No More Paper Turkeys: What Preschoolers Really Need to Succeed

Our youngest learners will soon be entering a new school year. Yet, despite all of the attention devoted in recent years to rigorous, standardized education, especially for our youngest learners, a sizeable achievement gap still exists between white children and children of color. Recently, a group of professors from Stanford and Harvard Universities shared data from new studies on racial disparities in American education. They focused on the achievement gap between black and white fourth grade students across the country, using the NAEP assessment as their guide.

A summary of those new studies in Education Week notes,

The researchers found some of the biggest black-white achievement gaps in the country—where black students lag their white peers by more than 1.5 full standard deviations, or four to five grade levels on the NAEP scale—in relatively prosperous university towns, like Berkeley, Calif . (home of the University of California, Berkeley); Chapel Hill, NC.C. (home of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill); and Evanston, ILl l. (home of Northwestern University).

I have lived in Evanston, one of the university towns singled out for having a huge achievement gap, since 1974. My children were well served by the public schools. Back in the day, I was an active school volunteer and even served on a couple of school district committees. And I was founding director of Cherry Preschool, located in the heart of town.

As far back as I can remember, the achievement gap and how to narrow it has been a focus in my community.  In fact, in 1989, when I was part of the Early Childhood Task Force, one of our main charges was to focus on how early childhood education could help to level the playing field for incoming kindergarteners. Our primary recommendations included  implementation of developmentally appropriate practices, such as play-based learning; elimination of standardized testing, worksheets, rote memorization and teacher-directed lessons; and recruitment of trained early childhood educators. Research supported that this was simply the best way to teach young children.

Yet nearly 27 years later, very little has changed in those classrooms. This is in part because developmental early childhood teaching can be a tough sell to parents, many of whom want to see their children learning what they remember learning in school -- even though they are likely recalling upper elementary grades. In her new book, The Importance of Being Little, scholar Erika Christakis makes a case for a different approach to early childhood education, one that values our littlest learners for what they are (very young) -- not what we want them to be (older).

Christakis, a former preschool director and teacher, who studied early childhood development and education at Yale University’s Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, brings both expertise and experience to her recommendations for fixing what she sees as our “incoherent, patchwork system” of early childhood education, a system that clearly isn’t meeting the needs of our youngest learners — particularly the most disadvantaged among them.

She points out that children who lack foundational skills and need the best learning environments are too often the ones who get the worst, while children of privilege generally end up in the best private early childhood settings. She laments the mismatch between what we know about how young children learn and how we actually educate them, which has resulted in the pushing down of developmentally inappropriate practices — first to kindergarten, and now to our very youngest children.

These misguided approaches, Christakis notes, contribute to widening the gap between the children of the top 2 percent and everyone else. The children of well-educated parents in university towns like mine are likely to attend early childhood programs that adhere to best practices (aka, developmentally appropriate, play-based curricula). Their families are also likely, as noted in a New York Times analysis, to be “constantly competing for ever more academic success. As parents hire tutors, enroll their children in robotics classes and push them to solve obscure math theorems, those children keep pulling away from those who can’t afford the enrichment.”

Meanwhile, the children of the less wealthy are stuck acquiring facts separate from meaningful context. They spend their days learning random information and completing worksheets in a frantic effort to prepare them for a kindergarten experience that is now more appropriate for late first or even second grade students.

A Better Way Forward

In her book, Christakis asks, “Do preschoolers need all of the trappings of elementary school…The faux academic overstimulation? The enforced choices? The cult like obsession with readiness.” Her answer is an emphatic no.

Early childhood learning environments often end up cluttered with materials that are pleasing to adults (teachers and parents), Christakis points out, but distracting and meaningless to children. A perfect example of this is the Thanksgiving displays of paper turkeys created by tracing children’s hands and adding feathers – a staple of most early childhood classrooms in the late fall. Christakis describes “print-rich” nursery school classrooms filled with labels for table, chair, books, and other objects. She describes this “visual cacophony” as not just distracting but downright unsettling for many children.

