The Importance of Being Little

At The Children’s School, the experience of being little is deeply important; indeed, our mission is to “take children seriously.” To guide us in this work, we look to other educators who are astute observers of children and their extraordinary development during the early years. One of these is Erika Christakis, whose insights into what children need most from adults mirror the techniques The Children’s School has employed for over 50 years. We were honored to have author and researcher Erika Christakis on campus last spring as the speaker at our final Parenting Lecture.

The Children’s School and Erika Christakis share the belief that to reach their full potential, young children need to develop a fundamental set of tools: how to listen to other people, how to express themselves, how to observe and explore, and how reflect on what they’ve explored. These cognitive skills bloom in an language-rich environment, whether children are shaping clay, building a tower or experimenting with cooking. As Christakis writes, “If we want children to be able to crack the letter-sound code with ease; to make causal inferences; to synthesize new knowledge; and to make creative leaps across cognitive domains, we need to cultivate the art of conversation, and we need to give children meaningful things to talk about.”

At TCS, the learning environment is meant to foster thoughtful, exploratory conversations and social experiences. The School puts an emphasis on respectful interactions between teachers and students, with the understanding that warm relationships are the vehicle of learning. The goal is for children to have ample opportunities to talk and to listen, to feel understood, and to use and hear complex language and sophisticated vocabulary.

Of course, the young do not express themselves entirely in oral language. They are deeply connected by their senses to their physical environment, and their thinking process is more concrete and less abstract. As Christakis explains, “They really use—especially pre-literate children—materials, whether it’s drawing materials or building materials, as an expression of themselves. These materials become a form of communication. If we create the right kind of environment for them, we can release their inner voice—they tell us what the materials mean.”

Hence, at The Children’s School, children are exposed to a variety of compelling materials, and they are able to discover which ones most interest them—and what they like to talk about. Research shows that when children spontaneously share their experiences and think out loud, whether they are stacking blocks or painting a picture, they use higher-level language and a richer vocabulary. When a caring teacher is present—observing, listening attentively and giving open-ended prompts—children gain the confidence to express the full range of their observations, ideas and feelings.

As well as meaningful conversations with adults, children need social experiences with their peers: opportunities to play, to make friends, to learn limits, to learn to take turns. Imaginative play is particularly language-rich, but so are cooperative endeavors like building a tunnel system in the sand pit, which call not only for engineering skills but also much give-and-take. Christakis also notes the near-universal impulse among children to create private worlds, with their own rules—realms whose appeal is partly that they are out of reach of adult interference. Constructing these dens and hideouts, and keeping them secret and mysterious, is one of the joys of being little. It is also that thrill, that feeling of being part of a private world, of finding Narnia inside a coat closet, that draws children to books, and later to a love of literature and reading.

Here at TCS, we believe that the best environment for the early years, one that lets children blossom as individuals, rests on two strategies. First, we need to engage with children deeply, on their own terms, with loving, respectful conversation about things that genuinely interest them. And then, paradoxically, we need to give them time to discover on their own the enchantments that fuel a love of learning.

Here’s to finding enchantment together with your child,