As controversy and debate continue over the Common Core, parents can understandably find themselves torn about what is best for their children. While many decry tough state and federal standards, learning to read at the age of 5 can easily seem like an important advantage – especially in a system where academics now often begin in preschool.
Sand tables and dress-up clothes seem quaint and outdated. If kids don’t get used to homework in kindergarten, how are they going to buckle down in third grade, never mind get into college? How are they going to get ahead in a competitive global economy if we don’t start pushing them when they’re young? If we want the best for our kids, isn’t this essentially required, like it or not?
A new, well-researched book packed with insights and a dose of common sense suggests otherwise.
In The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups (Viking, 2016), teacher and researcher Erika Christakis of Yale University tells us that young children do not need high-pressure instruction. Nor do they need insipid craft projects or classroom walls jammed with vocabulary lists, job charts, ready-made posters and seasonal kitsch.
“Preschool classrooms are needlessly noisy, over-stimulating and aesthetically unappealing with rapid pacing and jam-packed schedules,” she says. “There is too much teacher-directed talk on banal topics and insufficient uninterrupted stretches of time to play.”
What little kids need is simple: freedom to play and be creative, and strong relationships with caring adults who provide a stimulating, structured, yet flexible learning environment.
The social dimension of learning is crucial, Christakis says, but one that is often ignored in favor of academic goals. She describes one mother and father who marched into a parent-teacher conference irate that their kindergartener wasn’t being taught critical thinking skills – only to find that the veteran teacher had a surprisingly in-depth understanding of their daughter. The parents, focused on “academic readiness,” hadn’t anticipated how much this connection would mean. After the conference, the parents had no doubt that this teacher “contained the key ingredient to unlock Stella’s learning potential: she knew and loved her students.”
Creative free play is also essential to a child’s healthy growth and development. Christakis takes aim at that archetypal, mind-numbing craft project: the Thanksgiving hand-shaped turkey, precut by teachers and adorned by children with store-bought colored feathers. Such “counterfeit crafts” deprive children of the chance to explore their environment, execute original ideas, and connect and communicate with each other. “Studies show that we’re unlikely to hear, during turkey time, the kind of really rich, expressive language that emerges when children are engaged in creative work, building a fort or playing house,” she writes.
Free play and other creative endeavors are being marked as low-value and thus expendable. Explaining why the annual kindergarten class play had been cancelled, one principal wrote to parents, “We’re responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers.”
Really? College and career prep for 5-year-olds?
Fortunately that’s a pack of pablum – though unfortunately, one that many educators and parents are buying. “The benefits of play are so thoroughgoing,” Christakis writes, citing a raft of research studies, “that the only remaining question is how so many sensible adults sat by and allowed the building blocks of development to become so diminished.”
“A playful childhood,” she continues, “is worth more than the accumulation of every conceivable [academic] standard. Even if we rounded them up and assigned them an amassed value, that value x wouldn’t come close to the infinite value of play to a young child’s development.”
So when you’re searching for the right preschool for your child, look for a warm, uncluttered environment, with caring teachers who are “versed in sound developmental principles and have the time and opportunity to get to know children in their natural habitat, which is to say in a play-based, language-rich setting involving relationships with adults who cherish them.”
As Christakis emphasizes, children are born ready to play, connect and learn. We just need to let them.