Monday, April 21, 2014

Charlotte Mason and Preschool Priorities 1: The Outdoor Life for the Children

I've been outlining the ways Charlotte Mason has been a blessing to me as a mother of preschoolers. Last time I wrote about how she has encouraged me to be the best mother and educator I can be. This time I want to begin to share how Charlotte Mason has helped me set my priorities in my day-to-day life with preschoolers. There are a few areas where she has helped me with this, but one of the most significant has been her emphasis on "the out-of-door life for the children."

"In this time of extraordinary pressure, educational and social, perhaps a mother's first duty to her children is to secure for them a quiet growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, the waking part of it spent for the most part out in the fresh air." (Vol. 1: Home Education, p. 43)

The "extraordinary pressure" Charlotte Mason talks about is certainly no less now than it was in her time. Preschool children all around us are doing more, and better...they must know their alphabet and their phonics sounds before ever beginning Kindergarten, they must count to 20, they must develop their fine motor skills by creating paper crafts using scissors and glue, and on and on it goes. It can be easy to go along with these expectations if your child is able to do all these things, or feel guilty and inadequate if your child is not achieving as well as your neighbour's preschooler. Charlotte Mason gives us permission to leave all these pressures and expectations behind. (Though she does leave us with another set of expectations, but it is a much more delightful one, I promise!)
"Never be within doors when you can rightly be without." (HE, p. 42)
What are the benefits of all this outdoor time? Here are some of the ones Charlotte Mason mentions:

1. Gladness and joy. She urges mothers to make it their goal "that every [hour] shall be delightful." This does not mean that mothers need to entertain their children outdoors. It has more to do with the fact that in taking their children outdoors, mothers are introducing their children to things so interesting that they never have any reason to be bored.

2. Health. A healthy body is very important to Charlotte Mason's philosophy of education. She makes much of the benefits of fresh air and sunshine.

3. Time and space for children to wonder and grow. Children should be left to themselves a good deal so they can explore, or observe quietly, or play vigorously.

4. First-hand knowledge of the world around them. This direct observation and handling of things is the foundation of the "Science of Relations" that education is, and is worth far more than learning the alphabet at age three. "Set the child to definite work by all means, and give him something to grind. But, pray, let him work with things and not with signs--the things of Nature in their own places, meadow and hedgerow, woods and shore." (HE, p. 55-56)
"Now is the storing time which should be spent in laying up images of things familiar. By-and-by he will have to conceive of things he has never seen: how can he do it except by comparison with things he has seen and knows? By-and-by he will be called upon to reflect, understand, reason; what material will he have, unless he has a magazine of facts to go upon?" (HE, p. 66)

5. Opportunity for training children in habits of careful observation and attention. "Consider, too, what an unequalled mental training the child-naturalist is getting for any study or calling under the sun--the powers of attention, of discrimination, of patient pursuit, growing with his growth,  what will they not fit him for?" (HE, p. 61)

6. Development of a sense of beauty. Charlotte Mason quotes a Dr. Morell saying, "All those who have shown a remarkable appreciation of form and beauty date their first impressions from a period lying far behind the existence of definite ideas or verbal instruction." (HE, p. 68)

7. Natural opportunity for learning science, geography, weather, astronomy, measurement, finding direction, making maps, and speaking a second language. Charlotte Mason gives specific methods to introduce your children to all these ideas without talking too much. " occasional 'Look!' an attentive examination of the object on the mother's own part, a name given, a remark--a dozen words long--made at the right moment, and the children have begun a new acquaintance which they will prosecute for themselves;..."

8. Training in "pluck, daring, and resource" (provided, of course, that mothers do not hover, and do allow their children to try risky things like climbing trees.)

I really love Charlotte Mason's balance for mothers of "masterly inactivity" (letting the children alone to play and explore) and purposeful (but gentle) method in introducing children to nature. It provides some variety in our outdoor time as well. We still do not spend as many hours outdoors as Charlotte Mason recommends (our winter climate is slightly more extreme, for one thing...), but we have begun, and I see this as a long-term goal. We spent time outdoors almost every day last winter, many times more than an hour. Before Charlotte Mason, I was more of a hibernator. She has really challenged me, and our home is the better for it. I am planning to work up to reaching her recommended four to six hours every fine day as the weather grows warmer.