(Viking/Viking)

Nora Krug is an editor at Book World.

Once upon a time, Erika Christakis was one of those anxious and competitive moms who sent her son to preschool and worried that he was “staring at a piece of carpet fluff all day.” “I wanted pictures for my refrigerator!” she complained.

Now her son is out of preschool, and Christakis, a certified teacher and former lecturer at Yale, has a considerably different attitude. If her first book, “The Importance of Being Little,” isn’t quite a defense of Carpet Fluff 101, it is a fervent rebuke of academic-style early education — testing, flashcards and so on. Instead, Christakis favors a more nuanced approach, centered on the child and based on play. She makes a powerful and persuasive case, even if it’s hard to see how such a system would work on a large scale.

Christakis, not one to shy from controversy (she recently resigned her post at Yale amid a campus firestorm over political correctness and Halloween costumes), expertly weaves academic research, personal experience and anecdotal evidence into her book. In her comprehensive analysis, rote learning and testing come under as much fire as their opposite: permissive environments “fueled by gauzy fantasies of a more wholesome and child-focused world” absent of any adult guidance. Christakis is calling for an idyllic middle ground.

Erika Christakis (Andrea Reese)

“It’s not simply inadequate resources or a faulty moral compass that explains the state of early education,” she writes. It is “a lack of understanding of how children actually grow and learn.” She argues that many early educators — including parents — have lost sight of the most important factors in any learning environment: kids themselves and our relationships with them.

Formal learning is almost beside the point — and in some cases, she writes, unnecessary. “A parent who’s ever spent a magically lazy and unplanned day with an inquisitive child — watching subway trains come and go, or setting up a dish-washing station in the kitchen, or building sandcastles on the beach — surely has experienced the curious insight that some very powerful learning can go on in the absence of the bells and whistles we call preschool.”

In addition to extolling the virtues of learning outside the classroom, Christakis criticizes much of what takes place inside it. Teaching the alphabet by introducing a letter every week, she writes, is “wildly inefficient” (“half a year just to learn one measly alphabet?” she asks, not unjustifiably). What’s more, this method shows “no appreciation for letter frequency,” a vital literacy skill (“ ‘Wheel of Fortune’ contestants know that an S is more valuable than a Q”), nor does it help children understand “the functional purpose of an alphabet.”

Less-academic and seemingly harmless lessons also come in for criticism. The tried-and-true Thanksgiving project of a turkey in the shape of a child’s hand, for example, “reflects a limited view of children’s creativity, derived from an adult-imposed agenda.” Crafts ought to be more free-form: “Your child is not a refrigerator magnet,” Christakis writes, in a phrase that ought to be one.

Yet Christakis is acutely aware that this kind of thinking can go too far. The idea of child-centered teaching, she admits, “sends people running for the hills, conjuring images of the open classrooms of the early 1970s, where kids loafed in bean bag chairs all day and tried to teach themselves to read.”

So what’s the alternative? It’s here that Christakis’s argument becomes a bit more fuzzy and idealistic. It’s not simply a matter of “reducing screen time and ponying up more Legos.” Rather, she writes, “young children need to know and to be known. For this to happen, they need a learning habitat that allows them to have a relationship with someone who truly understands them.” That’s a tall order.

Though Christakis points to examples — such as classes in which children are guided through a conversation about a subject rather than taught a lesson about it — she doesn’t quite show how such programs would work on a large scale. The kind of “high-quality, meaning-based curriculum” she posits requires even more attentive teaching than the scripted curriculum rampant today.

One concrete fact Christakis points out is that the “key predictor of teaching quality” is salary. It’s a hard truth that runs up against another one: The average day-care provider lives “on the edge of poverty,” making less per hour than a truck driver, a bartender “and even some middle-class teenage babysitters.” How would these high-quality teachers and programs be funded — and be made available to families of all income levels? Christakis doesn’t quite say.

“The Importance of Being Little” makes a bracing and convincing case that early education has reached a point of crisis: “The evidence that young children are losing ground is startling: the steep rise in preschool expulsions and mental health diagnoses, such as ADHD, in children barely out of diapers; the invention of new cognitive disorders to explain ‘problems’ like daydreaming and clumsiness, an epidemic of test anxiety . . . coupled with a crisis in the quality and availability of child care and the intrusion of technology on essential personal interactions” threaten “the smallest and most vulnerable members of American society.”

Christakis’s solution may not be realistic, but her book is a rare thing: a serious work of research that also happens to be well-written and personal. Her son, she writes, never quite became one of those kids who brought home pictures for the refrigerator; instead he made things out of masking tape and carried around a bag full of his scribblings — even to the bathroom and bed. It was only over time, and after some blunt talk from her son’s teacher, that Christakis came to see her son’s behavior as something to celebrate rather than fret about. He was “a powerful, intelligent, and mysterious person with aspirations and skills about which I understood very little.”

It is her recognition and exploration of this mystery — what it means for her as well as for American education — that makes “The Importance of Being Little” so engaging and important.

the importance of being little
What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups

By Erika Christakis

Viking. 376. $28