The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups

Erika Christakis
Star Rating
Reviewer's Rating
Sep 16, 2016

Christakis begins with a very simple premise: that, for preschoolers, schooling and learning are often two different things. That young children are much more powerful and capable than we often give them credit for, that they primarily learn through relationships and play, and that the educational push to make their school experience more focused on "academic readiness" runs counter to their natural inclinations for learning.

She then spends nearly 400 pages comprehensively exploring that idea across the many dimensions and aspects of early childhood education. She has been a child, parent, teacher, and academic, and all perspectives figure into her considerations. At times she's a little too unnecessarily jargony with her educational and academic language; at other times she's a little too wistfully nostalgic for childhoods of times now past and reliant on her own version of common sense; but she is always thorough in her considerations. Whether you are already on board with her premise, are tentatively willing to be converted, or find it misguided and want to debate her, this is a book worth engaging. I highly recommend it for all educators and suggest it for all parents as well.

To give you a better sense of the book, a few excerpts:

Children are intuitive scientists and armchair philosophers, brimming with such startling observations that it’s hard to believe they’ve come from people barely out of diapers. . . . But, along with their Talmudic wisdom and intellectual acuity, preschoolers can surprise, equally, with their undeveloped motor skills, atrocious impulse control, and venal self-interest. Like teenagers, whom they closely resemble developmentally, preschoolers are a complicated mix of competence and ineptitude. The problem with American early education is how often the grownups misread, and even interchange, those two attributes completely, and at such critical moments for learning.


Playing grocery store is actually better for brain development than a math work sheet with cartoon shopping carts? It has to be some kind of trick. Yet after decades of research, the benefits of play are so thoroughgoing, so dispositive, so well described that the only remaining question is how so many sensible adults sat by and allowed the building blocks of development to become so diminished.


Early learning is fundamentally social in nature.


Pretending is an essential language of childhood.

Reviewed by Chris K.
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