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Citrus fruits can be good learning tools for young children

Say you have landed on an alien planet filled with millions of items you have never seen before. How do you make sense of it all? Chances are, your first step would be to start classifying the objects: These are for eating, those for sitting on. These move, those break easily. these are small and those are bumpy.

Most parents will recognize this as the process their scientific tots undertake to understand our "alien" world. Learning to see that some things are the same while others differ gives young children a firmer grasp on life.

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An easy way to teach this surprisingly difficult concept is with citrus fruits -- oranges, grapefruits, limes, and lemons, to name the most common.

All of these fruits are obviously different in color, shape, and size. But they all have elements that make them members of the same plant family -- and significantly different from other fruits.

To teach your youngster, get at least one of every kind of citrus fruit you can buy, along with one or two other fruits (apples, grapes, etc.). Ask your child to tell you the name of each fruit or, if talking is not his specialty yet , have him point to the fruit as you say its name.

Talk about the difference next. Which one is largest? Smallest? Are they all the same color? Do they smell the same?

Then start talking similarities. See if your child can tell, just by feeling , which are the bumpy citrus fruits, and which the other, smooth-skinned fruits.

You will need a knife for the next step. Cut open each one of the fruits and help your child to see the wheel-spoked sections present in all citrus fruits. This can be difficult for young children to perceive. Point out the "little lines" around the grapefruit and ask him to use his sharp eyes to see it on the orange. Comparing citrus fruit to the insides of an apple or other fruit makes this clearer.

The next step requires paper cups and a little potting soil. Scoop the soil into the cups (if you place both on a large sheet of newspaper, your child can have the fun of doing this), and remove the seeds from each fruit. Citrus seeds look remarkably alike; it may be difficult, once they are removed, to tell them apart. Stand them next to your other fruit seeds, and talk about the differences in size and color.

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Now plant the seeds and water them (an eyedropper in a cup of water works well.) The plants require full sun and lots of water. They will probably not grow fruit, but the citrus leaves have a lovely smell when crushed.

Your last step is to squeeze the fruits for juice, so your child can taste the sharpest citrus similarity. Once the puckers die down, add some sugar for a refreshing drink, or give your child a peppermint stick "straw" for sucking the juice.

With any leftover fruit, you can make "citrus pictures." Put three or four layers of paper towels on an old plate and soak with a water soluble paint; this is your ink pad. Give your child a sheet of construction paper (plain paper will do) and two or three citrus fruit halves. He or she should press the fruit , cut side down, into the paint, then onto the paper for a citrus print.

This same simple explanation can be given for root vegetables -- potatoes, yams, carrots, sweet potatoes. The plants are seedless since they themselves are roots, but may be propogated by sticking the top end in water. If possible, take your child outside and dig up a plant or a week to show the root.

By doing these easy experiments, you may add a few words to your child's vocabulary and strengthen a concept for organization he will use through life.

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