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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups

I was sent an offer for a review copy of Erika Christakis's The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups not because I'm a blogger, but for review for use in my early childhood classes. I was skeptical at first -- we get a lot of offers for new books -- but the more I read, the more I was sold on its usefulness for my students and, in general, for parents and teachers everywhere. I have already recommended this book a dozen times over to colleagues and friends with small children, and I will recommend it another dozen times over before the year is out. This includes you.

Education in America has always seen its fair share of revolutions, and the last two decades are no exception. The push for academically strong children has moved our country away from the importance of genuine learning into a realm where our youngest members of society are pushed to recite English and math at alarming rates. Even our preschools are not immune to this push for advancement. Unfortunately, this has put honest to goodness learning on the back burner, and to our detriment. Christakis has crafted a treatise that lays out what preschoolers really do, in fact, need from the grownups in their lives, and in a nutshell, it's the ability to discover the world on their own rather than have it shoved down their throats.

Christakis follows her argument thoroughly and with a strong undercurrent of what I term "slow learning." We have moved so far away from understanding how children learn that we as a country are willing to throw our kids to the wolves. You have heard this all before, I'm sure -- kids today are overscheduled with activities, overburdened by school work, and falling behind on the world's stage of academics. We know this is true, and anyone who teaches at any level can see this bright and clear in their students. Christakis, a developmental specialist, tells us that we need to slow down, quickly and en mass. Kids need to construct their own knowledge of the world. It turns out Piaget knew what he was talking about the whole time. (My students will smile at this last sentence.)

One thing that I drive home with my students who take any development class that I teach is that children are not tiny adults. We often place our adult understandings, beliefs, and expectations onto small children who do not have the same level of developed cognition that we do. We think that children think just like us, and they do not. At all. A beautiful moment that occurred this semester in my 101 class is during a presentation on her fieldwork, one of my students ended by saying that she learned that even though she has two children herself, that being a parent doesn't prepare you to be a teacher. She often thought that her kids thought like her, and she learned through being in a classroom that kids in general don't think like adults. It was one of my most proud moments this year. (And I'm super proud of my undergrads.)

This is what Christakis argues in this book, and it's a compelling argument. Children are not tiny adults, and we shouldn't teach them as such. We need to give them space to grow and learn and quit creating one-off art projects that we hang on our fridge. Product does not always show process, and learning happens in the process. A recent New York Times article by one of my favorite researchers, Daniel Willingham, drives this point home. He tells us that one of the reasons Americans are functionally illiterate is that we lack content knowledge, and I absolutely agree. I see a connection here with Christakis's work, in that we as a country are so focused on forcing children to read that we aren't focused on what they are reading. The key to developing strong readers is to also teach them things, and to allow them to construct their own understanding of the world. Our job as educators is to guide them in their learning, not shove it down their throats, especially at age 4.

How do we change this? I wish I had the answer for that. Maybe consider passing this book on to your parent friends who have small children. If we all demand that our children be children, maybe those who make decisions about macro-education decisions will listen. 

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