Living ideas

Last week we talked a bit about how living ideas feed the mind. You will hear that phrase “living ideas” often in a Charlotte Mason approach to learning. Sometimes it’s hard to grasp the concept of a living idea as opposed to a dry fact. So let’s dive into that subject a little deeper today.

Below you will find two passages: one contains just the facts; the other contains living ideas. Let’s look first at the one that presents just the facts.

Even if you live in town, you can study nature in your own yard. Throughout the seasons you will see many different things among the trees, bushes, stones, flowers, and under the ground. This book will explain how.

Got it? Now read those same facts in a passage that contains living ideas.

“A great many people seem to think that if you want to study Natural History you must go out into the fields and woods. But it is not really necessary to do anything of the kind. Even in the very midst of a large town, if only you know how to use your eyes, there is often a good deal to be seen. And if you live in a house which has a garden, with just a few trees, and a few bushes, and a flower bed or two, and perhaps a little slip of lawn, there will scarcely be a day in all the year on which you cannot see most interesting sights, or find most wonderful creatures.

So let us imagine that we are taking four rambles round the garden together, the first in spring, the second in summer, the third in autumn, and the last in winter. We will look up into the branches of the trees, and peer into the cracks and crevices of the trunks; we will poke about among the bushes; we will turn over stones and heaps of dead leaves; we will watch the bees and the butterflies among the flowers; we will even peep under the ground, and see what is going on beneath the surface. And I think I can promise you this, that long before we have finished the last of our rambles we shall find that the garden is a very busy place indeed, and that a most wonderful work is being carried on there by a very great number of active little workers” (The Little Naturalist in the Garden by the Rev. Theodore Wood).

Do you see a difference between the two passages? The facts are still there in the second passage. Living books do contain facts. But they are not bare facts; they are clothed in living ideas. That second passage is chock full of ideas to latch onto and mull over at your leisure. For example,

  1. Many people struggle with nature study in town.
  2. Knowing how to use your eyes is a key in nature study.
  3. Your yard does not have to be elaborate.
  4. Nature study can be done all year.
  5. Nature study is full of interesting sights and wonderful creatures.
  6. A nature walk is a relaxing ramble.
  7. Possible places to look: up into a tree’s branches and into its cracks and crevices; poke about in bushes; turn over stones and heaps of dead leaves; observe bees and butterflies among flowers; under the ground.
  8. Your lawn is a very busy place.
  9. Your lawn is the home of a most wonderful work.
  10. There are a very great number of active little workers in your lawn.

The power of ideas is that they invite you to form your own personal relation with the material being presented. You almost can’t help it. Your emotions are touched. Your imagination lights up with mental pictures of what is being described. You are drawn into the passage.

And what’s more, it doesn’t stop there. A vitalizing idea can spark your own further related ideas. An idea you latch onto almost takes on a life of its own, connecting with other ideas in your mind, growing in scope, exploring related possibilities, and even spawning other ideas. As Charlotte said: “An idea fitly put is taken in without effort, and, once in, ideas behave like living creatures—they feed, grow, and multiply” (Vol. 2, p. 77).

Notice how the ideas presented above could easily enter the reader’s mind, ignite personal relations, and even initiate more ideas. Here is one example of what could be going on in the reader’s thoughts.

  1. I’m not the only one who struggles with nature study in town. I wonder if there are others in my area who are struggling? Maybe we could get together and encourage each other.
  2. There is hope. I will see nature here if I just learn how to use my eyes. I wonder how many things I’ve missed because I’m not looking in the right places.
  3. My yard is not too small for nature study.
  4. So I can start right now, no matter what season it is.
  5. “Interesting” and “wonderful” aren’t the adjectives I use when I talk about nature study. Maybe I’ll learn to appreciate it as much as that author does. Oh, I wonder if my attitude is rubbing off on my kids.
  6. I don’t usually think of our nature study times as rambles; they’re more like Mom on a Mission. Maybe I should slow down and take more time. But I don’t know what I would do with more time out there. Hopefully this book will tell me.
  7. Wow, there are lots of places to look in my yard! I hadn’t thought of several of those.
  8. I never thought of my lawn as “a very busy place.” Maybe there is more going on than I realized.
  9. Really? A “most wonderful” work? Maybe my children will actually be filled with wonder when we start to discover what all the yard holds.
  10. It looks pretty deserted to me, but maybe there’s more to it than meets my eye. I’m curious what we’ll find out there.

Do you see how ideas work? Now that reader is thinking ahead, is looking around with a different vision, is pondering relationships, is watching and eager to learn more, is experiencing the first tiny steps of a change of attitude. That’s the power of an idea!

I daresay those responses were not bubbling in the mind and heart when reading the Just the Facts paragraph.

Now, most likely, a reader will not make all of those connections while reading just the two paragraphs. She might; but she might grab onto only two or three of the ideas. That is still food for her mind! Just as we spread a feast and allow each dinner guest to choose what he wants to eat, so it is with nourishing ideas.

“We spread an abundant and delicate feast in the programmes and each small guest assimilates what he can” (Vol. 6, p. 183).

“The duty of parents is to sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as they sustain his body with food. The child is an eclectic; he may choose this or that; therefore, in the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thy hand, for thou knowest not which shall prosper, whether this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good” (Vol. 2, p. 39).

It is not our job to dictate which ideas are received. It is our job to offer a multitude of ideas in the curriculum we spread for our children, and allow each child to internalize the ideas that strike him or her. It may be only one idea that nestles into a child’s heart and mind, but even a single idea is nourishing. Ideas feed growth as a person.

“Give your child a single valuable idea, and you have done more for his education than if you had laid upon his mind the burden of bushels of information” (Vol. 1, p. 174).

That’s the power of an idea.


  1. This is so inspiring! It takes deliberate action to think like this because it goes against what we’ve been taught in our culture. So beautiful! Thank you!

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