The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need from Grownups

A bold challenge to the conventional wisdom about how young children learn best by taking a child’s eye view.

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Karsen: From The Parent’s Club, I’m Karsen Kolnicki. This is your briefing.


Karsen: Today, we’re discussing The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need from Grownups. Written by Erika Christakis.

In this New York Times bestseller, Christakis provides a bold challenge to the conventional wisdom about early childhood. She outlines a pragmatic program for parents to think about where young children learn best.

Karsen: Vincent Phamvan on the key takeaways [pause] and what you need to know.


Karsen: Vincent, parents often say that the days are long, but the years go by fast. This author points out that before long, little boys and girls become adults with bills to pay and other deadlines. What does she say about how parents should approach childhood?

Vincent: Christakis is an early childhood educator and New York Times bestselling author. As a former preschool director and faculty member at the Yale Child Study Center, she believes that we should let children enjoy their phase of happiness and wonder. She says the best way of doing this is to let children play, explore, and discover.

Karsen: Many children are sent to preschool at a very young age. Has that changed the way children grow up?

Vincent: That's precisely what the author points out. She says that when kids are sent to school at a young age, they're forced to learn in an environment where they aren't treated like kids. This is because they're treated like little adults, where they have to sit, listen, and do what they're told.

Much of this is a result of a change in teaching style where preschools in the United States follow the Common Core State Standards, or CCSS, which includes state-mandated goals for all subjects.

The standards say, for example, that kindergarteners should be able to "demonstrate command of conventions of standard English grammar." As a former preschool director, she says this means that all preschoolers have to work towards this goal instead of focusing on the process of learning.

Karsen: But isn't it a good thing that preschoolers are working towards proficiency of the English language? I mean, grammar is important to know.

Vincent: Yes, of course, we want children to learn proper grammar. Christakis argues that the problem is that it creates a one-size-fits all approach to education, and this causes children not to get enough attention for their individual needs. She says that teachers should recognize each child's individual talents and learning styles.

Potentially even more dangerous is that the current system creates clear distinctions between who does well and who doesn't do well in school.

Karsen: The world has really changed in the last 30 years though. With more women staying in the workforce longer, child care is necessary to allow for equality in the workplace.

Vincent: It's definitely true that preschool is more common than it was before the 1980s. At first, these preschools were just a form of daycare, rather than a rigorous learning environment. When inequality spiked, there was also a larger gap in educational achievement between the rich and the poor. In the early 2000s, there was new legislation passed called No Child Left Behind.

The law's goal was to close the achievement gap in society by standardizing education, which included creating a strict universal curriculum to teach every preschooler the same set of skills.

Karsen: The author has a lot of experience with preschools, but she seems to have a negative view on the current state of children's education. Why is that?

Vincent: She says that preschools have been built on the learning styles of adults, not children. For example, if you go into a business office, you'll see adults sitting around a table being quiet and listening to a person speak. This is now the same thing that you often see at today's preschools.

Karsen: What led to this evolution of today's preschool?

Vincent: Christakis says that the driving force was actually increased anxiety and pressure from parents to have a safer preschool environment. Although the intention was to have preschools be a safer place, the outcome is that the safest thing to do is to sit around quietly. This has led to a 57 percent decrease in accidental deaths of children aged one to four between 1960 and 1990.

Parents now expect a lot more from their kid's education though too, which has led to a focus on teaching instead of playing. Some studies even showed that families with the lowest income and education levels are actually the most opposed to play-based education.

These families favor curriculums that focus on academic skills because they want their kids to get the best education possible.

Karsen: So what are the different styles of teaching that are seen in preschools?

Vincent: The most prevalent teaching style is called Direct Instruction, which is a passive teaching technique where the teacher tells students what they need to learn. The author says though that the problem is that this method of teaching just isn't engaging for young children.

An example of this is with preschool teachers showing kids the days of the week and months on a daily basis. They'll often ask students how long it is until a certain day. A lot of research shows that children tend to forget these details because they don't think in terms of weeks, months, and years like adults do.

Karsen: Could this style of teaching be damaging to children?

Vincent: Potentially. The author says that kids are really good at teaching themselves what they like. So when we force a strict curriculum on creative children, we can damage their natural ability to learn.

She points out that even very young children have a strong ability to learn. One study found that babies just 10 months old could tell when they're being spoken to in different languages.

Karsen: It sounds like this has led to adults trying to teach children more and more at a very young age.

Vincent: That's right, and the author says what it ignores is the fact that children learn through fun. When kids play games, they can learn social skills, how to interact with others, and important skills like sharing and waiting for their turn. And kids learn more this way because they enjoy playing.

