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What Preschoolers Need From Adults

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Erika Christakis is an early-childhood educator (formerly at the Yale Child Study Center), a Massachusetts-certified teacher (for pre-K through 2nd grade), and a licensed preschool director. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Time, and the Financial Times.

Erika Christakis_credit Andrea Reese.jpg

Christakis, whose career has focused on the well-being of children and their families, published The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need From Grownups last year. In the book, she argues for a rethinking of the purpose of preschool and proposes several changes to preschool curricula.

According to Christakis, chief among early-childhood education's current problems is that it neglects the role of play in learning. She recommends that preschools devote more time to cultivating children's imaginations, instead of focusing on test preparation and the recall of numbers and letters. The Importance of Being Little also explains that educators and parents would do well to re-examine their mindsets on the teaching of young children by recognizing their preschoolers' capacity for problem-solving, deeper learning, and forming relationships.

Former Commentary Intern Margaret Yap spoke with Christakis by phone to ask her about the current state of early-childhood education in the United States and how we can improve classrooms for young learners.

Several educators and researchers have argued that a preschool education isn't necessarily beneficial, that its effects wear off over time, or that not all children are ready for it. What are your thoughts on that?

I think the evidence is pretty clear that high-quality preschool can be very beneficial for children in poverty and children at risk for academic difficulties downstream. The important factor is that it has to be high quality. But I would argue that everyone does not need preschool. All kinds of different environments can be very educational and very productive and meaningful.

The reality is that many, many families need child care. And to the extent that families are really such important players in children's development, we can't dismiss the reality that adults go to work. And I think that has to be discussed with some caution about whose needs are paramount.

You argue that adults are not giving young children's resilience proper credit. How do you think this mindset affects young children later in life, academically and psychologically?

I'm not sure if it's really resilience that I'm talking about, but I definitely think that we underestimate children's intellectual and emotional capacities. I think we have a mismatch where sometimes we overtax children in practical ways. We overburden them with packed schedules and with rapid transitions, which are very stressful for young kids.

And then, at the same time that we are overburdening kids, we're also underestimating their emotional strength, their capacities for friendship, for problem-solving, for creativity. We're beginning to see some evidence that early-learning environments don't allow kids these opportunities to grow and to engage in the world meaningfully. We find that children who are denied those opportunities may be showing superficial signs of learning in the short term. And by that I mean the emphasis that we have currently in preschools and kindergartens on what I call naming and labeling: recall of numbers and letters and some of the more superficial learning.

We may find downstream that actually these kids don't really have as much capacity for the deeper kind of learning that we care about, namely the ability to think critically, to demonstrate self-regulation, and all of that.

You suggest that parents should shift some of their educational resources to the home. What advice would you give to parents, especially low-income parents, who want to create a home life that supports the physical and mental well-being of their preschoolers but may likely be challenged by resources, particularly financial ones?

Just to be clear, I don't suggest that parents shift their resources. What I'm trying to suggest is that families have power, and there are ways to really strengthen the relationship with their child that we know is such an important fuel for learning.

One of the first things that I always suggest to parents is that they become better observers of their children. When you really look at your child without a lot of expectations, you begin to see children's power and capacity. And the next thing I would say that is available to all parents is to open up the conversation so that we're not delivering information as much as we are providing conversation.

So, for parents, this really is not linked to income at all. It's really cultivating changes in approach in how we view kids. I also can't emphasize enough how important quality relationships are for learning, and one thing that's really missing in our society right now is that kids often don't have a chance to play in mixed-age groups.

And in a lot of preschool and kindergarten environments, a lot of the curriculum is very stage-managed. But I know from being a former preschool teacher that kids really do, when they're given the opportunity, talk about really deep topics. Sometimes life-and-death kinds of issues. And I think we need to raise our tolerance for those sorts of moments.

Some people—including researchers, educators, policymakers, and parents—think play shouldn't have a large role in early-childhood education, which may explain in part why it's become increasingly academic. Why do you think so many adults believe that preschoolers can't learn through play?

I think we have an unfortunate tendency to place play and learning in opposition, which is not at all supported by the research. It's hard to find people who really don't believe in the value of play, but they often say, "Play is great, but we have to do x, y, and z."

Children are hardwired to play. All mammal species play, and higher-level mammals play the most. But what I call "play know-how" requires support. If you destroy the play habitat, which is the space and time and psychological space to be playful, then the play starts to look unproductive. And a lot of parents have said to me over the years, "I know play is important, but when my kids play, it just looks so idiotic. And I try to get them to do imaginary play, and they just aren't interested."

But if they don't have the validation from adults that play is important, they don't really develop the kind of skills that make play really productive from a learning perspective. We're trapped in a cycle right now where we don't value play, and so the play doesn't seem very valuable.

Public education will likely see changes with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in charge. What do you predict for early-childhood education? If you had her ear, what is one thing you would like DeVos to consider when thinking about how to improve education for the nation's preschoolers?

There is a strong nonpartisan case for evidence-based investments in early-childhood education and care, a topic of enormous importance to our national interests. We still have some unanswered questions about how best to craft policies and programs, but my fervent hope is that our secretary of education will adopt an open mind about the collection and application of data to support young children and their families. In particular, I hope Secretary DeVos will be a strong defender of young children's hardwired imperative to play, to explore, and to make emotional connections.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I think that we really do underestimate young children's capacity for learning from each other and from active engagement in the world, including from friendships and relationships with family, and I think that's where we're going to see the real benefits long term, if we can recommit to understanding how children grow. What we know about child development is often at odds with what we're seeing in classrooms. And I think that we need to take a much harder look at what the science is telling us about learning.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Photo credit: Andrea Reese

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