February 17, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Importance of Being Little | Professional Shelf

the importance of being littleAccess to universal prekindergarten education has found a place on the agendas of top political leaders, including President Obama, who convened the White House Summit on Early Education in 2014, and New York City’s Mayor de Blasio, who recently orchestrated the implementation of free, full-day pre-K for all eligible children. While few would argue about the value of quality preschool programs, do we really understand what our youngest learners need to thrive? And are we ready to put their developmental and emotional requirements front and center? In The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups (Viking, 2016), Erika Christakis brings a studied perspective to these and other challenging questions.

Christakis, recently a lecturer at the Yale Child Study Center and a licensed early childhood teacher and preschool director, is optimistic about the attention being paid to preschool but warns that a focus on skills-based academics might do more harm than good. Citing “the steep rise in preschool expulsions and mental health diagnoses, such as ADHD, in children barely out of diapers,” Christakis suggests that solutions to these growing concerns can be found “by looking more closely at what preschoolers can and can’t do.” In other words, misguided adult expectations and the changing shape of the preschool environment could very well be exacerbating young children’s difficulties. She makes a compelling argument centered on what she calls “the preschool paradox.”

While children are capable of learning in any environment, the learning environments we’ve come to rely on don’t always support a child’s optimal development or provide authentic opportunities for learning. Christakis suggests it’s time to rethink the so-called print-rich environment by seeing it from a three-year-old’s perspective—might a profusion of alphabet and other educational posters be more distracting than enriching? The author also questions the value of daily (and often ineffective) calendar work and the beloved but not particularly creative seasonal projects (picture paper Thanksgiving turkeys). And why are young children expected to bounce resiliently from brief activity to activity when they benefit most from chunks of unhurried time devoted to exploration and play indoors and out?

Preschool programs are impacted by a great many factors, and Christakis, offering both research and anecdotal history, covers all the bases: the need for quality teacher training, the dearth of male representation, the effect of low salaries, top-down imposition of “nitpicky, decontextualized standards,” technology and screen-time, social-emotional learning, parent/teacher relationships, and more. Although the author thinks it will take years to turn early childhood education around, she never doubts the innate capability of young children to flourish, at home and in school, when they are given the right support and enough time to do so. Perhaps the most important takeaway from this thought-provoking, timely discussion is that children and adults need to be allowed the opportunity to develop meaningful relationships and to get to know and trust one another, because, as Christakis concludes, “the most essential engine of child development is not gadgetry or testing, but deep human connection.” It’s an observation well worth considering.

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Alicia Eames About Alicia Eames

A former Brooklyn Public Library children's librarian and NYC public school teacher/librarian, Alicia Eames is a freelance editor and a frequent contributor to the SLJ’s Curriculum Connections “Professional Shelf” column.

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  1. As Einstein said, “Play is the highest form of research” but unfortunately today good old-fashioned playtime is becoming an endangered pastime for plugged in, over-scheduled kids. Like Erika Christakis, I explore this theme but from a whimsical perspective in my award-winning children’s picture book, THE BUSY LIFE OF ERNESTINE BUCKMEISTER. Ernestine could very well have been a product of the pre-school paradox mentioned above, but with spunk, determination (and a few mishaps along the way) Ernestine does what no one in her family has ever done before — she plays. Just for the fun of it.


    I’m passionate about the importance of play and