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Those of us who use Charlotte Mason know that it is a beautiful and enriching experience for both us and our children. But is it enough? Especially as those children grow older and get into the upper grades, does a Charlotte Mason approach do our children a disservice? Let’s talk about that and set your mind at ease. The Charlotte Mason approach is comprehensive, challenging, and rewarding all the way up through high school. I’ll lay it out for you.
We’re starting a new series today in which I’m going to walk you through what a Charlotte Mason education looks like—the big picture—through all the grades, from preschool through high school. We’ll look at how the methods Charlotte used fit the children naturally at each stage, how they level up in difficulty over the grades, and how each stage solidly prepares your student for the next level of challenge. It’s a brilliant and extensive plan that will definitely set your child up for success with strong skills, deep relations with a wide variety of subjects, her all-important natural, God-given curiosity and love for learning still intact, plus the tools she needs in order to keep learning for a lifetime.
So let’s dive in. We’re going to begin with preschool. What does Charlotte Mason look like in the preschool years? In a Charlotte Mason approach, formal lessons don’t begin until 6 years old, so the preschool years include ages 3-5 and what we would consider kindergarten.
In those early years, your young child needs plenty of time to explore and assimilate the world around her through everyday life. She needs an atmosphere where people, God, and learning are valued and loved; she needs to have good habits of thinking and behaving intentionally cultivated; and she needs an abundance of living ideas presented informally. This is not the time for formal mandatory lessons.
The preschool years are much more child-directed. The good habits that you set in place form the boundaries, and within those boundaries your child should be free to explore while you stand by, calmly alert and ready to guide as desired or needed.
So how do you create a preschool environment that is conducive to learning without having formal lessons? What does that look like? It can be helpful to think of those years in terms of creating a learning atmosphere and providing learning opportunities.
First, the learning atmosphere. You can create a home where different types of ideas and topics are just a natural part of everyday life. For example, surround your child with good art by hanging beautiful art on the walls, by making sure the picture books in your home contain worthy illustrations, and by displaying a rotating supply of art prints for your child to look at and talk about. Play uplifting and classical music in the background during clean-up time or rest time. Sing together. Provide plenty of relaxed, unhurried time in nature to get firsthand knowledge of God’s creation through the changing seasons in your own backyard or favorite park. Make sure that your child’s toys are open-ended toys that encourage imagination and can be used for many kinds of play, rather than specialty toys that do only one thing. Put together a craft box with a few common art supplies and some odds and ends, such as fabric and empty cereal boxes, drinking straws and old socks; and then give your child plenty of time to make her own creations.
A natural learning atmosphere will also include regular times to read books together every day, to tell stories, and to enjoy poems and rhymes. And don’t overlook the importance of conversations during the day. Listening attentively and answering thoughtfully will show your child respect as a growing person and help her to process all that she is learning about life, plus it will naturally increase her vocabulary and help her fine tune her language skills. Habit training is another part of everyday life. Help your child to grow in good habits, such as obedience, attention, kindness, orderliness, and truthfulness. You can even include math concepts through informal, everyday activities; the key is to make sure you focus on real objects, not symbols on paper. Count toys as you pick them up and put them away. Count how many muffins are on the plate at the beginning of the meal, see how many are eaten, and then count how many are left on the plate at the end. Talk about “heavy” and “light” as you carry in the groceries. Math is a part of everyday living; simply look for it and make those conversations and activities a natural thing in your home. Encourage your child’s spiritual growth by making prayer a natural part of your family life. Read Bible stories. All of these things I have mentioned can become an integral part of your family life: “this is who we are.” They are simple, little things; yet, put together, they create a rich learning atmosphere in which your child will grow.
Then, you can also provide intentional learning opportunities. Set aside specific times to visit the library, to go to church, to play with friends, to go to the park. Plan opportunities to work together; for example, shopping for groceries, doing chores around the house or outside, planting and tending a garden, or cooking together. Gather what you need and play a game together, whether that’s a premade board game or one that you make up, such as rolling a ball into a bucket. You can even introduce a foreign language as you play, telling the word for “roll,” for example, as your child rolls the ball.
These learning opportunities are more scheduled and structured, with more pre-thought going into them perhaps, but even then it works best to keep that structure flexible. Young children thrive with a routine; it helps them feel secure as they know what to expect: we get up, we get dressed, we eat breakfast, we brush our teeth, we play, we read, we clean up, we eat lunch, we have rest time, etc. But that structure does not need to be tied to a clock. Some days it might take more time to eat breakfast than other days; that’s okay. Some days your child might be ready to sit and read several books together; other days she might be ready for only one book. That’s okay. Keep offering those learning opportunities, keep an atmosphere of learning as a natural part of your family life, and keep flexible structure to your days. That’s what a Charlotte Mason preschool looks like.
That’s not to say that the child rules the roost. By no means! It just means that you are not dictating what the child should learn and when, but letting her discover and process at her own pace. You are providing the best natural environment for her to learn from—with plenty of good conversations, good habits, and good ideas available—but having done that, you allow her to partake of those conversations and ideas as she is ready.
