Rae Pica is an internationally recognized early childhood education consultant, who's been fighting the good fight for — get this — 41 years!
Yep, Rae is a true child care hero and her mission is clear:
To ensure that children have the opportunity to be children.
And she hasn’t slowed down. In fact, Rae will be releasing her next book in Fall 2022 called: Spark a Revolution in Early Childhood Education: Speaking Up for Yourself and the Little Ones. (We personally can’t wait!)
The way Rae sees it, the decline in the number of play-inspired preschools and early learning centers over the past couple of decades is a serious problem. But with a focus on standing up and speaking out, there is still hope.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Rae about one of the most common myths plaguing early childhood, how early childhood professionals and parents can help, and why we all need strong advocacy in order to make lasting change.
Ready? Let’s dive in!
It’s no secret that play is vital for children to learn, but Rae is seeing a disturbing trend in early childhood environments.
“Through the years, I've witnessed so many changes, most of which have not been very good,” says Rae. “And it's just so upsetting. There are so many myths out there. There's so much misinformation, and it's impacting children and early childhood education. It has to stop.”
For Rae, the very biggest myth plaguing early childhood education is the belief that “earlier is better.”
“It's wreaking havoc on children, early childhood education and its professionals, because so many of them know that earlier isn't better,” says Rae. “And they are often required to teach in ways that they know to be developmentally inappropriate.”
One experience she encountered was from a quality coach in Arizona.
The coach reported that teachers of one-year-olds believed they needed to have them sitting for 20 minutes a day to review flashcards with numbers and letters, because these were skills needed in the two-year-old classroom.
Rightfully, the quality coach was frustrated by this experience.
“It just boggles the mind,” says Rae. “One-year-olds are not meant to sit, two-year-olds are not meant to sit. One or two-year-olds, they're not meant to know their letters and numbers yet… But these teachers believed that they had to start working on the kindergarten standards while the children were still one.”
This growing mindset of forced learning in early childhood education seems to be detrimental to everyone involved. “I either want to scream or cry when I hear these stories or I get these emails from unhappy parents, unhappy teachers and stories about unhappy children,” says Rae. “It just has to stop.”
One way to debunk the myth of “earlier is better” is by helping parents understand the truth about children and their developmentally appropriate capabilities — a message Rae has been teaching her audience for quite a long time.
Although early childhood professionals and parents relied on technology to communicate and learn throughout the pandemic, traditional play remains key when it comes to early childhood education.
Rae says early learning teachers are best qualified to help parents, administrators, and policymakers understand the way nature intended children to learn and develop, namely — through play.
But due to the widespread belief that play isn’t productive, early childhood professionals are more overwhelmed and under pressure than ever before.
“I do think that early childhood professionals have to play a significant role in this. I mean, several years ago, a colleague said to me, ‘For too long teachers have been told to shut up and do their jobs. And they've complied.’”
Rae urges teachers to speak up and speak out about the way forced learning is impacting children.
“We can't stay silent anymore, because it's wrecking the kids,” explains Rae. “It's wrecking early childhood education.”
The last thing teachers need is to worry about adding yet another thing to their already full plates. But according to Rae, it doesn’t take a lot of time to educate the parents and help debunk these myths.
She shared some of the practical ways to inform parents about appropriate child development, including:
Keep in mind, directors and administrators have as much power, if not more, to help educate parents and to use the platforms they have — whether it’s a newsletter or the website — to spark a conversation about the value of play and the learning outcomes it can offer young children.
“And this is why: If a parent is insisting, and I've heard this many times, that her three-year-old be taught to read, the director needs to explain why it isn't important and why it could have a detrimental effect as opposed to benefit,” explains Rae.
According to Rae, the main reason play-inspired preschools and early learning centers have been disappearing is due to parents insisting upon academics.
“We see the power parents have. We need them to start insisting upon play-inspired,” explains Rae. “We need them to realize that just because something is old-fashioned, like blocks and dramatic play centers… it doesn't mean they're no good anymore. It doesn't mean they don't have value.”
The more parents are educated about child development, the more impact they can have on policy changes. Because at the end of the day, policy needs to change.
For Rae, any amount of action counts, and it’s important for parents to specifically communicate their ideas and needs when it comes to early childhood education.
Rae recalls attending an advocacy summit held by Northern Virginia Association for the Education of Young Children a couple years ago.
“State legislators had given up part of their Saturday to come and speak with us,” says Rae. “The one thing that really stood out was when one of them said: ‘We need to hear what's important to you.’ Otherwise, they have no idea — they're not mind readers anymore than the rest of us.”
Parents can advocate for change with tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram posts, and brief messages to policymakers.
“I mean, the policymakers paying attention to us hasn't proven to be such a good thing in the past, but if we speak up, it can be,” says Rae. “They’re paying attention to us now, so we need to give them the right messages.”
Rae admits, “It all sounds exhausting when we put it all together,” but she still believes getting policy to change is a clear case of stronger in numbers.
“You don't want to go at it alone. If you're fighting to have recess returned to the public school in which you're teaching or for anything else — you want backup. Because I do have a story about a teacher who went at it alone and wasn't successful.”
For Rae, the act of starting a conversation with a stranger in public or a maintenance person on the phone about early childhood education and development can add up to big moments in activism for children.
“I encourage people and early childhood professionals to tell their stories, to strike up a conversation whenever possible,” says Rae. “You're in an Uber or a Lyft, find out if the driver is a parent. You're standing in a long line at the DMV or the grocery store or whatever it might be… just strike up a conversation.”
One of the simplest ways of advocacy for Rae is always using the right language.
For example, you can think about using “early childhood professional, educator, or teacher” instead of “daycare worker.”
“It might not seem like a big deal, but language really matters,” says Rae. “We can't doubt the value of words. So, we have to respect ourselves or no one else is going to respect us.”
No matter which way ECE leaders, teachers and parents choose to advocate for play-centered early childhood education, it needs to happen sooner than later.
Because ultimately, experts like Rae know it’s doing more harm than good for the children and teachers involved.
“We're putting so much pressure on children to accomplish things that they are not capable of accomplishing, because they're not developmentally ready,” says Rae. “They're not developmentally equipped to accomplish these tasks.”
Young children can have their happy childhoods back as long as policymakers, ECE pros, and parents keep paying attention to the research and do something about it. If we’ve learned anything from Rae, it’s that small forms of advocacy matter can add up to meaningful change for children. Because earlier is not always better — but play is.