Erika Kristakis recognizes the mystery and marvel of young children, and her passion about providing them the best early childhood education experience possible is palpable. Certainly, it is one of the best parts of her book, “The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grown-ups.“
“I began to see my little boy as a powerful, intelligent, and mysterious person with aspirations and skills about which I understood little.”Erika Kristakis
Here, she is reflecting on a revelatory experience she had with her own child which truly changed the way she saw him. It’s also a quote that resonates strongly with my own experience of parenting: I have been endlessly astonished by the mystery and marvel of my own son.
The book itself was dense but I found myself consistently reading and thinking, “Yes, exactly, yes!” She covers a lot of material and backs it up with a thick bibliography. Kristakis has thought a lot about early childhood education, she has worked extensively in the field and is clearly an expert. However, as I went to review this book, I found myself struggling to remember the details beyond a couple key points:
- We’re pushing academics too hard on young children, when we should be pushing social and emotional skills (and also just letting kids enjoy their childhood).
- You can overcome mediocre pedagogy with deep, loving relationships between the caregiver and the child. This is especially true for parents.
But in getting to these points, she takes a wide survey of most parts of early childhood: Daycare, play, preschool and kindergarten pedagogy, and much more. As other reviews have pointed out, this broad view comes at the cost of clear recommendations and what to change.
But the truth is, I don’t think Kristakis wrote the book to offer clear cut solutions. She often unerringly took a middle path, pointing out something that was problematic but conceding the nuance of how we got here and what value it’s serving. Hint: it’s usually not serving the kid, but the adult. The most famous example is the Thanksgiving hand turkey activity, which she points out as a classic low-value activity. This is the art project in which kids trace their hands and then dress it up with paper crafts, most of which have already been prepared for them by the teacher. Then, it’s simply a matter of coloring by numbers to mass produce.
“The turkey activity can also tell us a little about attention span; the ability to remain seated, to follow directions, to share materials at a crowded table; and others so-called noncognitive skills (a ridiculous misnomer) that are so essential to later academic success. But, again, there are many more telling ways to assess those preacademic skills in settings like outdoor and dramatic play, and even during snack and rest time.”Erika Kristakis
This is classic Kristakis, by which I mean she unerringly takes a middle path, exploring the nuance in what she’s critiquing. Honestly, I rather enjoyed this examination of subtelties, which I feel is often lacking from discourse in general, but it does wear on you after a few hundred pages. She is keenly aware of the environment that lead us to the Thanksgiving turkey. Often, it’s the teachers and adults, strapped for time, trying their best to deliver as much content they can to meet standards set by others. It’s a complex issue, and Kristakis doesn’t let you forget that.
My biggest personal takeaway from this book (beyond the two key points I bulleted earlier) was that I very much want to know more… More about early childhood, more about children’s development, more about existing pedagogy. I came to this book without much background in philosophies such as Reggio, Montessori or Waldorf. I was intrigued and have since felt compelled to search information out on it. It left me reflective of what I was doing in my own home, and also what kind of thought and work was going on a my local public schools.
The passion that Kristakis has is catching, and I appreciated it.