That young children learn primarily from their relationships is both an unfamiliar and self-evident reality, but it is a reality that is too often lost in our current debates about what is best for preschoolers. Instead of focusing on the social dimension of learning, we’ve grown overfond of skills and metrics that look nice on paper but don’t really tell us much about what individual human beings do. Even the welcome rediscovery of social skills as a legitimate early childhood enterprise tends to presume that the social life of a child is a deliverable, similar to a curriculum package, rather than a natural incubator for learning itself. Our focus on the location and delivery system of learning, rather than the learning process itself, causes a huge amount of unhappiness for parents and teachers, not to mention for the children themselves, and the stress is palpable everywhere: pick the “wrong” preschool or ease up on the phonics drills at home and your child might not go to college. She might not be employable. Who knows? She might not even be allowed to start first grade! The stress is compounded by the lack of control people feel over the care of young children, which usually takes the form of not enough time, money, and choice. Poor-quality child care remains a bedeviling reality for an unacceptably large percentage of American families, and many of the children who would benefit most from preschool are not enrolled at all.
Despite all this anxiety, I am an optimist. For one thing, it’s easy to forget that even in the direst of circumstances, young children have the potential to change. Childhood is by its very nature dynamic, and embodied in the definition of child development is the possibility of—no, the mandate for—change. Young children are constantly changing and endlessly surprising, and this is why, I believe, so many people continue to choose the field of early education despite its paltry pay and low prestige.
Another reason for optimism is that the quality and quantity of early learning research has increased dramatically in recent years. Through the doggedness of powerful advocates, greater attention is being paid to translating these scientific results for the people who make public-policy decisions, and more attention is being given to bringing the results into real classroom settings. It’s a slow and uneven process, but it is indeed happening. We’re also seeing an uptick in public and private financial resources devoted to the needs of young children. A recent bill to improve the delivery of subsidized childcare services for low-income families passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support and included a large increase in earmarked funds for evidence-based quality improvements.
So, we are finally paying attention to young children, and just in time, with almost three quarters of four-year-olds now in some form of non-family care. Only a few years ago, preschool education was rarely covered in the pages of the New York Times or mentioned in White House briefings, but now it’s become fairly routine to see front-page news coverage and op‑eds on early learning by famous political pundits and social scientists. In fact, politicians are running for election on their early education platforms, a truly astounding development to those who’ve long been in the trenches of early education policy. Professional organizations like the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the National Institute for Early Education Research, and Child Care Aware, among many others, are setting a higher bar for developmentally appropriate educational practice, a standard to which programs can aspire, even if they cannot yet achieve it.
With increased public attention to the conditions for healthy child development, and a healthy infusion of new funds to shore up the childcare crisis, we have an opportunity to do things right. But additional resources won’t help if they are thrown at poorly designed programs or at goals that don’t appreciate the gifts young children already have. Unfortunately, if history is any guide (and sometimes it is), we may squander this opportunity through misinterpretation, naïveté, and wrongheadedness.
Let me be clear: my aim is not to invoke nightmares among already sleep-deprived parents. But neither do I want to claim that all is well in the American early childhood landscape today. We have a serious problem, and it goes beyond the dismayingly common reports of school testing mandates run amok, outdoor recess time shelved, and preschoolers pathologized for everyday childhood experiences like daydreaming and clumsiness. It gets at the heart of what we think children can and can’t do.
I believe that we can fix the things that have gone wrong for young children but also, paradoxically, and more importantly, that young children are strong enough to withstand the foolish meddling to which we subject them, if we can just get out of their way.
If I can reassure you of one thing, it is this: getting out of the way is often the best thing we can do for a young child. And I will suggest how to accomplish this getting-out-of-the-way, which is another way of describing what it means to help young children be young children. The process is not so simple as just opening the back door and turning kids loose to get dirt under their fingernails, however. We have more work to do than that, in part because of what I will describe as a kind of habitat loss for young children that needs repairing.
But there’s a straightforward process to doing well by young children, and it’s a process most people will like because it makes sense and comes with the added benefit of not making adults miserable. The first step in the process involves seeing clearly the state of early childhood today, because otherwise the temptation will overtake us simply to write off potential solutions. You might think the answers are all out there already: Sure, I saw that online somewhere. “Kids need more free play and less drilling. . . .” The case for more unstructured play and fewer work sheets has been made many times before, and very effectively, too, but it seems that people aren’t buying this commonsensical prescription or don’t think they have the power to change their child’s preschool environment. It seems, then, that we have a paradox: how to square the widespread availability of sound advice with the ongoing reality of children’s unmet needs. To do that, we need some new answers and new ideas.
From THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING LITTLE: What Young Children Really Need from Grownups by Erika Christakis, published on February 7, 2017 by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by Erika Christakis, 2016.