The neighborhood walks that Amanda Cook takes with her 2-year-old son, Julian, do more than tire the little guy out for his afternoon nap (although that’s a bonus). “I name the colors and shapes that we see as we go along, such as green grass, an orange butterfly, and a yellow toy house,” says Cook, of Bloomington, Indiana. Julian soaks it all in. He’ll point to a round, red tunnel on the playground equipment and wait for her to tell him its shape and color.
The world really is one big classroom for toddlers. “They love to master new concepts, so it’s the perfect time to lay the foundation for future skills like reading and counting,” says Erin Seaton, Ed.D., a lecturer in the department of education at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. The key is to play off your child’s interests with plenty of fun, everyday activities.
Start with her name Around age 2, your child will begin to recognize the letters that make up her name, so be sure to display it throughout your home: on her bedroom door, a bathroom step stool, and the fridge. Point to the letters, saying each one out loud, suggests Dr. Seaton. Talk about other words that begin with the same letter as her name does (“C is for Caitlin, but it’s also for cat and cup”).
Read up Point out words and letters on street signs, in stores, and at the doctor’s office, says Sherril English, an education professor at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas. Say them out loud (“That sign says stop”), and help your child think of other rhyming words (“Stop sounds like hop, bop, and mop”). To help your toddler connect letters to the sounds they make, speak slowly, enunciate clearly, and place your finger under the letters and words as you read.