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You're Panicking About Preschool for All the Wrong Reasons

Photograph by Twenty20

Erika Christakis has her pulse on modern American education, and she wants to help you understand it. In her recently published book, "The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups," she helps explain the doom and gloom so many parents of preschoolers feel about education, providing a much needed context to better understand it—and, hopefully, change it.

Formal preschool education is a relatively new phenomenon, Christakis writes. Like, very new. Post-1980s new. It is no coincidence that the rise of preschool education has coincided with the growing number of women entering into the workforce, which also started in earnest in the 1980s. Preschool was not something my parents ever considered for me or my siblings. We stayed at home with Mom and made mischief until we started school.

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But today, for better or worse, parents need a solution for child care, and preschool has been a large part of that solution. Except, we now cede things like formalized preschool education to the politicians and the economists amongst us. That, Christakis makes a case for, is where the problems start.

" ... [P]olicy makers and educators began to recast preschool from a playful social experience to a more narrow educational opportunity," she writes. "... Unfortunately, from these good intentions came a lot of bad outcomes."

Goals like having measurable outcomes and short-term performance improvements have gained traction over the idea that early childhood education is a more long-term investment. If money is going to be spent in creating an infrastructure of formal, publicly funded pre-schools, we need something to show for it, a way to measure its efficacy. You know, according to the funders (e.g. officials appointed by the people we elect, locally, statewide and nationally).

The thing is, early childhood education, when done properly, is a very subjective, individualized process.

The thing is, early childhood education, when done properly, is a very subjective, individualized process. The successes are found when a child bonds with his or her teacher, develops a relationship and starts making connections to the larger world—not through instruction so much as guided verbal communication.

Turns out, that process is not so easy to measure.

As the mother of a 2-year-old who will be entering preschool this coming fall, this book was both a wake-up call and a call to arms. It provided me with the benchmarks I need to look for in exploring my son's first educational home, while also encouraging me to advocate for the preservation of his childhood in a culture that, more and more forcefully, wants to squash it.

Yep, there's that damn doom and gloom again.

It sounds dramatic, doesn't it? The sense that childhood is being squashed by formal education, but I see it all around me every day. I also parent a first grader and spend a lot of time on the Internet with other mothers trying to cope with kids who are struggling in their school environments.

One of the points Christakis makes so effectively is that preschool has become a place to simply prepare children for kindergarten. Instruction has become more important than the more open-ended concept of learning. And, sadly, the expectation is that children will receive this instruction at a uniform pace, quietly, while seated.

'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.'

Those expectations are hard enough for 5-year-olds entering kindergarten, let alone a room full of 3-year-olds.

The truth is that children do not develop in a uniform fashion or at similar paces. Some are more physically inclined. Some are more comfortable with fine motor skills. Some teach themselves to read at age 3 with no intervention from the adults around them (shout out to my oldest boy, yo).

Children develop at different paces but, in the direction American education is moving, that truth is no longer welcome. Christakis believes that natural childhood development has become an inconvenience for the plans we have for our kiddos. "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."

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This mom would encourage any parent of a young toddler to pick up a copy of Christakis' book. Arm yourself with the information you will need to be an effective advocate for your child. Her language is accessible, engaging and flows easily. Her research and insights made a believer out of me, while also helping me see a clear path to preserving the childhood I want for my kids.

And that is a childhood that allows for exploration, questions, wonder, joy, whimsy and invention, right alongside those ABCs and 123s.

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