Once upon a time, there were three monkeys. They lived in a big car. One day the driver said, "Let's drive to Mars." What, you haven't heard this one before? Of course not. It was written by a 4 year old, somewhere in a California living room.

We all know that story-time is important. But story-time doesn't have to always mean sitting down with child and book in lap, and reading. Why not change it up a bit? Toss the books aside, sit across from your child and create your own story together.

According to the National Reading Panel, children learn the meanings of most words indirectly, through everyday experiences with oral and written language. Children not only learn word meanings from listening to adults read to them, but through conversations with them. During these exchanges, children will often hear adults repeat words several times. They may also hear new and interesting words that stick out to them. The more oral language experiences children have, the more word meanings they learn.

Reading packs a power punch of vocabulary building and one-on-one time. But for imagination, homemade storytelling can't be beat. First, ask your child to pick a main character and something he would like that character to do. Next, take turns adding words to create the story together. For preschoolers, this may mean you begin the story with a sentence and let her fill in the noun or verb. Like a childproofed, sanitized version of Mad Libs, your child is free to insert silly answers or to make an effort to tell a logical story, with a beginning, middle, and end. For an older child, alternate sentences with him. The story can go in fun and surprising directions. This activity also makes for a great travel game. And it definitely beats letting him watch (or more importantly, you having to endure) mindless cartoons in the mini-van. Feeling ambitious? Write it all down. Break it up into pages and make a mini picture book. Use a different color marker for your child's responses so he can clearly see how he's contributed to the story. Ask your child to draw a picture for each page, corresponding to the actions in the story. This is a wonderful piece of work to share with other family members and something your child can be proud of. Not to mention – a great keepsake for the baby book!

So the next time your child asks you to read The Polar Express to him for the thousandth time, suggest that you and he compose your own story. It can be as boundless as his imagination or as silly as Dorothy the Dinosaur. As a parent, you're not only expanding his vocabulary and encouraging creativity, but secretly sneaking in educational quality time for you both.