hair? How many are wearing glasses?"
Shapes: While killing time sitting in the pediatrician's office, play a version of "I Spy." Without telling your child what it is, choose and then describe an object in the room. Ask him to guess what you're looking at. Tell him, "I see a white triangle. What could it be?" Give clues such as, "It's near the door."
Shapes and Colors: A seed can be round or oval. Dirt is brown, while the grass is green. Your child can scatter seeds in a straight line or a circle.
Size: Little ones love to sort. Place a large and a small leaf on the ground, and ask your child to gather leaves and put them on the right-size pile. Challenge her to find five leaves and put them in order from smallest to biggest.
Change: Planting a garden and watching it grow is a perfect way to talk about how people grow too. "Explain to your child how a seed becomes a seedling, which eventually becomes a tree. Then talk about how we are always growing and changing too," says Lewis P. Lipsitt, Ph.D., a child-development expert at Brown University, in Providence.
Originally published in the December 2009 issue of Parents magazine.