It’s amazing how much free time you can have when you’re not in school, MCAT studying, etc., and as a result, I’ve been reading more recently! While I could tell you about all of the books I’ve been reading, I think I’ll limit myself (for today at least!) to one that I’ve found especially enjoyable: The The Importance of Being Little, by Erika Christakis.
The Importance of Being Little is truly a fascinating book. It discusses many different issues and aspects of small children’s lives and learning, but specifically focuses on what makes a good learning environment for young children, and how people can support and create that. It also talks quite a bit about preschools, and how the predominant preschool environments in the U.S. today are NOT creating ideal learning environments for young children. Rather than focusing on children’s strengths and the natural ways they learn – such as through play and social interaction – many preschools are instead focusing on inculcating bite-size school readiness “skills” and rote, directed learning. While some of these skills may be valuable, Erika Christakis shows how they may be better learned as byproducts of other activities, rather than serving as the goal and purpose in and of themselves. As a brief example, learning how to pronounce letters is great, but wouldn’t it be better, more fun, and probably more effective for children to learn that through chatting with their friends and listening to stories, rather than sitting through a lesson on the pronunciation d, f, and e? I think probably. While this is certainly a great read for parents, teachers, and childcare workers, I also think it’s great for anyone – because we all interact with little kids at some point in our lives.
I found this book especially fascinating in light of my own early childhood experiences. I was homeschooled from preschool through 5th grade, and then entered public school in sixth grade. My mom led my sister and I in a fairly relaxed homeschooling environment – we might work on math for an hour in the morning, but then I might play for most of the day, or go to my homeschool ice skating and swimming lessons, and then work with my mom on reading a book later in the day. Much of my learning was self-directed, and much of it was social – such as working one-on-one with my mom or sister. Overall, what I realized as I read this book was how much free time homeschooling gave me.
One of the things Christakis laments is how little time young children have these days to simply play freely, or to enjoy and explore nature on their own. Their lives are so full – of instruction at preschool, and then with soccer, piano lessons, swimming lessons, and more after school. As a young child I did piano, swimming, and ice skating, but because I was homeschooled I had plenty of time around those things to play freely. I was quite content to play on my own in the backyard, making up and acting out stories for hours. As a slightly older child, at my cabin, I could spend hours quietly trying to get close to a deer in the woods, or a loon on the lake. These moments, I now realize, are not necessarily commonplace for people of my generation and younger. Now, clearly, I know plenty of people my age who were not homeschooled who turned out just fine. But Christakis’s descriptions of children not having time to play and not quite knowing how to entertain themselves with organized activity feel fairly foreign to me, and greatly sadden me. I can’t imagine my childhood without all of the free time I had with my friends or on my own in parks and backyards, and I don’t really want to. I think Christakis’s concerns about what this could mean for our country and its innovative capacity are valid, but I also agree with her that maybe childhood should just be something we value, for itself.
If I have a kid someday, I want him or her to be able to enjoy the kind of play, imagination, and free time (especially outdoors!) that I did. And I don’t think one should have to be homeschooled for that to happen.So maybe we should all take a gander at this book, ponder, and then work toward some changes to better support the little children in our families, our communities, and our country.