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

Erika Christakis

Viking 2016
A book review by Danny Yee © 2016
Aimed at both teachers and parents, The Importance of Being Little is a broad survey of some of the challenges of preschool education, from the perspective of an early years educator who moved into research.

In her introduction Christakis emphasizes the social nature of learning, the importance of "leisurely, open-ended conversation" and deep adult-child relationships: "high-quality relationships are the best indicator of quality child care, and early learning is ... overwhelmingly social in nature". She advocates something in between adult-style "Direct Instruction" and naive ideas about entirely child-led classrooms. On the one hand she argues that "young children are far more capable, more intelligent, and more interesting than is typically understood" and calls for their recognition as "unique people with their own ideas, their own feelings, their own thoughts and tastes and experiences". On the other hand she also emphasizes the importance of quality teaching:

"the best preschool programs share several common features: they provide ample opportunities for young children to use and hear complex, interactive language; their curriculum supports learning processes and a wide range of school-readiness goals that include social and emotional skills and active learning; and they have knowledgeable and well-qualified teachers who use what are known as reflective teaching practices."

Some ideas recur again and again, but The Importance of Being Little lacks much overall structure, with broad chapters each tackling a number of often barely connected topics.

Trying to look at the world from a child's perspective, "Finding the Right Zone for Learning" argues against artificial, scripted teaching methods and for active, motivated, developmentally appropriate learning in context — and for a "relaxed, observational posture" by educators.

"The Creative Powers of Childhood" considers art teaching, using that to frame a broader argument for teaching open-ended mastery of domains rather than specific skills. (And taking a swipe at the obsession with products to be sent home and stuck up on refrigerators.)

"The Search for Intelligent Life" highlights the problems with narrow, standards-driven checklists of skills or facts, especially given variable early childhood development. Instead Christakis stresses the importance for children of a broader education, of learning how to learn, and of being provided with an environment that enables natural learning.

"The Fragmented Generation" considers the problems with labelling, the misuse of diagnoses such as ADHD and autism and, more broadly, the risks of fragmenting childhood into a series of attributes. It also highlights the dangers of "pathology bias" and "deficit-based frameworks".

"Habitat Loss and the Extinction of Play" decries the reduction in both time and space for children's play; it also touches on the importance of mixed-age play and of experience of the natural world.

"Stuffed: Navigating the Material World" criticises the idea that childhood problems can be solved by acquiring or providing resources or material, or by technology:

"We ought first to be asking, 'What are our goals for early childhood?' and only then considering whether, and to what extent, technology can serve them ... while technology changes by the day, the principles of child development remain blessedly, and sometimes annoyingly, fixed."

With mental health and emotional wellbeing: "We can get our priorities mixed up in preschool settings where we constrain children's emotional lives through foolish and overtaxing pedagogy, and then give them training to cope with the stunted emotions we have induced."

When it comes to learning to read and write, Christakis argues for coordination of phonic and meaning-based approaches, and for viewing literacy in the context of broader language skills.

Shifting back to the broader context, she looks at connecting teachers with parents — "in an ideal world, the school-home divide should be more porous than it is for preschoolers" — at the female dominance of early education, at the tradeoff between access, affordability and quality, and at the balance between the interests of adults and children, in a world where pre-school exists as much to meet adult childcare needs as for children.

A final chapter emphasizes the importance of creativity, especially for the United States (a contrast with the rigid French preschool system) and for drawing on existing American traditions of holistic learning and independence, such as summer camp.

"We live in a world of unpredictability. Our challenge, as parents, as teachers, and as policy makers, is to create an early childhood habitat that helps children cope with that uncertainty and mutability."

Here, and elsewhere, the presentation is a little US-centric: it is just assumed that any figures provided refer to the United States, for example, and there are references to programs such as Head Start and Common Core. Almost everything in The Importance of Being Little is, however, applicable to at least Australia and the United Kingdom.

I enjoyed The Importance of Being Little and found myself agreeing with almost all of it, but I also found it occasionally frustrating. Christakis offers a lot of anecdotes, both secondhand and from her own experience, but while these are entertaining and engaging it's hard to conclude much from them. And she refers to many studies, with references for those given in the endnotes, but there's no evaluation of their relative significance or strength. I am not her primary audience, however, and her informal, common-sense approach should work effectively to bolster parents and teachers against pressures, often from each other as well as from corporate marketing and education systems, to turn early childhood education into a scaled down version of high school.

September 2016

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%T The Importance of Being Little
%S What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups
%A Christakis, Erika
%I Viking
%D 2016
%O hardcover, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780525429074
%P 376pp