By Neal M. Brown, Ed.D., Head of School, and Nina Chibber, Interim Coordinator of the Early Childhood Unit (ECU) at Green Acres School
Erika Christakis, author of The Importance of Being Little: What Pre-Schoolers Really Need from Grownups, hit all the right notes in this critique of the current state of early childhood education—and in her recent interview on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show. Rather than treating young children as young adults—simultaneously overtaxing and under-engaging them with scripted teacher-directed lessons, and rushing them through transitions from activity to activity—we should be making sure that our youngest students learn how to form relationships, to observe, to explore, to create, to communicate, and to reflect on their learning and experiences.
Young children can best do so in a language- and idea-rich preschool environment full of joy, warmth, close relationships with teachers, and sufficient opportunities to learn through dialogue, play, and outdoor time with their peers. We should be attuned to the developmental readiness of children. We should be listening to them and hearing their ideas. We should be giving them opportunities every day to use their creativity, to make decisions and mistakes, and to develop the problem-solving skills needed for success in school and in life.
Christakis rightly points out that routinized, developmentally-inappropriate school work that many point to as “academic” represents a misguided approach that may address parental anxieties and perhaps meet some short-term goals—yet it does so at the expense of longer-term cognitive, social, and, yes, “academic” aims. Studies consistently demonstrate that young children’s play is strongly linked to cognitive and academic outcomes. In preschool, if we stay focused on children’s needs, with learning through play at the center, then we set them up for success in school and well beyond. As Jean Piaget once explained so well, “play is serious business.”