What's Really Good for Kids?

Erika Christakis will be speaking at the Waldorf School of Lexington on Thursday, October 20.
Details and tickets.

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 five 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Sand tables and dress-up clothes seem quaint and outdated.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?

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.

In The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups, lecturer 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,” she says, “with rapid pacing and jam-packed schedules. 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 benefits of play are so thoroughgoing that the only remaining question is how so many sensible adults sat by and allowed the building blocks of development to become so diminished.”

Yet 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 five-year-olds?

A playful childhood is worth more than the accumulation of every conceivable standard...

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, “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 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 to play, connect, and learn. We just need to let them.

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