Positive relationships

Q&A: Rae Pica on why we need a revolution in early education

A Famly interview with author and ECE consultant Rae Pica
Aaron Hathaway interviews Rae Pica
January 16, 2023
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

• This is a Q&A interview with Rae Pica, an early education consultant and longtime advocate for the ECE sector. We're discussing the focus of her new book: a revolution in early education.

• As a core problem, Rae believes ECE is moving away from creative, open-ended, child-lead learning, in favor of academic pressure and stifling standardization. Read on to discover the "four myths" fueling this trend.

• Renewing our focus on joyful, curious learning starts with parent partnerships. Down below, we'll discuss how educators can help parents understand all the skilled work that goes into ECE, and what that does for winning support on a political level.

Are you ready for a revolution?

Rae Pica is.

If you ask her, a revolution in early childhood education has been a long time coming.

Rae has been a leading voice within early childhood education for 43 years and counting. As a consultant and educator, she’s contributed to projects at institutions like Head Start, Sesame Street, the CDC and Blue’s Clues. She’s also the award-winning author of 22 books, her most recent being Spark a Revolution in Early Education: Speaking Up for Ourselves and the Children, published by Redleaf Press.

In the new book, Rae lays out how “school readiness” pressures draw early educators away from the child-led, play-based learning that we know is best for children. Her revolution aims to give educators the respect and resources they need to do their jobs best, following the fundamentals of child development. Making that happen, she explains, requires us to bust four big myths, and come together in collective action.

I recently called Rae to discuss why American early education deserves such profound change, and what ECE professionals can do to help bring about a brighter, more equitable future for educators and children alike.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Three children are sitting cross-legged on a carpet in a child care classroom. They are smiling.

Watch the interview: Starting a play-based revolution in early childhood

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Aaron (Famly): Rae, a big part of this book is identifying current trends in early education that you say go against key principles of healthy child development. As you put it, we’re moving away from creative, child-led learning in favor of increasing focus on standardization, rigorous rubrics and ‘school readiness.’ What effect do these initiatives have on children in our current ECE system?

Rae Pica: Young children really want to please the adults in their life. But when we ask them to do things they cannot do because they’re not yet developmentally ready, they feel a lot of pressure. Initiatives like pushing children toward ‘school readiness’ often bring demands that are beyond where children are at, developmentally speaking. This makes them feel stressed out and frustrated, and that has emotional and physical ramifications for them.

Dr. Peter Gray has linked the rise of anxiety and depression in preschoolers, which didn’t used to be a thing, to the demise of play in their lives. Preschoolers just shouldn’t be feeling depressed and anxious — it shouldn’t be a thing. 

Aaron: It sounds like you’re describing a trend where we’re trying to squish many different forms of children’s creativity and curiosity to fit into some narrow definitions. I can see how that standardization process could be restrictive, especially for children whose talents and abilities don’t necessarily match those ‘school readiness’ expectations.

Rae: “Think about all the lost potential through the years. What about the child who’s really good with her hands, or the child who excels in cooking or creative arts, or any of these other things? There’s so much lost potential when our education system doesn’t accommodate children’s interests and abilities. Creativity is linked to problem solving, and problems aren’t going away as long as there are humans around. We need problem-solving and creativity everywhere — in medicine, science, technology, industry, all parts of life. And this system just squashes the heck out of it.”

An educator sits with young children at a table, learning the alphabet

Aaron: Let’s talk about the professionals in the industry, too. What effect are these initiatives having on the early childhood professionals who have to work with them?

Rae: The ones who are quitting are doing so because they can’t bear doing these things to children — these standards ask educators to do things they know don’t match up with all their knowledge of child development. That’s harmful to educators’ own mental health. And there’s the lack of respect, too. Educators know what they’re doing, they know young children, and decisions are coming to them from on high, made from people who don’t know young children and early childhood education. That lack of respect is enormously frustrating. But mostly, early educators just can’t stand what they’re being forced to do to the children. Those who can’t leave, who just don’t have any choice, are burning out because it’s exhausting. It’s just as simple as that.”

Aaron: This seems like a good segue to talk about that revolution. What does a brighter ECE future look like?

Rae: It certainly starts with proper support, the way that other countries support families and child care workers. Parents  in the US can’t afford to pay more — they’re already paying far too much, and despite how much it costs parents, the early childhood professionals are not being paid what they’re worth. So there has to be some government support here, there just has to be. There’s no other way around it. Something like that isn’t gonna happen overnight, that’s for sure. But I think there are enough of us clamoring for it now. 

Some might hear the word ‘revolution’ in the title of my book, and think that I’m expecting them to go jump on their horses and charge down the streets waving their sabres, or even testifying before Congress. As I like to tell them, a revolution can be quiet too, and it takes little steps — a lot of little steps.

Aaron: Can you say more about that ‘quiet revolution’ idea? I think it’d be good to detail how exactly educators can become advocates, and help push for positive change.

Rae: I think that starts with looking at parents. Parents impact policy, because parents are voters, and the politicians want to please their constituents. So we look at the parents, who in this country, have almost put the play-based early learning environments out of business, because lots of parents have really bought into these ideas of rigorous, academics-oriented early education. 

So first, we’ve got to help parents to understand the importance of play, and why creative, child-led learning is really so vital in early education. We can do that in lots of ways: No matter what kind of program you are, you can share articles with parents, you can send out a weekly email or a newsletter, just sharing tidbits about play. This might seem small, but it really matters.

If you are a child care owner, you probably have a website. That website should share your philosophy on play and active learning, and why you’re doing that. You can do that in words, or you can do that in pictures and videos that show children engaged in creative, joyful learning. And then, hopefully, parents won’t come to you demanding the academics-oriented programming. If enough of us are doing that, it’s going to make a difference.

Children sitting in a row listening to teachers

Aaron: I think that really speaks to the importance of strengthening parent partnerships, and finding ways to bring educators and families together.

Rae: Yes, absolutely! There are dozens of apps right now for parent-educator communication, which makes this easier than it ever was. It’s super simple to send out photos and videos, and this also a great chance to attach articles about child development, or your own explanations of what children are learning. But sharing those reliable resources is key. It’s helpful for parents to have authoritative sources on child development, so they can understand all the research and knowledge behind what you’re advocating for.

Aaron: That does seem like a great place to start. In any case, it’s a long road ahead — so looking forward, what gives you hope?

Rae: What gives me hope is that it seems like there are loads of us who are, as they said in the movie Network, “mad as hell and not going to take it any more.” And we’re willing to do the work, too. I just started a membership program based on the ideas in my book, where we try to take these lessons beyond the book, and take action steps, and be part of a community while we’re doing it. I’ve got 55 people signed up already, and that gives me hope — that there are people willing to do the work.

You can learn more about Rae’s work and get involved with her “Spark a Revolution!” program at her website, www.raepica.com

The big ideas

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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