As Kim Eaves runs errands in her Lake Forest neighborhood, she often takes her daughter, Monet, 4. Eaves said that at the market, they discuss what types of baby food to buy for 1-year-old Zeb ulun and how to spell items they see. They sing the alphabet song while strolling the aisles and talk about carrots and spinach as they hit the produce section. Monet delights in handing the clerk the paper bills.
Said Eaves, 31: "I want her to learn, but I also want to keep her occupied."
Experts say that even with the occasional tantrums and turmoil that can accompany a young child's trip in and out of stores, parents are smart to involve little ones in some errands. By introducing or reinforcing math and reading skills in commonplace settings, they add, parents can make school lessons seem more relevant to a child and increase their chances of success.
"It stresses that learning isn't just listening to the teacher. There are opportunities in everyday life," said Barbara Willer, spokeswoman for the National Assn. for the Education of Young Children, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization specializing in the education of children up to age 8.
And, when parents share in the excitement and wonder of the learning discovery, this time with their kids can even be fun, said Marcy Cook, a math consultant who has 30 years experience in education, teaching and consulting.
Here are some suggestions from Cook and other experts for making errands a learning experience.
On the road: A parent need not wait to get to the destination; learning can start en route.
A child can try to remember how to get there. Prompting questions like "Which way do we turn next?" or "What do we pass first: the post office or the gardening store?" or "Where do we get off the bus?" help jog a child's memory and sequencing skills.
At the mall: The child needs something to look for or figure out.
"A mall to a child is a large play area," said Studio City therapist Sharon Sackin, who conducts parenting workshops. "A store is a wonderland of places to hide. The child thinks: 'How much fun can I have?' "
Sackin said the youngster can be given a problem such as: "We have to stop at the shoe store, bookstore, and toy store in the mall. Help me figure out the path so that we end up at the pet shop." This helps create spatial abilities needed for geometry and problem-solving skills needed for algebra, experts say.
"They often know the lay of the land more than you realize," Willer said. Allowing them to show off their knowledge will make them feel good about the skills they have, increasing their self-esteem.
At the market: This frequent stop for parents can be approached as a game. Children who learn through play find learning exciting.
"Make it like a scavenger hunt," Cook suggested.
Children can help find items on the shopping list by using coupons. Before the trip, the child may be able to help by clipping coupons, Sackin said. Then, going up and down the store aisles, the youngster delights in using the pictures on the coupons to find the products. Younger children would be given one coupon at the appropriate aisle; those with formal reading skills can be given several coupons from which to decide, Cook said.
First- or second-graders can begin to learn the value of a dollar. They can be asked to see how many different things they can find to buy with $1. As they scan the aisles for the price label, they are learning relative money values. Parents can't help but get pulled into the excitement of helping light bulbs go on.
Some parents, Cook said, may opt to give the child a dollar and allow him to make a purchase and receive the change. Many children love receiving change because trading a paper bill for an item and five coins feels like they've made money on the transaction.
Cook suggested posing the question: "How could you have gotten the change differently?" "A good start for a good question begins with 'How many different ways or things . . ,' " Cook said.
Counting and adding skills can also be reinforced in the market, Cook said. Preschoolers learn that one, two, three are more than words to learn in order; they are the basis of a concept. Kindergartners can keep a tally of the number of items put into the cart, Cook added. Four lines and a slash equals five items. On the way home, the child counts by fives to figure the total, giving the child a jump on learning multiplication tables.
Once at home, the parent can show the youngster how to use graph paper to make a bar graph showing the number of items purchased. The child colors a column, with each square representing five items. A different color can be used for each trip and the height of the colored bars compared. Making bar graphs prepares a child to plot points on a graph in geometry.
"Coloring is a fun thing," Cook said. "Why not make it meaningful?"
Elementary school-age children can improve their accuracy with a calculator by keeping a running total. On the way home, they can double-check the tape total. The excitement, Cook said, is in trying the catch an error made by the store cash register.
At the post office: This is another perfect spot for a parent to engage a child and reduce having to reprimand junior for ducking in and out of the roped-off lines. Cook suggested posing this problem: "I have $5. How many 29-cent stamps can I buy? How much change would I get?" Substitute other dollar amounts to keep the child thinking. Allowing a youngster to do the division computations with a calculator lets him or her to practice two skills.
Even a child as young as 4-year-old Monet Eaves gets a lesson on pounds and ounces at the post office. She loves to place envelopes on the electronic scale and push the buttons to enter the ZIP code. After the scale computes the postage, she and Mom discuss what happens after a letter is mailed.
When parents run an errand to the post office or cleaners, they can also ask the child to remember as many things as he can, Sackin said. When they get home, the child can draw a picture or write a narrative. Memory and language skills are tied into reading success. A parent may opt to reward the sibling who remembers the most.
"You are raising the child's desire to be more aware," she said.
Children can even learn on quick trips to the gas station. Besides conversations about how the car needs gas to run, parents can ask children to estimate how many gallons it takes to fill the car, Cook said. Youngsters can take into account the level of the fuel gauge. Their first guesses will be so way off they'll be entertaining. Estimation is another match skill, said Cook, adding that "the more you know, the more frames of reference you have."
At work: A brief trip to a parent's office also provides opportunities for growth. Even by just going along to pick up or drop off something, the child learns about career options, Willer said. Young children will use the career ideas in their pretend play while older children can start to plan their future.
Debbie Gilmore of Cudahy took her daughter Kimberly, 15, by her office at the Southern California Indian Center in Commerce. Gilmore, who once received employment training at the center, went to drop off her time sheet and look over a job skills test.
An unplanned lesson ensued: "I told (my daughter) 'when you look for a job, you'll take a similar test.' She didn't know what went into (job hunting), how to fill out an application or write a resume. She learned something new," Gilmore said.
Quality time, like learning, happens as parents go about their daily lives, even in such seemingly mundane tasks as errands, Willer said.
"It can be a very special time. It helps to create memories that are important for you and your children."