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‘The Importance Of Being Little’ Review: What Your Kid’s Preschool Should Look Like

Aikawa Ke

Crib Notes summarize all the parenting books you’d read if you weren’t too busy parenting. For great advice in chunks so small a toddler wouldn’t even choke on them, go here.

When you were a young, you probably thought that school was full of bologna — and not the good kind that has a first name. But just because you ate a lot of paste and turned out perfectly fine (kinda), it doesn’t mean you’re not panicking about getting your own kid into the right preschool with the fancy glue sticks.

Erika Christakis, author of The Importance Of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups would like you to know that your 5-year-old self was correct. Her book is a dense, 300-page takedown of our national early childhood education system that could probably be boiled down to 3 words: Authentic, caring relationships. But since she already wrote tens of thousands of other words, here’s the short version …

The Environment Is The Curriculum
Christakis suggests that our anxiety about preparedness has created an early childhood education system that serves adult neurosis far more than a kid’s innate ability to learn. She says the issue is we don’t look at pre-k or kindergarten through the eyes of a kid: A bored to death, highly-pressured, un-entertained, confused, eager to please, un-exercised kid.

The solution? Less schooling and more learning. Christakis explains that children learn best when they’re given information that’s important or interesting to them at any given moment. (Are fart sounds on that curriculum?) It’s the teacher’s job to build the structure and environment that allows open-ended exploration, encourages curiosity, and leads to independent research.

What A+ Preschools Do
What can schools do to to make sure they have an environment conducive to this type of learning? And what qualities should parents look for in a classroom to get the best outcome for their kids? Those are excellent rhetorical questions:

  • Conversations Encouraged: Christakis says a good preschool program will have teachers that engage in an open-ended, kid-led conversation. These conversations also help stoke curiosity and point out the complex nuances of language (reflexive verbs FTW).
  • Getting To Know You: Conversations also help teachers build relationships and learn things about the kids that they can use to relate to them. For example, if they ask, “Why do you think Daniel Tiger doesn’t wear pants, but Prince Wednesday does?” it may lead to a talk about the difference between people and animals, finding out what a prince does, and why oppressive monarchies led to bloody uprisings that fomented modern democracy.
  • Plenty Of Play: If there isn’t “meaningless” play, that school is missing the point according to Christakis. In undirected and wild play, children develop social and emotional skills like how to compromise, how to work together, how to educate one another. (See: Flies, Lord Of The)
  • Focus on Transferable Skills: A transferable skill is one that can be used across multiple disciplines. Research, she says, is an incredibly transferable skill. Knowing where to look for answers will help them with book reports, science projects, and not asking you a million questions. Non-transferable skills are things like knowing all the states in alphabetical order. (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut …)

What You Can Do With This
If you’ve read the above and thought, “That sounds great for the kids with the au pairs dropping them off at the Waldorf Academy, but what about my less-than-stellar public school?” Christakis acknowledges that these educational practices often seem pretty wackadoo to public school administrators. A lot of time they’re just teaching to the test and treating kids like tiny vessels that need to be filled with with information, packed, and shipped to adulthood. But she says instead of focusing on the relatively small amount of time young kids are Common Core-ing, focus more on what you’re doing at home.

Stop Giving a Crap about Refrigerator Art: Feel free to disagree, but Christakis doesn’t appreciate the ol’ hand-turkey project. She despises it, in fact. Her argument is that it presents little in the way of real creativity and less in the way of learning about turkeys, hands, or art. Basically it’s a symbol of parents’ rabid desire to have cute crap they’ll probably throw out in a decade or two and a teacher’s lack of time and inclination to let their little so-and-so’s go nutso on some construction paper and masking tape. The solution? Give them a few raw materials, show them how they’re used, and let them explore. Sorry not sorry, Pinterest.

Be More Observant: Sometimes adults are completely missing opportunities to follow a kid’s curiosity. Christakis relates a sad tale about a dad running last minute spelling drills before his daughter’s test. She’s eager to please him, but he completely misses her fascination with a rainbow in an oily puddle. Spelling bee could have waited for a chemistry lesson. When parents observe what interests their kids and how they play, they can help build learning opportunities that can connect to their lives. If your kid wants to help you under the sink, let them. They can learn more math concepts fixing plumbing than memorizing multiplication tables — like how to add 10 percent to the estimate.

Help Out A Teacher: Many preschool and kindergarten teachers can’t even live in the neighborhoods they teach in. If you’re an advocate for better teacher pay, there will be better teachers. And if you offer time to help in the classroom, there could be more time for open-ended, child-led play. The other benefit of being in the classroom is that the teacher will see your kid as an individual, not just another sheep in the herd.

Let Them Roam: When kids get home from school, let them get in the play they couldn’t get in their institutional setting. Let is happen outside — better yet, let it happen outside without you. If they’re too young to really roam, enlist some older kids who are willing to play. They can help lead the younger ones and build some of the socialization skills not commonly seen in the classroom. Unless you count being forced to share, which has never made sharing seem that great.

There’s one last, incredibly powerful thing you can do with Christakis’ book, though she may not be the one to say it: Send it to your local preschool or kindergarten administrator. Bonus points if you include a nice note or free-form finger painting from your kid.

"The Importance Of Being Little" by Erika Christakis