Daily life with my very busy 3- and 5-year-old girls is rarely quiet. So, whenever the house is suddenly still and totally peaceful, it’s time for me to act. I drop whatever I’m doing and head to the girls' bedroom, just positive I’m going to see marker or stickers on the walls or shampoo poured out on the floor! Recently, I was caught by complete surprise. There they were, tummies down on the carpet, deeply engrossed in … a book! I tiptoed away and whispered a small “thank you." Maybe all those hours spent reading Knufflebunny over and over again actually paid off.

Most parents read to their young kids, which helps encourage imagination, language and an early love of learning. But not all children remain curious and inquisitive as they get older. In fact, studies have found that from third grade on, a child’s enjoyment of learning drops continuously. 

You can do a lot to help spark a love of reading — and learning — in your child, says Mark Hogan, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Education Department at Belmont University. He says parents should make learning time play time. To captivate a young mind, let your child do what comes naturally: play. And play with him.

“Early learning, as well as late learning for that matter, is about discovery and wonderment,” Hogan says. “Engaging the mind is crucial for further development in learning, so parents can create games of discovery in everyday activities,” he adds.

All children start out with an instinct to explore and discover. “When going to the store, make it an adventure with your children,” suggests Hogan. “Tell stories on the way, thinking out loud, ‘I wonder what we should buy today?’ ‘I’m looking for bananas, they are yellow … will you help me look for yellow things?’” Hogan says to take playfulness even further. “Are these bananas (ask your child holding up carrots)?” “Silly Mommy!” Or, “Can you look in this area and find the peanut butter that has a ‘J’ on the container?”

You may not think you have time for this, but sparking early learning is more important than busy parents realize.

“As your child gets ready to learn to write,” Hogan says, “make it hands on!” He suggests using gelatin, yogurt or shaving cream spread out in front of your child so he can draw shapes and letters into it. “The messier, the better,” adds Hogan. And while setting aside daily time to “work” with your child is important, it should never be drudgery.

“I’m of the opinion that ‘work’ is really ‘play and discovery’ with preschoolers,” says Hogan. “Prescriptive drilling really does lead to burn out and unengaged learners later. If parents think of learning development in preschoolers as teaching ‘speaking,’ ‘viewing,’ ‘listening,’ then they really have set up the child to become an engaged learner later in school and into adulthood,” he says.

Live Playful Learning

Practice talking to your child about all of the interesting things you learned during your day, suggests Deborah Stipek, Ph.D., co-author of Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning (Owl Books, 2001). “If you read an intriguing article or watched an educational program, tell your kids about it.” Explain in simple terms what happened and why you found it so interesting. Your kids will learn to share what they’ve learned with you, too, and eventually conversations will flow on a regular basis.

Build on Your Child’s Natural Interests

If your child goes through a car phase, take out library books about cars, go to a car show if possible, purchase small cars and create roadways together. Do the same if he loves bugs, trains or outer space. If he loves fish, by all means, take him to the Nashville Zoo to see the fish tanks in the indoor section there, or plan on a getaway to the Tennessee Aquarium. Tapping into your child’s unique interests will keep his spark for learning alive.

“The encouragement and support of interests allows for individual personalities to develop," Hogan says. "The difficulty for some parents is when their child’s interests are vastly different than their own. Remember it’s not your desires; it’s about raising children who are healthy and flourishing,” Hogan adds.

Be Willing to Answer Questions & Investigate

With your ability to make day-to-day living playful learning for your child, you will begin fielding questions every day. Turn things around and ask him questions so that he'll use his mind. For instance, asking, “Why do you think the birds always come back to that same spot in the backyard?” can spark a conversation that introduces a variety of interesting concepts.

When you ask questions of your child, make them specific, i.e. “Did the guinea pig in your classroom have babies yet?” rather than simply asking, “How was school?” “Everyday talking is essential to learning,” says Stipek. “Kids need to be able to take what’s happening in their lives and spin it into narratives if they’re going to become capable readers and writers.”

And when you don’t know the answers to your child’s questions, take him to the Internet. Take the time to explain it when you discover the answer and watch as your child registers understanding. It’s perfectly all right to say to your child, “I don’t know the answer … Let’s find out.” 

“If your goal is to foster a love of learning, it’s far better to take an interest in what your child’s doing rather than how well he’s doing it,” Stipek says. “Your continued interest in his activities is the best motivator of all.”