Along with Go Mighty, I’ve partnered with Next Generation and the Clinton Foundation to sponsor this post as part of the Too Small to Fail campaign. Together, we’re working to close The Word Gap that affects far too many young children.

My two-year old is just beginning to understand all the fuss about Christmastime. He doesn’t totally get it, but he loves our tree, twinkly lights, and the extra cookies that people keep handing him. The anticipation when I tell him that we’re going to the merry-go-round or to see Santa Claus is exciting for both of us.

In order to both harness his newfound enthusiasm and create some teachable moments, I tried a little experiment with the book, Polar Express. I picked up a copy to read to my children at bedtime beginning in November (SPOILER ALERT: Sniff Sniff, if you’ve never read it) and wanted to get them familiar with the story before taking them on a local Christmas train. I hypothesized that I would be increasing the magic factor of the train as well as building up the mythology of the story during our ride.

The first night I had the book, I snuggled all three boys in for nighttime reading — I often read to the little guy while my husband reads to the bigs together. I was choking back tears by the last page. The children loved it. My toddler asked for it again and again and again. The first part of my plan worked! He can quote different passages if you start the sentence for him.

I have to pause here for a moment of gratitude about my boys and our family culture. I know that not every parent has the time or inspiration to read aloud and to encourage the word play and mimicking activities that take place in my house. As so many of my fellow working moms are balancing more challenging work schedules and greater financial stress, they have my empathy. I know that my children are enriched by the sheer number of words I expose them to every day — and that others are not so lucky. As we move into this holiday season, my thoughts are with the kiddos who may suffer from a lack of exposure to words and the books that bring them to life.

The second part of my plan was to bring my children on a “real-life Polar Express”. We made a plan to visit the Oakland Zoo Lights train as a magical substitute for a trip to the North Pole. Though it was only 5:30, the night was dark and the lights were bright. Between yelling and running through the Zoo after hours and the chilly open-air train ride, the evening was perfect.

Riding the lit-up train was indeed special (and even better than a real train because we paused to watch the wallabies hopping on our track). Afterward, we walked about 50 feet to visit Santa Claus in his little house. The kids knew to hop on his lap, but they totally blanked on any Christmas wishes.

Thanks to the Too Small to Fail campaign and my my partnership with Next Generation and the Clinton Foundation, I have discovered a treasured book, made some photogenic memories, and taught my youngest son several new vocabulary words. I also hope I’m building my boys’ brains and encouraging others to do the same.