what are living ideas?

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  • karivaz

    We are beginning our homeschool adventure with a 5 year old boy, a 3 year old boy, and an 18 month old baby girl. I have been reading lots of the CM and CM-related books and am getting confused!

    Here’s my burning question: what ARE living ideas? Can anyone give me some examples of what living ideas are and look like when a child thinks about them? What does a living idea look like at your house, and how does it become part of your child’s life? Do different kids get different ideas out of the same book? How can you tell your kids are getting living ideas? Do you as the teacher or parent have a notion of what ideas go with what books and plan your curriculum accordingly? When kids are getting stuck in one line of ideas, how do you know they might be ready or not ready for a new set?

    Here’s why I’m asking. We do have a steady diet of books on the SCM preschool read-aloud list and the Sonlight list and Bible stories. They’re good and we think about them. For example, one day my son told me he wished I’d be more like Mary. I didn’t know any Marys, so I asked him who he was talking about, and he told me he wanted me to sit quietly and listen Jesus, not be so busy cooking!

    But on the whole, my boys declare they like “information books” more than stories and cannot get enough of the Gail Gibbons style info books. When I let the kids loose at the library, they pick the books with glossy pictures of backhoes and dump trucks and the most boring text for me to read. Still, they beg me to read the book, then read it again. We’ll read a page about the different types of trains and they’re off and running to draw one or build one with Legos. And because we’ve been through a lot of such books, they combine ideas. They’ll explain at length about their new inventions (a combine harvester that grinds flour and makes bread, a logging machine that harvests trees and then converts to a truck to carry lumber to the mill, etc).


    Is this NORMAL? Are they feeding on what CM would call IDEAS? Please help!

    Thank you!


    I’ll take a stab at this one but hopefully others will chime in.  Here is a great description by Simply Charlotte Mason.  Go ahead, read it and come back.  So from that I would say that a living book, especially for younger ages, is written in a story or is conversational in tone and brings to life a subject. 

    A simple example:  We could look at a fact/informational type book like Eyewitness Owls with photographs and many small informational bits sprinkled around each page.  So a page  might explain that owlets open their eyes at 3 weeks, Climb out of the hole in the tree at 4 weeks, and take a first flight around 5 weeks.  They eat mice their parents bring to them.  While the photos may catch my children’s interest, there is no story being impressed on their heart/mind about owls and what they are truly like, their habits, etc. ( I’m not familiar with the Gail Gibbon’s books, do they have a storyline?)

      Instead of the Eyewitness book, I would read Screech Owl at Midnight Hollow to my children. Here are a few paragraphs in this picture book on the same week 3/4/5 life of an owlet:

    “By the end of the third week, their eyes were open – a nest of lemon moons.   Yellow moons blinking and wide mouths waiting for mice.

    “By the fourth week they scramble out of the tree.  They sit side by side on a branch.  Parents drop whole mice into their gaping mouths.

    “A few nights later the largest owlet tries her first flight.  The owlet teeters on the branch and then plummets to the ground.  She scrambles to her toes.  She digs her talons into the tree bark and skitters back up to the branch, more like a cat then an owl.”

    Can you see the difference?  In this book each of those paragraphs is illustrated in beautiful paintings, but even without the illustrations my children would be forming a mental picture of owls and their habits as young. 


    Now, it isn’t unusual for children to like informational books!  I have 6 sons and 2 daughters and they all like both.  I try to encourage a living book to start a relationship with an idea, and then they are more than welcome to read informational books or, in the case of owls, even go on an owl hunt, meet owls at the zoo’s bird show, or watch a video.  But what lives in their mind are the ideas sparked in the living book – the blinking yellow moon eyes, the flutter, fall, and climbing cat-like of the determined young owlet who has not yet figured out flight.  The story offers relateable experiences as well.  What child hasn’t tried and failed at something?  But they can use the owl for inspiration to get up and try again. 

    I hope that helps!  


    I remember reading in one of CM’s volumes about a boy who developed a love of Scotland from reading books. A living idea could be a big concept but it could be a simple affinity for something like that. The recent CM blog carnival was kind of on this topic.




    That’s a perfect way to describe it!  I think I know in my head and heart what a living idea is – but I can’t put it into words….or give examples off the top of my head. 

    You did it perfectly!


    Thanks Karen.


    Karivaz, I realized you had a few related questions tucked in there. 