Karsen: So preschools, which were intended to get kids ready for school, have really turned into real schools themselves, with grades and all.

Vincent: That was another area that the author criticized is that by having grades in preschool, it leads to unfair labeling of kids. Since different children prefer different learning environments, or can develop at different rates... having this current structure can lead to a child being mis-diagnosed with ADHD very early in a child's life.

Karsen: The importance of a high-quality education is not in-dispute though. Teachers have a lot of responsibility for closing the current achievement gap.

Vincent: That's right, there's a lot riding on the quality of teachers and the education they're providing. However, there's a gap here in funding. One study from the National Institute for Early Education and Research showed that low teaching wages result in low quality teaching.

And the reality is that a certified preschool teacher makes just a little more than a bartender, and they often do not receive health benefits. The other challenge is the lack of funding for teacher training.

The author points out that direct instruction is used commonly by preschool teachers who don't know how to better connect with young kids. Since they haven't been trained properly, they are left with what she believes are inferior teaching methods.

Karsen: So what's the outcome of these factors in the classroom?

Vincent: Well, the outcome is that teachers rely on vocabulary lists to measure success. It's a very standardized way to developing language skills instead of focusing on an individual basis according to the child's interests. It could also result in teachers making compromises on education to be able to meet the targets and standardized testing.

Karsen: What does the author say is a better approach?

Vincent: Christakis says that the better teachers build trusting relationships with kids while incorporating play into an active learning environment. She says that time spent playing at recess is very valuable for children to learn, and it's something that they actually enjoy.

There's a misconception that if you aren't doing book learning, then you aren't learning. However, she says that this isn't true because play is a critical function in children's development. For example, play can help build cognitive abilities like your memory. Humans can learn a lot through practice and experience.

Karsen: In the Direct Instruction method, teachers would tell the kids what they need to learn. How should they approach learning instead?

Vincent: According to the author, the best teachers would present a question to the class based on something a child asked about. Then, the teacher would encourage the children to come up with an answer together. The goal would be to help the kids lead the discussion.

In the Direct Instruction method, the teacher would give the kids the answer. However, in this more positive learning experience, the teacher helps the students figure out the answer. It's a technique that focuses on the engagement of the students first, and helps them develop at their own speed.

Karsen: So it sounds like the author is advocating for moving away from an academic preschool curriculum for one that focuses on the development of the child first.

Vincent: Most parents would rather have the kids develop a passion for learning instead of just the ability to recall facts. And that's what fact-based knowledge curriculum does instead of focusing on skills like organizing, problem solving, and communicating.

Karsen: It sounds like the key takeaway from this book is that active learning methods, which involve more play-based learning and teachers with trusting relationships guiding students towards the answers, can help children develop the skills to become passionate life-long learners.


Karsen: That’s it for your briefing. I’m Karsen Kolnicki.

Vincent: And I'm Vincent Phamvan.

Karsen: We'll see you next time.

This New York Times bestseller provides a bold challenge to the conventional wisdom about early childhood, with a pragmatic program to encourage parents and teachers to rethink how and where young children learn best by taking the child’s eye view of the learning environment.

To a four-year-old watching bulldozers at a construction site or chasing butterflies in flight, the world is awash with promise. Little children come into the world hardwired to learn in virtually any setting and about any matter. Yet in today’s preschool and kindergarten classrooms, learning has been reduced to scripted lessons and suspect metrics that too often undervalue a child’s intelligence while overtaxing the child’s growing brain. These mismatched expectations wreak havoc on the family: parents fear that if they choose the “wrong” program, their child won’t get into the “right” college. But Yale early childhood expert Erika Christakis says our fears are wildly misplaced. Our anxiety about preparing and safeguarding our children’s future seems to have reached a fever pitch at a time when, ironically, science gives us more certainty than ever before that young children are exceptionally strong thinkers.

In her pathbreaking book, Christakis explains what it’s like to be a young child in America today, in a world designed by and for adults, where we have confused schooling with learning. She offers real-life solutions to real-life issues, with nuance and direction that takes us far beyond the usual prescriptions for fewer tests, more play. She looks at children’s use of language, their artistic expressions, the way their imaginations grow, and how they build deep emotional bonds to stretch the boundaries of their small worlds. Rather than clutter their worlds with more and more stuff, sometimes the wisest course for us is to learn how to get out of their way.

Christakis’s message is energizing and reassuring: young children are inherently powerful, and they (and their parents) will flourish when we learn new ways of restoring the vital early learning environment to one that is best suited to the littlest learners. This bold and pragmatic challenge to conventional wisdom peels back the mystery of childhood, revealing a place that’s rich with possibility.

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