Erika Christakis’ ‘The Importance of Being Little’

One afternoon while my wife was at home pregnant with his baby brother, I was at the park with my son. He was a few months shy of turning two and hadn’t yet discovered his first favorite word (“car”). I was lounging on a swing and he was playing in the sand when my hat fell off and landed between us. Instinctually I asked, “Hey, could you grab my hat?” He instantly saw it, picked it up, and handed it to me in the most casual way possible. He could have been two, twelve, or twenty-two in that moment. That’s when I realized he understood a lot more than I had previously given him credit for, and that our relationship had its own shape and subtleties.

As babies become toddlers and toddlers become kids, where does the instruction and the learning begin? Of course, learning is happening all the time, and while we think we can make a clean divide between daycare (keep the kids supervised) and school (“teach” the kids in the same way they will be “taught” for the next couple decades) these things are really more muddled and overlapping than we are comfortable with, with preschool smack in the middle. To refocus our conceptions of learning, Erika Christakis emphasizes two things that need a close look: the relationship of children with their adults—whether parents, caregivers, or teachers—and the environments they spend time in.


“The environment is the curriculum” is the mantra of this book. In an ideal preschool scenario, it’s this:

When the preschool classroom environment is carefully constructed to serve as the laboratory for learning, young children learn what we set out to teach them, but they also learn—and this is critical—the whole wealth of things we haven’t set out to teach them explicitly. In today’s world of exponentially expanding facts, this flexibility is essential.

Christakis has a lot to say about our obsession with top-down instruction and measuring the progress of each individual child, which although more visible in the elementary grades has been getting pushed earlier and earlier, all the way down into the preschool classrooms.

One of the problems is that so many preschool classrooms are almost physical carbon copies of their elementary school cousins. For example, it’s rare to see multiple points of elevation in today’s preschools—a loft that can turn into a space ship or castle tower or other place from which a child can feel tall and powerful. Those were standard preschool features in the shabbiest, most tired church basement a generation ago, but they now seem like archaeological relics.

She claims that there is very little logic to treating small kids as students instead of, well, kids. As a potential remedy, she throws a lot of support behind the benefits of true play.

Play is the fundamental building block of human cognition, emotional health, and social behavior. Play improves memory and helps children learn to do mathematical problems in their heads, take turns, regulate their impulses, and speak with greater complexity. All mammals play, and the higher-order mammals, such as dolphins, chimps, bears, and elephants, play more than other mammals. Evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray describes play as an evolutionary mechanism to develop survival skills “for animals that depend least on rigid instinct for survival, and most on learning.”

And because a lot of learning happens at home, where most kids spend their time (even those who are in daycare full-time during their parents’ workweek), Christakis weaves in her thoughts about how parents can fill in the gaps. She is a clear advocate of modern parenting in general, brushing off the stereotype of helicopter moms and dads:

Whenever I hear contemporary parents criticized for their phobic vigilance, as if they were expressing an irritating personality tic or goofy parenting fad, I want to forgive them, and even laud them, for their (as it turns out) entirely rational expectation that their child should survive to adulthood! Child death is about as socially unacceptable as a human phenomenon could be. The victory over childhood mortality is possibly the most important piece of the story of how children have become so precious to us, and we must keep it in mind as we consider the many ways that modernity has not only changed childhood but even, fundamentally, enabled it.

And while optimistic that we have a healthy amount of focus on our kids, she wonders whether we parents have to retrain ourselves to be both available yet willing to step aside at times. She presents a model of how to generate meaningful play:

Parents need to think of themselves as solar panels or wind farms, pieces of passive but highly effective infrastructure standing at the ready for those sunny or windy days when natural energy can be channeled. It’s a different kind of scaffolding than driving a child to a piano lesson every Monday afternoon because, by definition, this kind of practice has to be opportunistic. But chance favors the prepared mind.

To bring it back to the classroom, the author describes some of the progressive schools that, although perhaps going a bit overboard in their goals to be different, do come much closer to a kid-centered ideal. These types of places get misinterpreted at best.

Small islands of imaginative childhood can still be found in the resurgent interest in Waldorf schools, for example, or in nature-based kindergartens. But those experiences are in danger of being seen as quaint affectations for the children of wealthy oddballs, not the normal, universal features of early childhood.

Christakis consistently points out that what should be measured are the schools and the teachers. If these are refined then we can expect the kids to just be kids and learning can come more smoothly (and enjoyably). In tandem with promoting true play and meaningful engagement, she despises the idea that if our young children are falling behind then the solution must be more rigid instruction, wherein worksheets become a barrier, not a connecting tool, between teacher and student. She warns that “this is a workforce problem, once again masquerading as an instructional imperative, and parents ought to push back hard against this kind of confidence game.”

Outside of the home and classroom, I was delighted to hear the author advocate for the “one great remaining cultural institution where the commitment to a holistic learning environment still prevails, unafflicted by the hand-wringing that has infected so many other areas of American child rearing.” She is speaking of the general-interest summer camp, “rich learning laboratories” in which “social and emotional skills are especially prized.”All my experiences as a camp counselor have emphasized how learning, play, growth, and self-knowledge can beautifully (and quite naturally) coalesce. To spread this environment is a crucial goal to work toward.

There is a lot to absorb in this intriguing book. Christakis remains passionate yet balanced, honing her personal stories of motherhood with her professional work as a teacher and academic, calling things what they are while trying to outline the steep yet necessary challenges before us. She sums up her thesis yet again at the end, in case a small clip is all we are able to remember:

It’s the learning environment that needs the continual quality assessment, and it’s the environment, not the preschoolers inhabiting it, that needs correcting if found wanting. The environment is the curriculum. Fix that, and we can leave young children to thrive.

Our kids are individuals, but individuals alone can’t bear the burden of navigating their lives. The right support and guidance must be scaled up into our institutions until personal growth becomes the inevitable side effect of a logical, playful, noncompetitive, and emotionally rich environment. And it can start in the simple places, between the swing and sand on an unplanned day at the park.

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