(NB: This is one I listened to as an audiobook so I couldn’t mark it up or copy down passages quickly enough. So quotations here were either hunted down online or are from excerpts and interviews that jive with the book.)
In Erika Christakis’s The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups, I was reassured to find many of my hunches are supported (while sometimes being called into question as the purview of overeducated financially stable white people). Her book tackles the problem of quality in American preschool programs as a social justice issue while highlighting the many points of mismatch between preschoolers’ needs and what educators, policy makers and parents believe they need. She very rarely even broaches the possibility of keeping kids at home during the preschool years, and never mentions homeschooling kindergarteners at all, even though the book’s scope includes that age range. Nevertheless, I found it fascinating. Here were some of the most striking takeaways for me:
Conversation Is Key
Christakis characterizes the intellectual life of a preschooler as primarily social, returning again and again to the necessity of “leisurely, open-ended conversation” and learning as rooted in strong relationships between teacher and child: “high-quality relationships are the best indicator of quality child care, and early learning is … overwhelmingly social in nature.”
As she noted in a piece for The Atlantic,
In a high-quality program, adults are building relationships with the children and paying close attention to their thought processes and, by extension, their communication. They’re finding ways to make the children think out loud.
Christakis continues, “Conversation is gold. It’s the most efficient early-learning system we have. And it’s far more valuable than most of the reading-skills curricula we have been implementing.”
Notice that: reading-skills curricula ain’t got nothing on deep conversations with adults. She points to the same useless consumerist shortcuts I’m often tempted by — citing the sale of flashy curricula and educational toys which disproportionately sucker lower income families and can’t make up for a dearth of rich intergenerational conversation.
Kids Are Too Closely Controlled
Kids can handle a little more independence and a little less oversight. Here’s a weird police costume Pippin designed and created himself during quiet time by carefully studying the police uniform of an officer in a K-9 unit calendar. (I was napping at the time.)
Scissor skills! Problem solving! Creative thinking! Penmanship! But mostly just a chance to think without interruption on a matter of personal interest.
(And while we are talking about monitoring our kids — we should be more concerned about our screen use in their presence than their screen use.)
Make Time for Play
Charlotte Mason got it right — outdoor open play is worth fighting for. In an NPR interview Christakis says,
“We’re underestimating kids in terms of their enormous capacity to be thoughtful and reflective, and, I would argue, that’s because we’re not giving them enough time to play and to be in relationships with others.”
The emphasis on play sounded familiar to me, then I placed it. Mr Rogers! He once commented, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.” (Via)
In the same NPR piece, Christakis observes,
I think the other problem is that the rich, experience-based play that we know results in learning — it’s not as easy to accomplish as people think. And that’s because, while the impulse to play is natural, what I call the play know-how really depends on a culture that values play, that gives kids the time and space to learn through play.
Here’s a place where I suspect homeschooling — at least with a supportive community or large, wide sibling set— really has an edge. Pippin is capable of the sort of rich, experience-based play Christakis promotes because, I suspect, he’s had the benefit of playing often with large families of older, kind, imaginative children. Gather a group of three-year-olds and unleash them on a playground and they’ll squabble or hang on your ankles; toss a couple little kids in with a group of patient older kids and they’ll joyfully enter the mob. You can reproduce this environment in your child’s spare time, of course, but there’s more freedom for it in most homeschooling days than in conventional peer-segregated schooling.
You’re Doing Art Wrong
I found particularly intriguing Christakis’s assertion that art should not be entirely open ended (just a jumble of supplies and kids let loose) but coached like any other skill, even in lower grades and preschool. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised because of the dazzling successes I saw assisting Mary in her kindergarten/first grade art classroom of a couple years back. It’s a balance Mary navigated gracefully, because you can also err in the opposite direction — Christakis also breaks down the absurdity of pre-conceived, cutesy crafts like the iconic hand turkey.
Here is Pippin’s careful illustration in a book he’s designing himself (and having me transcribe) on King Arthur. It’s Camelot:
He’s not a kid with fantastic fine motor control — Scout’s people already look about as humanoid as his — so it’s helpful to know his abilities well enough to feel like I can calibrate my instructions to his abilities.
Break Out the Classics
The Importance of Being Little also touches on the value of enchantment in children’s fantasy literature — fuel sources of an imaginative childhood and fodder for emotional development. Christakis argues that even when it’s not PC, classic literature packs a punch in terms of narrative depth and universal applicability.
Toward the end of the book, Christakis quips, “The environment is the curriculum.” It’s a memorable line, and one that can give us all pause. I can talk to you about the textbooks we are using, the music class Pip will start this fall, but what will be left in his memories of early childhood and the foundations of his learning is something else entirely: the dining room table gritty with bread crumbs, the deeply weird Bible he’s illustrating and narrating himself, my irritable refusal to answer his questions while I drive, but also the long conversations we have in the afternoons sometimes about King Arthur and duct tape, before his sisters wake up. If this environment is his curriculum this year, I think he’ll probably be just fine, crumbs, grumbles and all.