Preschool Reading Lessons
That principle of “as she is ready” especially applies to the skill-based subjects of reading and writing. You can, and should, provide learning opportunities in reading and writing, but even those should be offered as informal activities during the preschool years. Start by giving your child letters that she can handle and play with, such as foam letters or wooden blocks with letters on them or magnetic letters. Then over time help her to learn the names of those letters and the sounds that they make, just as you help her to learn the names of animals and the different sounds that they make.
Once she knows most of the letters and their sounds, you can see if she’s ready for word-building. And after she has built and learned a couple of hundred words, you can advance to actual reading lessons. We have some videos that will walk you through the process step by step.
Some children will be ready for this at a young age; others will be more focused on different areas of knowledge and not interested in working with words until later. That’s fine. Especially in these skill-based subjects of reading and writing, it’s important to go at your individual child’s pace. The beauty of a Charlotte Mason approach is that reading and writing are not necessary for learning during the first few grades, so there’s no need to rush your child.
Preschool Handwriting Lessons
For handwriting, allow your child to draw; that’s the first step. But don’t force her to use the small muscles in her fingers; let her use the larger muscles in her hand and wrist and arm first—drawing with her finger in the air or in a tray of sand or drawing on a large white board. You can still teach her how to form the letters with those larger muscles. Teach her a stroke, and then the letters that can be made with it. If she can draw a vertical line and a horizontal line, she can form a capital T, an I, an L, E, F, H … lots of letters! But even these ideas should be presented informally during the preschool years. This is not the time to say, “Sit down for your handwriting lesson.” Rather, as she shows interest in letters and in drawing or wants to learn to write her name, you can show her a letter and let her work with it as long as she wants to. Then maybe show her another letter the next day.
Later, when she is ready to do the harder work of controlling the smaller muscles in her fingers, she will already know how to form the letters. At that point she can transition to writing with a pencil on lined paper and will be able to give her concentration to making each stroke fit within the lines as it should. For many children that step will come during the kindergarten year, but whenever it comes, you want to make sure your child is very familiar with the letters she is writing and can read any words she is copying. So don’t get the cart before the horse and don’t panic. When your child is ready, she will take off.
Your Preschooler Is Learning!
You may be thinking, “But shouldn’t I make sure my child is learning during the preschool years?”
Your little one is learning! She is making important brain connections about the world around her and how her body interacts with that world, about her own emotions and self-regulation, and about social expectations with a variety of people in different settings—not to mention learning a brand new language! Your preschooler is constantly observing, analyzing, comparing, categorizing, recalling, forming hypotheses, experimenting, testing, trying, and refining. All of those brain connections—with the world around her and the world within her—are essential foundations that need to have plenty of time and space to get established. And they all take place quite naturally for most children through informal play in a loving and language-rich home.
A Wonderful Charlotte Mason Preschool Curriculum
Simply Charlotte Mason has a resource to make it easy for you to provide this kind of relaxed and enriching environment. It’s a monthly subscription box called Our Preschool Life. Every month you’ll receive an art print, craft supplies and projects, nature hunt stickers, music, games, indoor and outdoor activities, chore cards, stories, poems and rhymes, informal math activities, songs, a habit emphasis, and your choice of book. Plus, you’ll get parenting tips and encouragement just for you.
Is Charlotte Mason Preschool Enough?
Is this kind of preschool—a Charlotte Mason-style preschool—enough for ages 3 to 5? Will they be ready for formal lessons in first grade? Yes!
Let’s take a look at how you’ve been preparing your child for the next level of challenge.
The good music and good art that you have included in your home have helped to cultivate her taste for what is beautiful and worthy and have paved the way for the more focused picture study and music study that is coming.
The time you’ve spent outside observing nature has been laying a solid foundation for science lessons. So when your child reads about a nature friend or an aspect of the weather in a science book, she will already have firsthand, personal experience with it.
The crafts your child has been doing have given her opportunity to work with a variety of materials and to fine tune her eye-hand coordination in preparation for more involved handwork to come.
The math concepts that have been a part of your everyday life have shown your child how math works and that it is an interesting, practical study.
The habits that you have worked on during the preschool years have helped your child to grow in consistent obedience and directing her attention where it needs to be and putting things where they belong—to name only a few of those helpful habits—all of which set her up for success in the formal lesson times to come.
The conversations you have engaged in with your child have given her practice in collecting her thoughts and finding the words to communicate them. That has paved the way for oral narration, which will begin in first grade.
In other words, you have been preparing your child for school during the preschool years, but you have been doing it in a way that is natural to your child and portrays learning as an enjoyable way of life. You have been preserving your child’s God-given curiosity and desire to learn about the world around her, the people in it, and the God Who rules over it. You have been nourishing her heart and mind with good, noble, worthy ideas, and that will continue in first grade. At that point you will simply take the next step and level up the challenge a bit with formal lessons.
We’ll talk about the elementary years next time.