Rae Pica Asks: What If Everybody Understood Child Development?

“Common sense has gone the way of the dodo bird where education policy is concerned.” I’ll say. Fortunately, we have Rae Pica. Her new book is filled with it.

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A co-founder of BAM Radio Network and a 21st-century Perle Mesta of early childhood, Pica has hosted educators, researchers, parents, and developmental experts of all stripes in a series of shows where she’s never afraid to ask the hard questions. She’s also an indefatigable cheerleader for young children and those who nurture them.  In chapter 19 of What If Everybody Understood Child Development, a series of brief essays designed for our dwindling attention spans and frenetic lives, she tackles the issue of test prep:

As someone who thoroughly enjoyed pep rallies for football games in high school, I’m conjuring up a very weird image of marching bands and cheerleaders trying to generate excitement for filling in bubbles.

“Delightful” I wrote in the margins, with a couple of exclamation points—a common reaction as I made my way through the book. Pica’s folksy, straight talk about the big and small, but still contentious, issues in education today couldn’t be more refreshing. Some of the subjects are among the most vexing of our time, but they’re served up with a wicked wit, not to mention a deep respect for developmental science, that makes them easily digestible.

Divided into three sections, the book consistently keeps young children’s needs front-and-center, and provides strategies and resources for teachers that will help them stay the course. Pica knows that development proceeds differently, and at a distinctive pace, for each child, that “one size fits all” can’t hold.

A movement specialist, the author of A Running Start: How Play, Physical Activity and Free Time Create a Successful Child, Pica is especially strong on the mind/body dichotomy. She blames 17th-century philosopher, Rene Descartes, whose declaration “I think, therefore I am,” set us all on a dangerous course, like Humpty Dumpties eternally seeking to put ourselves back together.

She writes, rapturously, of “the power of joy,” leading that essay with music educator Emile Jaques-Dalcroze. Ah yes, I remember him, and his soft-soled dance shoes, a staple of eurythmics—not that British duo Annie Lennox and David Stewart, who rocked the world with “Sweet Dreams” in 1983, the year A Nation at Risk was published. The Dalcroze method, a feature of my own childhood, integrated emotions, the most “powerful of all mental stimuli.” Of course, Pica quickly disrupts the reverie with a litany of assaults on joy that she hears from educators and parents:

…children crying over tests, children with so much homework that there’s little time for anything else…in their lives, children discouraged by schooling as early as kindergarten, and children who are stressed out, burned out, acting out, and dropping out. Oh yes, and popping antidespressants at an astonishing and alarming rate.

What about play? It’s disappeared. Pica, a fellow crusader, of course, argues that play, like eating, sleeping, and breathing, needs no defense. How ironic, she says, that a nation dedicated to the pursuit of happiness should feel so guilty about fun.

The policies that have produced this nightmare punctuate the book’s essays. In her opening chapter, Pica remarks on our tendency to throw children into the same box, and notes that this uniform approach, long a hallmark of our education system, has reached new heights:

…since the inception of No Child Left Behind—and now with Race to the Top and the implementation of the Common Core Standards (common being the operative word)—it’s only gotten worse. The “box” has gotten even smaller. And the younger the children, the less room there is for movement inside it (play on words intended).

Pica sees this as no less than an existential crisis. In her essay “The Earlier the Better?” she lambasts politicians, who “pander to the ridiculous notion that education is a race,” lamenting that “no one in charge is paying attention to the research.”

“Childhood is not a dress rehearsal for adulthood,” she writes. “It is a separate, unique, and very special phase of life. And we’re wiping it out of existence in a misguided effort to ensure children get ahead.” In this chapter, we find the book’s call to action. “Just say no,” Pica urges, “there are more of us than them. We have the power…to stop the insanity.”

I’m happy to be at her pep rally. Let’s go team!

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