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Kindergarten teachers will tell you: some kids start school ready to learn and some start school way behind. The difference, obviously, is what happens at home in those first five years. But what makes that difference? What should parents of toddlers and preschoolers be doing to give their kids every advantage possible?

The answer is pretty simple and also inexpensive. No need to spend money on educational toys or enroll in costly classes. Instead, here are the keys:

1.  Talk with your child – a lot. Talk about what you’re going to do and where you’re going to go. Talk about what happened today and what will happen tomorrow. There’s a huge difference in just the number of words little kids hear during the day – make sure your child hears a lot.

2.Turn off the TV. Television does not do your child any good. And if your kid is watching television, you and she are not talking together or doing interesting things. Listening to television doesn’t count in that “number of words” thing. The less television the better.

3. Listen to your child. When your child says something, listen all the way through. Don’t interrupt him or finish his sentences or hurry him along. Don’t argue and don’t correct him. If your kid is going to know a lot of words when he goes to kindergarten he has to hear them – and he has to say them. “Talking with your child” means listening too.

4. Do interesting things together. Go outside, walk around the block, go to the playground, play in the house, cook together, shop together, do stuff. And while you’re doing stuff, ask questions. Talk about what you see and what’s happening. Children develop their intelligence by messing around with things and ideas. If your kid likes electronic gizmos, really limit her time with them. Video games and handhelds only develop one sort of thinking. Your child needs more than that.

5. Read together. Read signs, books, labels, the backs of cereal boxes, the directions on a microwave meal… everything. And let your child see you reading. Reading isn’t just something people do in school. Make sure your child knows that reading is the gateway to fun stories and useful information.

What we’ve learned about brain development is this: we get the brains we need for how we spend our time. Make sure your child spends his time talking, reading, and messing around with real stuff. The years from birth to age five are hugely important. Help your child make the most of them!