We're Doing Preschool All Wrong, Says New Book

And it could harm an entire generation of kids.
Kids need more time for free play in preschool, argues childhood development specialist Erika Christakis.
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Kids need more time for free play in preschool, argues childhood development specialist Erika Christakis.

Disappearing are the days when preschools were havens for free play and make believe. They're now factories for rote memorization and dry instruction, argues author Erika Christakis in her new book. This approach could harm an entire generation of kids, she says.

Christakis is a childhood development specialist at Yale University who made headlines last year for a controversial email she wrote defending students' right to wear inappropriate or offensive Halloween costumes. In her book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups, she argues that preschools are no longer giving children enough room to play, leading them to become less inquisitive, curious thinkers -- qualities they need to become successful adults.

"Why, when kids are so programmed to learn, are they having trouble?" Christakis asked in an interview with The Huffington Post. "We know they're having trouble because we have an actual epidemic of preschool expulsions, kids are being medicated off-label as early as 2 or 3 [years old] with attention management drugs, and also we have more anecdotal evidence that parents are very frustrated."

So what's the reason for this shift in preschool pedagogy? One culprit is the accountability movement in K-12 education, which started in the early 2000s with the No Child Left Behind Act (which was recently replaced with another major national education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act). The Bush-era law emphasized standardized tests and consequences for poor scores. But as K-12 schools began to focus on test-based, measurable skills, preschools were also affected.

Over the years, preschool has become more focused on academics, but not necessarily more effective in nurturing a child's cognitive development.

"An academic focus is not necessarily a cognitively rich focus," Christakis said. "What you lose in a preschool environment with those kinds of expectations is things like open-ended free play, [which] can be squeezed in favor of more narrowly targeted skills like alphabet awareness."

"We know that speaking, listening and talking through play, that is really heavily linked to strong academic and social emotional outcomes later in life" she added.

Unfortunately, low-income children in need of stimulating early childhood environments are suffering the most. Those fortunate enough to attend preschools, publicly funded or otherwise, are more likely to end up in preschool classrooms with less play and more scripted direct instruction, Christakis said.

Though politicians on both sides of the aisle have been trying to expand preschool availability, she argued, access is not merely enough. Going to preschool alone will hardly improve a child's long-term prospects if it is not high-quality preschool.

One of many solutions to this problem would be to pay preschool teachers more. A recent report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment found that preschool teachers only make $6 an hour more than fast-food workers.

"There's abundant evidence that salary is a very big predictor of quality," said Christakis. "Its harder ... to be a warm and empathic and developmentally appropriate teacher if you're poorly paid."

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