Life with a toddler can feel like a near-constant stream of learning and growing. They have so much to absorb and learn before they go off to school for the first time. Those first five years feel absolutely critical in terms of setting them up, not only to read, write, and do math, but also to really love to learn and explore and grow.

It's a whole lot of stress on parents. And it turns out, the way many of us have been doing it -- with flashcards and drills and directed learning -- is all wrong. Two recent studies in the journal Cognition -- one from a lab at MIT and one from UC-Berkeley -- show that the best way to teach a child isn't to show them how something works, but rather to explore it together.

Rather than dictating to the child how they might use a toy, it's better to feign cluelessness and play with it together. The thing is, it makes perfect sense.

In our own lives, do we learn from an object that has one function that we already know? Of course not. We get excited about learning from things we discover and conquer on our own.

The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act may have increased direct instruction at federally funded preschools, but they went about it in the wrong way. Children under 5 are little sponges who need to explore their own interests and play. They don't need workbooks and knowledge pushing that will make them hate school.

The fact is, the kind of teaching that gets good test results -- directed teaching -- will not create lifelong learners, though it will make children do better on standardized tests, which is the standard the government uses to evaluate school performance. Curiosity and creativity are harder to measure, but most would say utterly crucial to the molding of a child who loves learning.

So, how does one raise a lifelong learner? Take them out, let them explore, go to museums, soak it all in, and play all the time. Is that really so hard? In my experience as the mother of two toddlers, both of whom are now preschool age, they learn the things they want to learn the best.

My daughter absolutely drills herself and, as a result, she is now reading and writing just one month after turning 4, but that wasn't because I pushed her. I shudder to think what her math skills might be given she has shown almost zero interest in that area. But the result is that she is actually loving what she is learning because for her it's fun and challenging and self-directed.

We parents get very stressed at the idea of our children not learning. We get so stressed that we drill them and possibly ruin learning for them, period.

So, let's let them play and explore. And they will learn a lot more than drilling them with flashcards and rote memorization.

How do you teach your children?