Before your kids started school, you were their primary teacher, instructing them in the ABCs and 123s. Now that they’ve moved on to more complex subjects, it’s likely that you’ve shifted into the role of coach, making sure they finish their homework and get to school on time.

But even as children advance through the grades, their parents remain their most important teachers. Your attitudes toward education influence how your kids think about learning. By looking for learning experiences in your family’s daily routines, you can help your children see a connection between what they learn in school and the real world.

Kids can find out about fractions while measuring ingredients for a recipe or practice math skills by counting change at the grocery store. They can have some fun and develop verbal and critical thinking skills by devising alternative endings to books or movies. Incorporating these types of creative activities outside of school hours can help kids develop academic skills and reduce the amount of time they sit passively in front of the TV.

“Nothing has to take more than five minutes, and yet what you’ve done is you’ve conveyed to your child, ‘I care about you, I care about what you’re learning....And isn’t this an interesting world?’ ” says Dorothy Rich, author of the MegaSkills book series, which includes many home learning activities for families.

She encourages parents to take a few minutes every day to have educational interactions with their children. This could be as simple as having a child measure a rug or estimate how much it will cost to fill the gas tank. Or it could involve talking about the things you observe while traveling in the car or sitting in a waiting room. This kind of interaction can help kids build their vocabulary, conversation skills, and critical thinking abilities, as well as help instill a love of learning, Rich says.

Children younger than 13 spend 80 percent of their waking hours outside of school, according to the 2000 University of Michigan study “How American Children Spend Their Time.” What’s more, research has found that the most effective kind of parent involvement is that in which parents work with their children on at-home learning activities. This makes it even more important that parents continue the kind of informal teaching they did to get their kids ready for kindergarten once their children enter school, Rich says.

“Parents are more important in a child’s education than they think,” she says.

In addition to getting involved at school and helping kids with homework, parents can help by looking for informal learning opportunities that will encourage their child’s curiosity and help develop the child’s academic skills.

There are “lots of activities you can do at home to help your child learn without duplicating what schools do,” Rich says. “Not even the best school can do the job alone.”

Other experts agree. According to the National Science Foundation, parents exposing kids to math and science at an early age can make them more comfortable in those classes years later.

These educational activities don’t have to cost anything or take a lot of time, but they have long-lasting benefits. Here are a few activities you can try at home.

Math

  • Help your child visualize fractions by folding napkins into halves, quarters, etc. If you’re using paper napkins, have kids label the fractions with a marker.
  • At the grocery store, explain how fruits and vegetables are sold by weight, and have your child weigh the items you select. Ask her to estimate how much the items will weigh before putting them on the scale. Then have her estimate how many items she would need to add or remove for the items to weigh one pound.

Reading

  • Turn off the TV and read a book with your child, with each of you acting out the role of a character in the book. Record your performance so you can listen to it together or share it with other family members.
  • If your child has completed his homework and wants to watch a favorite program, use that time to reinforce reading skills. Turn on the closed captioning so your child can read along as he watches and listens to the program.

Writing

  • Cut apart each panel of a comic strip and remove the words. Have your child determine what order the drawings should go in, then ask her to fill in the words for the characters.
  • Provide kids with a paintbrush and a pail of water and have them write messages on a sidewalk, or give a child a flashlight and have him spell words for you on the wall of a darkened room.

Science

  • Conduct a simple experiment with your kids to determine what household objects will float or sink in water. Or hold a test to see whether hot or cold water will freeze faster, checking the water at set intervals.
  • If you have some empty bottles on hand, ask your child to add different amounts of water to them. Blow on the rims of the bottles to see what sound they make. Ask kids to arrange the bottles from the lowest to the highest pitch.

In addition to strengthening academic skills, many home learning activities, such as helping prepare shopping lists, teach children about adult responsibilities. Parents can give older children a view into their world by showing them a bank statement or insurance document and using it to start a discussion. Parents can use exercises like these to teach kids effective study skills and skills they’ll need in the workplace, such as motivation and perseverance.

Although Rich encourages parents to view their environments as full of learning tools, she cautions them against overdoing it. If parents are drilling information into their children, it’s no longer fun for anyone.

“Your goal is...not to be there as the [lecturing] teacher...but to enable the child to feel empowered to be a self-disciplined learner,” she says.

Emily Graham is a senior editor for School Family Media. She lives with her family in Oklahoma.