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Give Young People More Space, Says Yale Lecturer Erika Christakis

Many preschool classrooms are focusing on skills, rather than on the process of learning, the author says.

In her new book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups, author Erika Christakis said young children are working more and learning less. 

Christakis, a lecturer at the Yale Child Study Center, said that preschools are feeling pushdown from a more scripted approach to teaching that’s taken hold in the U.S.

She said young kids are powerful: "They have the ability to learn in so many different settings. Parents need to feel reassured that the most essential learning environment really is that relationship between the child and his and her loved one."

The problem today, said Christakis, is that many preschool classrooms are focusing on skills, rather than on the process of learning. She rejected the notion of a dichotomy between work and play. 

"It's through play, and exploration, and relationships, that children develop these high level skills that we need them to acquire," she said.

Credit Cade Martin, Dawn Arlotta / USCDCP

Christakis made national headlines last year with her e-mail response to a request that Yale students consider the cultural implications of their Halloween costumes. From her email:

I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious... a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people's capacity -- in your capacity to exercise selfcensure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?

Her comments led to a racially charged debate at the university. 

"I want to say, first of all, that I would probably find the exact same things offensive and hurtful as the vast majority of my critics," Christakis said. "And I really do want to express empathy for people who are harmed by offensive stereotypes, and so forth. But I do think, that said, that there are a lot of different ways to respond to hurt. And I think that people of all ages, particularly young people, need to feel secure that they have these different strategies to respond to things that hurt them. And my belief is that sometimes, not always, but sometimes, we need to give young people more space to negotiate these things."

Listen to the full interview with Christakis on WNPR's Where We Live.

Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. Diane spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.

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