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How We Shortchange Our Youngest Learners

Preschoolers are working more, learning less.

Armin Hanisch/
Source: Armin Hanisch/

We hear so much about the importance of interacting with young children and allowing them more time for “free play” and exploration. Executing these ideals seems daunting to parents, teachers and children alike, namely in the face of the pressing desire for academic achievement.

Recent decades have produced endless studies on how to best teach and prepare the young set. Parents and educators believe they know, and teaching has been tweaked purportedly to meet performance standards and conform to a school-readiness checklist.

In our competitive society, the pressure is on children beginning at very young ages to succeed—to master the alphabet, color within the lines, hit the baseball far into the field long before they even know which way to run around the bases or which soccer goal belongs to their team. If you’ve ever watched 4- and 5-year-olds play these games, you have undoubtedly witnessed a child running or kicking the ball in the wrong direction.

Working More, Learning Less

Erika Christakis, an early childhood educator at the Yale Child Study Center, has taken on what she calls “the habitat of childhood.” In doing so, Christakis, who is also a Massachusetts-certified pre-K through 2nd grade teacher as well as licensed preschool principal, has challenged the way young children learn both in and out of school.

Courtesy of the Publisher
Source: Courtesy of the Publisher

In her book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups, she explains how parental expectations and teaching methods underestimate and shortchange children in preschool and kindergarten. We have confused schooling and learning, as her scientific and practical exploration confirm.

Around the Thanksgiving holiday, for instance, when you were in school, you most likely made a paper turkey either by tracing your hand or on a pre-cut form to decorate with glue, feathers and color pencils. In all likelihood your parents displayed your turkey somewhere in the house.

“A teacher misses a lot of developmental feedback by implementing the turkey exercise and others like it, the most important of which may be the social and emotional quality of the child’s experience. Studies show that we’re unlikely to hear, during turkey time, the kind of really rich, expressive language that emerges when children are engaged in creative work, building a fort or playing house…early learning is so overwhelmingly social in nature,” she explains.

How the preschool educational system operates today, for the most part, stifles learning for preschoolers and sometimes backfires. It’s no wonder that by first grade some rebel—as one six-year-old told his mother, “I don’t want to be the smartest kid in my class.” The mother wondered how he already knew such things. Another first-grader put in the “fastest” reading group asked her parents if she could be moved. At tender ages, these two kids had already experienced the pressure and didn’t like it.

The Importance of Letting Your Child Be Little

Drawing on what we know about how young children learn and later thrive, Christakis calls for revamping early education. Children need fewer rote exercises and more room to make their own discoveries. She advocates for less vocabulary and math drills, calendar exercises and activities like Thanksgiving turkeys—the very turkeys their parents made and expect their children to bring home along with neatly written pages of alphabet letters or numbers with the teacher’s sticker on the top.

Within a preschooler’s day, often so programmed including after school that there is little time for exploration or being bored. Christakis calls boredomimagination’s good friend.” “Curious children with iPads are lucky to have a limitless supply of Costa Rican tree frogs at their fingertips,” she writes, referring to young users’ ability to quickly search for new information. “Might these children be better off occasionally pretending to be a frog instead of Googling one?”she asks.

In an effort to underscore the process—not the product—that is the crux of learning, Christakis likens preschool education to buckets in prefab castle shapes with etched windowpanes and towers that remove all the creative thinking from sandcastle building. Plain buckets—or hands—require young minds to use their imaginations to bring alive castles so easily attained from a pre-molded bucket.

She reflects on her days on the beach as a small child to illustrate what too many young children are missing: “We’d look for pebbles of uniform size on the beach and space them out (learning how to estimate distance)…We’d make rows of inverted pails as walls…dribbling sand on the turret to make them look fancier. Most construction took a lot of ingenuity, too. The sides would collapse if we weren’t careful…I wasn’t worrying about my summer vocabulary list. My mother wasn’t either.”

Much is lost in the feverish rush to see our children succeed: close teacher-child relationships; talking and listening; asking questions and getting answers; solving problems with peers—the ways young children learn and thrive.

Christakis is right in her assessment that young children are working more, but learning less. Teachers (and parents) expect more. Comparing kindergarten teachers’ expectations in 1998 and 2010 reveals the dramatic change. In 1998, 30 percent of teachers expected their students to be able to read at the end of the year; by 2010 that number had jumped to 80 percent. Filter in the new Common Core State Standards and children have even less time available to “play.”

The result as Christakis explains in an article for Atlantic magazine is “children who had been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.”

Have we set the “bar” too high for young learners?

Related: Should You Opt Your Child Out of Standardized Testing?

Raising “Star” Children: The Pressure May be Too Great

Curbing Too-High Hopes for Children’s Success

5 Steps to Prepare Your Toddler for College

Time to Rethink How Children Play


Christakis, Erika. “How the New Preschool is Crushing Kids.” The Atlantic. January/February, 2016. pp.17-20.

Christakis, Erika. The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups. New York: Viking, 2016.

Copyright @2016 by Susan Newman

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