Young children are capable of learning just about anything in age-appropriate bits. But just because they can, should they?

In her disarmingly titled book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups, Erika Christakis weighs in. And her well-researched answer is: absolutely not. The trend of pushing academic learning down into preschool is not only developmentally inappropriate, it is harming children by making them less engaged, less inquisitive, and more anxious.

Viking, 2016, 400 pages

So what do young children need?

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Christakis should know. She was a lecturer at Yale, is steeped in the science of development, and has decades of experience teaching in preschools. The science to date shows that children’s early development unfolds in a bootstrapping sequence. Genes provide the blueprint of early development, but early experiences and relationships shape the foundation of brain and mind. Later healthy growth rests on that foundation’s being solid.

And critical to forming that foundation, Christakis points out, is an early environment that has some deceptively simple qualities: warm and close relationships with adults, responsive conversations, and natural habitats.

Young preschool children have a natural curiosity and the desire to make sense of their world, she says. They don’t need learning that originates outside of themselves but instead are well-prepared to learn from simply everything around them—their environment is the curriculum.

A good teacher, then, creates a “responsive learning environment” that is full of opportunities to play and explore, while weaving instruction into activities in naturally occurring ways. But this requires teachers who are highly skilled—who understand development, can connect with children, and can create and feel into learning moments on the fly.

Teachers need to be good observers of children and truly get inside a child’s perspective. They need skillful language to draw out a child’s learning and not shut it down, facilitating a two-way conversation that gently advances educational ideas. Good teachers work in the child’s “zone of proximal development,” watching for the sweet spot for learning that is “just the next step.” They respect a child’s knowledge and power to learn and offer affectionate, warm interactions.

Christakis makes the well-researched case that later, more formal education rests on these early, high-quality, naturally-occurring experiences. She quotes the Finnish Board of Education:

“The basis for emerging literacy is that children have heard and listened, they have been heard, they have spoken and been spoken to, people have discussed things with them, and they have asked questions and received answers.”

Direct instruction, on the other hand, which is increasingly being pushed down through curriculum suited for older children, is a threat to a true education. Top-down teaching methods and scripted, canned curricula for the preschool set fail to understand how children really grow and learn. Christakis goes so far as to say that these curricula can be a copout, an overcompensation for teachers who lack more professional skills.

In short, an academically focused curriculum for preschoolers is highly uneducational. They don’t need scholastic skills; they need opportunities to be creative and productive and try new things, to grow self-regulation and communication skills, and even to develop a sense of humor. They need magic, and boredom, and room for their imagination, fantasies, and feelings.

Adults, she says, strive to “live in the moment” but expect preschoolers to manage “dozens of transitions in a school day, often with little warning.” Those who can’t deal are at risk for being diagnosed with “slow cognitive tempo disorder,” attention deficit disorder, or any problem that has to do with “children’s inability or unwillingness to do what we want when we want it.” Adults manage their impulses with caffeine, alcohol, and yoga, she writes, but we can be “downright punishing” about children’s raw emotions—invalidating, disappearing, or misinterpreting them—when decades of research show that emotions are powerfully connected to learning.

Christakis is not an ideologue, nor is she particularly “precious” about childhood. She irreverently calls her own children lazy and uncooperative, laments the outlawing of monkey bars and snowballs, and risks the politically incorrect position that preschool, in fact, might not be right for everyone.

The Importance of Being Little is a must-read for anyone with a two- to five-year-old, as well as for preschool professionals. In an ideal world, Christakis, a true defender of childhood, would have a national position in early childhood education.

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