Maybe your little one is still a baby, or your toddler has just started toddling. Either way, preschool is years away, and there's no sense in thinking about it or doing anything just yet. Right?

Turns out you can start preparing for the day when your child heads out the door with a backpack and a lunchbox, and it doesn't involve having her memorize multiplication tables. Most preschools focus on play-based learning in a group setting, and on boosting your child's social skills while fostering physical and cognitive development, rather than formal academics.

Circle time will be here before you know it. Check out these suggestions from childhood development experts to help your child prepare for preschool - and for a lifetime of learning.

Read stories and look at books together. Do this every day, if possible. (You can even begin during pregnancy by reading out loud to your little bump. That way, your daily story habit is already established when your baby arrives.) For many children and families, reading close to bedtime, when all is quiet and relaxed, is best. Your reading session can be short and it should be fun. Let your child hold the book and turn the pages. Talk about the pictures and point to them. Ask questions. Make up funny voices and silly sounds.

What kind of books are best? All kinds: picture books, board books, soft cover books, books with flaps to lift or holes to poke, new books as well as classics from your childhood. Enhance your book collection with regular visits to the library (see below). Your child will probably insist that you read the same books over and over again; before long she will be joining in and "reading" these favorites along with you or even by herself.

Go to story hour. Public libraries offer a wealth of resources and experiences for young children, and those weekly story hours can be invaluable. They help foster your child's language development and interest in reading, of course, but equally important is the opportunity for socializing with other children in a semi-structured setting. Sitting on the floor, criss-cross applesauce, listening to an adult and then having a turn to speak, maybe after raising a hand, is good practice for preschool.

Navigate an obstacle course. Older babies and toddlers love to move and explore. This activity helps your child learn about space and the relationships between things, introducing important concepts like over, under, and around.

  • Mountain climbing: Grab some pillows and cushions from your bed or couch and pile them up. Drape a sheet over them to keep them clean. Challenge your child to "climb over the mountain," holding her body or hands as she climbs. Talk to her about what she is doing: "Up the mountain you go. You're climbing so high! Now you're climbing OVER the mountain!" Try this with around the mountain, too.

  • Bridge work: Make a bridge for your baby to crawl under using a sturdy chair or a table, or two chairs back to back with a space between them and a towel draped over them. Even your legs, with you standing or sitting, can serve as a bridge. Describe what your baby is doing as she crawls under her bridge.

Sort objects and shapes. Plop down on the floor with your baby or toddler and sort objects in different ways, such as by color, size, shape, or type. Use anything from socks and toys as your sorting items and talk about what you're doing as you arrange them in piles. This helps introduce classification skills that pave the way for future math concepts like sets.

To help your child sort and match geometric shapes (a first step in learning to do puzzles), you could make a simple shape sorter. Find a shoe box and draw two shapes on the lid: a circle big enough to accommodate small balls, and a square the size of a wood block. Cut the shapes out. Then give your toddler several round and square objects to look at and handle while you name and describe them. "This is a ball. Balls are round. Which hole do you think the ball will fit in? Look at the shape you're holding now. It's not round like a ball. It has corners that are pointy. It's called a square. " After the two of you have dropped in some balls and blocks, show your toddler how to lift off the lid of the shoe box to see where all those objects have gone. Later on, add different shapes to make the game more challenging. As your child tries to match each geometric shape to its corresponding hole, he is learning how to plan, predict, and problem solve.

Play with blocks. These beloved objects are beloved for a good reason. They're the ideal toys for young children, whose imaginations transform them into anything from a tower to a castle, an airport to a garage. The best game of all? Piling them up and knocking them down! It's great if your child has a standard set of rectangular wood blocks, but you can also make your own "box blocks" by gathering some sturdy cardboard boxes (milk cartons, cereal boxes, shoe boxes), stuffing these with crumpled newspaper for stabilizing, and then taping securely shut. When your child plays with blocks, he's actually planning, problem solving, and using mathematics and physics, too. (Okay, forget about preschool ¾ he's ready for college!)

Keep in mind that these suggestions are merely a start. There are lots of good ways to support your child's learning; many are easy to add to your daily routine, and all will enrich and enhance your family life, too. You are your child's first and best teacher. If you're talking, reading, playing, and exploring the world together, all is well. With your love and encouragement, your child will do just fine when the preschool days arrive.

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