Erika Christakis, author of “The Importance of Being Little” and former faculty member of the Yale Child Study Center, spoke at St. Anne’s-Belfield School Tuesday. Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow
With Thanksgiving around the corner, preschool children across America are participating in a time-honored ritual: tracing their hands to draw turkeys, and bringing the pictures home for proud parents to display on their refrigerators.
But Erika Christakis, an early childhood educator and author, argues that “hand-turkeys” and other highly structured activities in preschools exemplify a tendency to think about childhood learning through an adult lens.
“An amorphous blob [drawn by a child] can have more meaning and power behind it than the hand-turkey,” said Christakis, speaking Tuesday evening at St. Anne’s-Belfield School. 
“As a parent, I had to learn to accept that my child’s refrigerator art wasn’t really about me. The goal of this exercise is for children to make meaning, and it was up to me to figure out what that meaning was,” Christakis said in her talk, part of the school’s “Inspiration Speaks” public lecture series.
Christakis’ lecture drew from her 2016 book, “The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need from Grownups.” 
A former faculty member of the Yale Child Study Center, Christakis holds master’s degrees in public health, communication and early childhood education, and is a licensed preschool director.
In “The Importance of Being Little,” Christakis argues that American adults often underestimate the intelligence of young children. However, she says they also overburden children with packed schedules and have unfair expectations of their social and emotional maturity.
Christakis said she is disturbed by potential consequences of this mindset, including a national “epidemic” of expulsions from preschool due to unruly behavior. She said this trend disproportionately affects boys and children of color. 
“Preschool expulsion sounds like an oxymoron: getting kicked out of school before you can start,” she said. “But it is a real problem.”
Christakis said the effects of standardized testing in K-12 public schools have trickled down to the preschool curriculum. She said the walls of modern preschool classrooms typically are covered floor to ceiling with information — letters, numbers and calendars — for teachers to incorporate into daily lessons, often with mixed results.
Christakis said she has seen preschool teachers focus so intensely on covering this material that they dismiss creative answers and musings from children that didn’t fit into their pre-planned lessons. 
“These kinds of classrooms are increasingly not helpful,” she said. “In this overstimulating, colorful environment with a lot of different objectives … we are missing these cues that children are giving us.”
More than academic instruction, Christakis said, young children need adults to be emotionally responsive to them, and to give them a reasonable amount of autonomy.
“I believe that as adults, we have a responsibility to give young people tools to manage their lives, to talk to each other, solve problems and deal with discomfort at times,” she said. “We need to take a step back, watch our children and learn.”
Christakis said building blocks and open-ended outdoor play are two proven options to promote creative, collaborative learning experiences for children.
Along with preschool, Christakis’ lecture touched on some best practices for parenting. She said parents should be intentional about talking frequently to babies and young children. She also said it is critical to avoid distraction by personal electronics when spending time with your kids.
“Don’t beat yourself up about not spending enough time with your child; you probably are spending plenty of time with them,” she said. “But when you are with your child, it’s very important that you are tuned in.”
Robin Albertson-Wren, a preschool teacher at St. Anne’s-Belfield, said she was pleased Christakis acknowledged that children learn and develop at very different paces in their early years. 
“Some kids may need to roll around in the back while other kids are up front, singing songs,” Albertson-Wren said. “It’s about honoring each child’s needs and being able to meet the kids where they are — and having difficult conversations around that.”
Erika Viccellio, executive vice president of the United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area and chairwoman of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Early Education Task Force, said local preschool programs were working to address multiple aspects of Christakis’ “Childhood Habitat” — a range of physical and psychological factors she identified as influences on learning and personal growth. 
“I think giving children places to feel secure and stable — both at home and in school — is something we talk about all the time when we are focusing on high-quality early education,” Viccellio said. “We’re at our best as a community when we are trying to figure that out together.”

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.