Instead, Christakis advocates book-filled learning environments, supplied (but not cluttered) with natural and open-ended materials. Christakis believes an early childhood classroom should be a laboratory for learning where children can observe, question, explore, and reflect. Fix the environment and children will thrive, she says. “The environment is the curriculum."

Another critical aspect of early learning that is increasingly overlooked is the importance of relationships between teachers and children and between children and their peers. As Christakis notes, “…while technology changes by the day, the principles of child development remain blessedly, and sometimes annoyingly, fixed. And one of those key principles…is that early learning is fundamentally social in nature…” Relationships are what she calls the “learning tool that trumps all others.”

At my preschool, without the pressures to focus all of our time and energy on readiness for kindergarten, we had the luxury to really work on building a caring community of children and adults.

Unfortunately, that same freedom does not exist in many of our early childhood programs, especially those serving children who have labels attached to them like disadvantaged or poor. The conventional wisdom these days is that a lack of kindergarten readiness should be addressed by focusing on discrete skills, often taught out of context, using standardized, canned curricula. “Shallow learning” is what Christakis calls what we offer children in these environments.

Instead, good early learning classrooms should respect the importance of play. As a teacher, Christakis wondered why so many children had trouble “entering play.” She often had to get down on the floor and teach children how to do imaginative play by modeling how to assign roles, create plots, and establish rules. The children needed the time and space to learn about choice, personal motivation, emotional meaning, and fantasy. Christakis reminds us that, “play is the fundamental building block of human cognition, emotional health, and social behavior. Play improves memory and helps children to do mathematical problems in the heads, take turns, regulate their impulses, and speak with greater complexity.”

The Importance of Being Little catalogues a host of inappropriate practices that characterize many of our early childhood settings today: They push academics and testing too soon, which actually backfires, wasting precious teaching/learning time. They minimize or eliminate the arts, recess, and free play, making children less engaged, inquisitive, and creative. Christakis believes that testing and performance standards “highlight the dullest parts of [young children’s] special minds.” Especially in kindergarten, we lack sympathy and understanding for what it means to be a child. We have removed the blocks, dress-up corners, and paint easels which children that age use to create meaning in their lives, and have replaced them with “direct indtruction, which forces children to be passive listeners rather than active learners. These practices ignore that children learn differently from adults; they are concrete and magical thinkers with powerful emotions that are rarely acknowledged in an effort to stay on topic. Children need to live in the moment. We have even banned time for boredom, which Christakis calls “imagination’s good friend.”

Christakis also takes the time to advocate for some practices that she believes will improve early childhood education and narrow the achievement gap plaguing communities like mine. To level the playing field, she suggests all children should have the opportunity to attend enriching, high quality early childhood programs characterized by:

  • Warm, responsive teachers who know child development, are paid a decent wage, and have the freedom to take advantage of teachable moments
  • Opportunities for children to use and hear complex, interactive language
  • Active learning that values social/emotional skills
  • Careful, intentional curricula and developmentally appropriate approaches to learning
  • Meaningful relationships between teachers and children and among children
  • Family involvement
  • Opportunities for self-regulation, challenges, and choices of activities
  • Time for expression of emotions and feelings through language, art, and music
  • Environments that feature open-ended materials and time for exploration
  • Culturally rich literature.  Exposure to good storytelling is key to building curious minds.

Sometimes a book’s message strikes me as perfect for its time.  Such was my reaction to The Importance of Being Little. Christakis makes a powerful, research-based case for why the way we have been educating our young children is not working. As the achievement gap between children at the top and bottom remains the same or even widens, Christakis urges us not to double down on failed efforts to cram facts into young heads, and explains precisely why we ought to stop focusing on readiness, testing, accountability, and standards-driven curricula for our youngest learners. Though it is somewhat academic in tone, I very much hope parents will read her book to better understand what constitutes an authentic and meaningful early childhood education. And Christakis’s message will almost certainly resonate with teachers, administrators, and educational policy makers, as well.

A change in how we teach our youngest learners is long overdue. It’s time to take to heart Albert Einstein’s famous definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If we want a better educational future for our kids, we’re finally going to have to start doing something different.


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