The Importance of Being Little

The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups, by Erika Christakis

I'd heard great things about this book!  It's been widely praised, and also Erika Christakis is interesting anyway, because if you recall the Yale kerfuffle of Halloween 2015, she was the person who wrote the email suggesting that college students are adults who can choose and police their own costumes.  (I think her email was too long and diffuse, which made it easy to lose the core message.  But anyway.)  Christakis has since left Yale, which, judging by this fantastic book, is their loss.

Preschool.  Some parents see it as the beginning of the road to Harvard; others are skeptical but worried.  Important people in Washington say it's the key to better equality and the US should have universal preschool.  On the ground, actual preschool teachers are frequently pressured to do things that they know are not best for their little charges, and they don't get any respect to speak of.  What do preschoolers need, how do we give it to them, and are worksheets the answer?

Christakis talks about what it is like to be a small child in a world designed for grownups, and what small children need.  She talks about how brilliant little children are, how to support their learning, and how to find space for them.  She knows that many hard-working parents need preschool and daycare, and that a good preschool can be wonderful, while a school with inappropriate demands and overwhelmed, undertrained teachers can be damaging.  Christakis explains that preschool teacher quality (and freedom) is worth investing in, and why.

Do little children need a lot of schooling?  They benefit from appropriate teaching, but that never means that worksheets, sitting still for long periods, or trying to teach school skills too early is a good idea.  It is strange that we know how important unstructured play is, and that worksheets are bad for small children, and yet we keep making the official standards less and less appropriate, and taking away important physical challenges in the name of safety.

Since Christakis' opinions are much the same as mine, I spent a good deal of this book feeling ever so slightly smug and vindicated.  But I also learned a lot of new stuff, which was great!  Not quite as great was the three days I spent with "Willoughby Wallaby Wee" playing in my head.  I never liked that song, but her point in quoting it--that nursery rhymes and songs are important elements in learning phonemic awareness, which in turn is essential for reading later on--is bang on.

I liked this bit, and I marked it, so I'll quote it here:
My children outsmarted me from infancy. [Examples of children's cleverness] I assumed I could be forgiven for thinking my kids were--well, if not geniuses, at least a little special.  Then I started teaching preschool and realized not only that there was nothing virtuoso about my children but that, on the contrary, their stunts were completely bog standard.
This is a pretty great book that I enjoyed a lot and hardly put down until I finished it.  Christakis is not only and intelligent expert in her field; she's also an engaging writer with lots to say.  If you have small children--if your children are still under the age of ten, in fact--I think you should consider this required reading.  Even if you don't, education is a big topic and it doesn't hurt to know something about it.  Besides, it's always a good idea to know more about the people around you, even if they are less than three feet tall.


  1. This sounds excellent. I work for the Waldorf Early Childhood Association, which from the sound of it has been saying much the same thing for many years, but it's good to have vindication from a solidly researched source. Here's hoping it might make a difference -- the children are suffering.

  2. You know, I think she mentions Waldorf's emphasis on handwork at some point. There are some great things about Waldorf education.


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