    Do kids get different living ideas out of the same book?  Yes, often.  Especially if we’re working through a chapter book!  So when we read Chitty Chitty Bang Bang last month, for example, some of the children were drawn to the ideas of being an inventor or working with cars, while one loved the cave and bats and wanted more about that, another wanted to learn about traveling the English Channel and going to France, and several liked the candy and chocolate scenes and wanted to learn more about candymaking.    When we read a historical fiction book like The Sign of the Beaver there are so many ideas that may make their way into a child’s mind, but which ones they are interested in and choose to form a relationship with will be different from child to child. 

    How can you tell your kids are getting living ideas?  Two top ways come to mind:  Narration!  When they tell you about the book you’ll hear the things that resonated or stood out to them.  Just as each of the Gospels focuses on slightly different aspects of Christ’s ministry even when talking of the same event, our children’s narrations will vary even around the same book.  Second, their play.  Listen in to see what comes out in their play.  Did you read about pirates or sailing ships and suddenly your child is pretending to be a pirate swabbing the deck?  That’s a living idea coming out.

    Do I as the teacher plan what ideas I want them to get out of a book?  Yes and no.  I choose books for the idea possibilities in them but it often surprises me what other ideas my children pull from a book.  So while I may have thought we would talk about or learn more about inventors with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I would not have expected the interest in caves to be there.  But it was! 



    A living idea is a spark that ignites the spirit of the person , that they are compelled to fan the flame .



    Thank you so much, everyone. I think I’m beginning to understand what you’re saying…a living book with living ideas is one that you can form relationships with (I love the idea of “relatable experience” like the owlet trying again) and identify with. And it’s the kind of idea that gets you going into other things, exploring new paths of learning that are suddenly vitally interesting to you because of something you read. 

    These examples are very helpful–in fact, I am going to think of your examples as stories with “living ideas” that I’m going to take off and run with.

    Gail Gibbons gives a ton of information in her books (my kids like the ones about building a house, farming, and trains, and lighthouses). It is much more readable than any of the children’s encyclopedias out there with snippets attached to pictures. However, there is not much of a story line in any of Gibbons’ books except the inevitable chronology of building the house–first the concrete workers lay the foundation, then the carpenters attach the joists and frame the house, etc, etc. The farming one goes through the year and gives little snapshots of what is going on in each season. The kids get a LOT of information and vocabulary from her books.

    But it seems that their interest in these topics is so high already that ANYTHING related to the subject will captivate their attention. I don’t mind reading these books again and again to the kids, but I will make an effort to include many more “living books.”



    Sonya Shafer

    Charlotte talked about having those reference books on hand so children can investigate further into subjects that have piqued their interest in the living books. So don’t worry about the boys’ liking them; that’s fine. Just be sure you give them the ideas in the living books too, as so well explained above. You might take a look at The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton; that might be a good living book to go with the how-to-build investigations. Or Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall could go with the farming details.

    Here’s another blog post contrasting facts and ideas.


    I’ll add a little from my experience.  😉

    I have a son (currently 7 years old) who has loved books with photos and realistic drawings, especially cut-away drawings, of any kind of machine: tractors, planes, war machines, cars, trucks, ships, submarines, etc. for as long as I can remember.   Now, I don’t really enjoy reading those kind of books, but he studies the pictures much like we do during Picture Study, memorizing and thinking about the details.  He’s not a strong reader, so occasionally he asks me to read the caption in order to understand what he’s viewing.  This child is also very detail oriented.  I don’t know if he is that way because of looking at these types of books or if he likes these types of books because he is detail oriented.  The same child takes apart discarded machinery and such for fun.  We read many living books as well, so I feel he receives a fair balance.  There is a great book about the Hindenburg that is interesting and has great pictures. (wish I could remember the title)  We also read a lot of different accounts of the Titanic sinking, one of his great fascinations, as well as the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  So do not fret if your child likes information books.  Follow his or her interest to read books about the topics to which he or she is drawn.  (By the way, this child is very sensitive to others’ sufferings, so reading “war” and “disaster” type books seems counterintuitive.  However, I find that he really connects with the human aspect of these stories, and when he shows me the “cut-away” diagrams and labeled machinery, he explains how it was used or who used it in the stories.)  



    When my kiddos are little, we read the living books together and discuss them, but i let them check out the informational books to look through on their own. I think it has helped to have those high interest books around to build their reading skills and interest, but the living books are the books they really end up loving. The proof of this is that they will tire of the informational books after a couple of weeks,and it gets returned to the library with no protest. But if I tried to get rid of, say, the Narnia Series or our Little House books, or any of our other living books, there would be war! Those books become friends to the children and it is impossible to get rid of them. I warn you to start thinking about shelving :-).

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