Review: The Importance of Being Little

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

Erika Christakis

New York, NY: Penguin, 2016

In a complex and competitive world, parents increasingly face pressures to set their children up for success starting at a young age. In certain preschool programs, curricula provide for a structured learning environment for children with the objective of building their readiness for school in preparation for kindergarten. However, current research and related curriculum practised by many early childhood educators feel that this reliance on structure and “scripted learning” are mismatched with the way children naturally learn and grow, and run contrary to optimal development. Further, learning outcomes should not be primarily focused on school readiness, but rather on social and behavioural development based on children’s play and interactions with their peers.

In The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups, certified educator and former Yale lecturer Erika Christakis examines the educational needs of early childhood through a strength-based lens and provides a critical assessment of modern approaches to early childhood education.

Christakis argues the needs of the child are not represented on a systemic level due to the limited resources provided for early childhood education. One impact is in class size: larger classes make it difficult for educators to engage with individual children and identify their strengths. Christakis argues even a half-day of quality education is beneficial to the individual child while delivering a high return on investment to the community. She strongly advocates for a more learning-friendly environment for preschoolers, one that benefits a child’s intelligence.

The Importance of Being Little focuses on the needs of the child while taking into account the socio-economic stressors that impact families. Children demonstrate their learning capabilities through art, play and engaging with others on their own terms. Christakis says that inviting a child to talk about what he or she is doing presents opportunities to learn through discussion: the child identifies an area of interest while simultaneously exploring the subject using active reasoning. Christakis argues that, to encourage a natural form of learning, knowing the child on a personal level is key.

Through various studies and her own observations, Christakis explores the motivation behind preschoolers’ learning in a variety of settings. The Importance of Being Little offers a critical examination of early childhood education and is interspersed with the author’s personal and professional experiences with children. Even when children are not displaying skills associated with typical developmental stages, Christakis identifies a child’s intelligence in their spectrum of ability. She consistently demonstrates how children are born learners, and how a young child’s environment provides the stimulation needed to develop strong critical thinking skills and an active engagement in their education.

Christakis’s interest in “little learners” emerges from a humble and honest place. Her passion is authentic, her voice is engaging and her stories are both familiar and unique, expressing the wondrous nature of the child’s perspective. Despite her criticism of particular educational approaches, she maintains an optimistic tone throughout, trusting children as “intuitive scientists” and “armchair philosophers.”

Christakis’s perspective should provide relief to parents who may worry about their child’s quirks and eccentricities when these are, in fact, often signs of healthy child development. For the young learner, she asserts that “learning and love are mutually reinforcing.” Although her focus is on the educational system in the U.S., the knowledge Christakis imparts is relevant to preschool- and kindergarten-aged children across the globe. The Importance of Being Little is a valuable read for parents of toddlers and preschoolers, childcare providers, early childhood educators, students and anyone else with an interest or involved in early childhood education.


Reviewed by Monique Veselovsky

Monique Veselovsky is a professional writer living in Ottawa. She is putting her skills and knowledge into practice during her six-week internship at the Vanier Institute.

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