By Sarah Begley
February 4, 2016

The American approach to preschool tends to fit one of two molds: direct instruction, with rigorously scheduled lesson plans, and free-form, in which kids learn on their own whims. In her new book, education scholar Erika Christakis argues that both approaches are lacking. A better method falls in the middle, helping kids “exercise their deductive muscles” without boring them or giving them too much agency, writes Christakis, who resigned from her Yale teaching post Dec. 7 after an email she wrote ignited a campus debate about racial insensitivity. Instead of drilling kids on vocabulary, for instance, teachers and parents should focus on how well they can carry on a conversation. They should also ensure that structured activities like team sports do not replace playtime, especially for kids under 5, who need play to develop social skills and deductive reasoning. Too often, kids’ innate abilities are “masked by adult … obliviousness,” Christakis writes. In advocating for effective preschooling, “my aim is to reveal those special powers.”

–SARAH BEGLEY

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This appears in the February 15, 2016 issue of TIME.

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