Written for anyone who cares about preschool education in this country, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups offers terrific insights into the world of children—the delight of imaginative play, the allure of nature, the power of emotion. I read this book in the company of my own children, ages 5 and 2. Often, I found myself observing them more closely, appreciating their richness of expression more fully and identifying more sympathetically with their frustrations. At the same time, early childhood education expert Erika Christakis is undeniably grumpy when assessing what preschoolers are getting from most grownups these days.
She sneers at the handprint turkey craft many children make at Thanksgiving (a version of which was displayed framed on my own wall as I read the manuscript). She sighs with exasperation at the ineffective design of preschool classes. Overstimulating colors, bins filled with “educational” toys and insipid curriculum are among her many targets. Yet she redeems these critiques by moving beyond them. In chapters after chapter, Christakis poses compelling questions and imaginative solutions. She wonders why, for instance, the slow food movement hasn’t gained more traction in preschools, where children could prepare food together and then clean it up. She describes engaging classroom environments she’s seen in beguiling detail, and recounts evocative conversations she’s had and overheard among small people. Her respect and love for them is undeniable.
Until late last year, Christakis was a lecturer in early childhood education at Yale. She and her husband, Nicholas Christakis, a Yale professor, drew the wrath of some students when they voiced concern over Yale’s limitations on “offensive” Halloween costumes. Christakis quit her teaching post in December, citing a climate at Yale that was “not conducive to . . . civil dialogue and open inquiry.”
The Yale controversy played no role in the book, however, and The Importance of Being Little doesn’t delve into the nuts and bolts of preschool education at the policy level. What Christakis does offer is a compelling vision of what preschool could become, with many examples that provide useful context. Her experiences at Yale—surrounded by bright and curious people, resource-rich schools and extensive libraries—enrich what she offers to the reader: a somewhat academic, more than a little cantankerous and ultimately earnestly hopeful discussion about how to best serve our youngest charges.