At two, when the other sandbox kids pointed to the sky saying, “Plane, plane,” she said, “Look, Mommy! That’s an emergency rescue helicopter!”

At preschool, the teacher put out a box of wooden blocks for her three-year-old class. On his very first day using them, one of the boys created a three-foot tall marble chute, and spent the rest of the morning analyzing the relative speeds of different sizes of marbles.

What’s up? Well, say experts, these two kids may not be just cute. If they consistently think and behave this way, making abstract connections and displaying skills way beyond their years in a variety of settings, they may be gifted…and it’s a very big deal.

In fact, says the National Association for Gifted Children, it's essential that these children be properly identified and nurtured. Our nation, they have written, must “provide optimal educational experiences for talents to flourish in as many children as possible, for the benefit of the individual and the community.” And without such attention, many advocates argue, they may easily languish.

Still, everyone agrees that “giftedness” can be tough to define. How can you know it when you see it? For starters, beware: “giftedness” goes way beyond a good grade or one precocious conversation at the sandbox. Instead, the National Association for Gifted Children says, “A gifted person is someone who shows, or has the potential for showing, an exceptional level of performance in one or more areas of expression.” This talent may be general, as with capacity to think analytically and creatively, or to lead others. Or it may be specific, showing up in areas such as music, science, or literature. While they acknowledge that many children may show skill at some point in any of these areas, they estimate that only about 5% of America’s student population—about three million kids—is truly gifted.

So how does this affect your kid? Actual program structures vary by state, but experts broadly agree that to “identify” a gifted child officially, educators and parents need to use “multiple indicators” from a variety of sources, such as students’ work, teacher observations, caregiver and parent reports. Schools also generally include test scores, but consider them only one factor. Fairfax County Public Schools, for example—the nation’s thirteenth largest school district and home to an extensive Gifted and Talented Education program K-12—uses a case by case “portfolio” approach including both ability and achievement tests; parent questionnaires, teacher records, and a “gifted behavior” rating scale. And no matter what the final designation, teachers will look for nascent talents and keep working to develop them.

Think your child may fit these criteria? Go ahead and speak to your teacher, and ask about any staff members on campus who specialize in gifted kids or who may coordinate the school’s work with them. If your child is designated “gifted,” or even if you think she’s just developed a very strong early interest, find out what your school offers. After all, educators and parents do have the same ultimate goal, of helping kids make the most of their abilities.

As Carol Horn, Ed.D., Coordinator for Fairfax County Schools Gifted and Talented Programs, says, “Here’s what we believe: In children, giftedness is potential.” Over decades, she has seen giftedness at every level, and from every area her district serves. “There are children who are gifted, but because of language or poverty or other factors, it may not be evident at first.” Whether a child comes from such a background, or has been enriched from birth, the school’s job remains the same: “It’s our responsibility as educators to nurture that potential.”