My daughter's second birthday seems to be approaching more rapidly than I'd like. Cue the anxiety. I'm not fretting the "Terrible Twos," but Erika Christakis' The Importance of Being Little has me panicking about preschool. Here's how the Yale-based early childhood educator and mom encouraged me to consider a move to Finland.
OK, so I'm not ACTUALLY packing my bags for Scandinavia, but Christakis' summation of the state of U.S. preschools is pretty glum. The gist: early childhood educators are underpaid, outdoor recess is rushed, curriculum goals read drier than a sales rep's annual review, and the hallmarks of development deemed most important - social and emotional skills - fall by the wayside in favor of traditional teaching methods focused on direct instruction. Preschool and daycare classrooms aren't set up for actual learning to take place, while learning materials themselves have become "an endpoint of learning rather than the vehicle for it." Top off this laundry list of woes with the impact of increasingly busy schedules and a marketplace crammed with "educational" toys (so brilliantly described in the chapter Stuffed), and I'm ready to pull out all my hair. (It's not you, Erika, it's me).
So what are they doing so well over in Finland, a country that boasts top ranking in high school performance? Essentially, they've recognized the importance of being little. According to Christakis, our neighbors to the East have three goals for their childhood education programming: promotion of personal well-being, reinforcement of considerate behavior and action toward others, and gradual buildup of autonomy. Art (often treated as a disposable "extra" here) as a form of self-expression, play, movement, and exploration are at the core of the curriculum. Sounds emotionally-sound and caring enough. As for actual academic teaching, the Finnish model doesn't introduce it until age seven. Though she recognizes replication of this system would be a bit of a challenge in the geographically expansive and politically heterogenous United States, Christakis highlights what can be gleaned from Finland throughout her 300 pages.
If an international relocation isn't in the cards for your family, don't worry: Christakis brings attention to the Reggio Emilia philosophy and Montessori schools. Both solid options - if you can shell out the upwards of ten grand a year on preschool. Check out a comparison of these play- and project-based models. Somewhere in the midst of the doom and gloom, the author seems to half-heartedly suggest that most kids will be fine regardless of which preschool they attend. Read the book and let me know if that's any consolation. I'm pretty sure it won't be.
As a reader I'm a bit biased toward Christakis' general viewpoint. Actual childhood exists in an increasingly smaller window, and if a thoughtfully-selected preschool is going to help widen that window, then so be it. Whatever your thoughts on the matter, The Importance of Being Little is a worthy read. Christakis masterfully weaves hundreds of primary sources into a book that's not just readable but an actual page-turner. Check it out, and let me know what you think of turkey hands when you're finished...or Finnished.
Enjoy your little ones while they're still little, and enjoy your life!