In my daughter’s baby book are two great “early years” photos. One is a picture of her after she tried to eat a chocolate ice cream cone. The front of her shirt is covered, her hands are dripping,—and how she got it in her sandals, I’ll never know.
The other picture is of her standing in our front yard with dark brown smeared all around her mouth. Now, the casual observer would think that was another chocolate ice cream experiment. But it wasn’t. That time she was trying to eat dirt.
Dirt. Chocolate. Both are fair game to our young ones. And they have no qualms about using all of their senses to learn about the things they come in contact with. No, my daughter doesn’t eat dirt now. That’s because she used all of her senses and figured out that it doesn’t taste all that great.
Babies and toddlers use their senses to learn about everything in their surroundings. This is their primary work during the early years. Charlotte Mason advised parents to provide ample opportunities and plenty of time to learn in this way. She wanted us to encourage our children in that work.
Here are a few of Charlotte’s practical ideas of how we can encourage our preschoolers as they learn with their five senses.
Take advantage of informal object lessons to point out one or two aspects of the object.
We’ve probably all seen an “object lesson” that was scheduled and structured. But the best object lessons are spontaneous as we come across an object in its natural habitat or in the course of everyday life. “The child who finds that wonderful and beautiful object, a ‘paper’ wasp’s nest, attached to a larch-twig, has his object-lesson on the spot from father or mother. The grey colour, the round symmetrical shape, the sort of cup-and-ball arrangement, the papery texture, the comparative size, the comparative smoothness, the odour or lack of odour, the extreme lightness, the fact that it is not cold to the touch—these and fifty other particulars the child finds out unaided, or with no more than a word, here and there, to direct his observation. One does not find a wasp’s nest every day, but much can be got out of every common object, and the commoner the better, which falls naturally under the child’s observation, a piece of bread, a lump of coal, a sponge” (Vol. 2, pp. 182, 183).
Use everyday objects to teach your child about weight.
When my children were young, we used to play a game in the produce section of the grocery store. I would fill a bag with produce, and each of us would take a turn holding it and guessing its weight. Then we would put it on the scale and see who had guessed the closest. “Letters, book parcels, an apple, an orange, a vegetable marrow, fifty things in the course of the day, give opportunities for this kind of object teaching” (Vol. 2, p. 184).
Use everyday objects to teach your child about size.
“In the same way children should be taught to measure objects by the eye. How high is that candlestick? How long and broad that picture-frame? and so on—verifying their statements” (Vol. 2, p. 185).
Use everyday situations to encourage your child to listen carefully.
Start with easy exercises, such as “name all that you hear.” (By the way, this is a great game for waiting rooms or slow restaurants.) By degrees you may be able to graduate to naming “in order from the less to the more acute. Let the notes of the birds be distinguished, both call-notes and song-notes; the four or five distinct sounds to be heard in the flow of a brook. Cultivate accuracy in distinguishing footfalls and voices; in discerning, with their eyes shut, the direction from which a sound proceeds, in which footsteps are moving” (Vol. 2, p. 185).
You can come up with similar games to cultivate your child’s sense of touch, smell, and taste. None of these “lessons” need be formal or structured. Simply be on the lookout to grab the natural advantage that family life provides to learn through the senses.
And be sure to take plenty of pictures.