Gentle Learning

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I am very lucky in that with Little Cherub I get to start over again with home education with the benefit of experience. My biggest regret with my eldest daughter in particular, and to a lesser extent with her sister, is that I tried to do too much, too soon. This time around I want to take a much more gentle approach to the early years.

Inspired by a mix of Charlotte Mason, Montessori and Waldorf education, these are the things I want Little Cherub's early years to include

  •    gentle, nurturing atmosphere
  •    an emphasis on the rhythm of the year
  •    rhythmic days
  •    creative play
  •    child-led learning
  •    picture books
  •    fairy tales and imaginative stories
  •    enjoying nature
  •    lots of art and craft
  •    learning about the world and its people
  •    avoiding over-stimulation

Annual rhythm 

"The rhythm of the liturgical seasons reflects the rhythm of life - with its celebrations of anniversaries and its seasons of quiet growth and maturing." (Catholic Culture)

One of the most enjoyable ways of teaching religion in a Catholic family is to focus on the liturgical year. This provides many natural learning opportunities, allows the building of family memories and traditions, and helps to develop a sense of the sacred within daily life. The liturgical year is at the heart of what I am thinking of as yearly rhythm, though I would also include:

  •    A focus on the seasons, with seasonal crafts, books, foods and decorations.
  •    Traditional and secular celebrations such as Mothering Sunday and Bonfire Night
  •    Jewish festivals (important for us as a Catholic-Jewish family)

The liturgical year is built on a framework of liturgical seasons - Advent reflective and a preparation for the celebration of Christmas, Lent a time of repentance and self-denial before the long, joyful season of Easter (not just one day, but fifty). Ordinary Time in between is punctuated with its own feasts and seasons - saints' days, Feasts of the Lord and of His Mother, reminders of the Church, the Trinity, the Eucharist, the angels, the Communion of Saints. The list goes on and on, and this richness can become a problem for celebrations at home - it is possible to become bogged down in a long list of saints and seasons one would like to celebrate and end up either overloaded or giving up. This is not rhythm!

For the year to have rhythm it takes a realistic approach, not an overambitious one. I have fallen into the trap of swinging between over ambition and neglect too many times in the past, and I hope I have now learned my lesson. With beautiful timing - just as I was thinking about this - Meredith of Sweetness and Light wrote about keeping the company of the saints. She gave a list of resources for celebrating the saints, a reminder to start small (that's right ... small, not overambitious!) and listed a series of baby steps to keeping the company of the saints:

  • Identify Saints to be celebrated for each week and find a reading about them.
  • Locate a holy card or image, statue of Saint and a candle (or several candles)
  • Designate a prayer table or area in your home for setting up your display
  • Plan one activity to start: Mass, cake, tea, craft, special meal or truly, any combination of these, for the Saints, the skies the limit, but remember to start small.
  • Plan to say a prayer or begin a Novena to the Saint (or Mary) to be celebrated.

These baby steps could be used with any number of children of any age, from toddlers up. In the past I have tended to be quite successful at developing family traditions for the "big" seasons (Advent, Christmas, Lent and, with slightly less success, Easter - maybe I have shot my bolt by the end of Lent?), but have fallen apart in between. Meredith's simple framework will be a great starting point for filling in the gaps.

Rhythmic days

What do I mean by rhythmic days? Not days lived according to a timetable, but days that follow a regular and comfortable pattern. To me rhythm means something more than routine - it gives each day a natural flow, it  allows for variation according to season and opportunity, and it encompasses the inevitable crisis days without falling apart as our routines have a tendency to do. Learning opportunities can be worked into a daily rhythm in such a way that learning happens naturally and gently.

Having said that, for me the way to routine and rhythm is often a timetable. I am not the most self-disciplined of people and my days can easily run away from me if I don't have a plan, and preferably a plan on paper. Setting out a timetable for the way an ideal day would run is a valuable exercise for me. I can see what it is realistic to include in our day (or week) without running into a time crunch. Once I have an "ideal" day on paper, I test it and tweak it in practice until it mutates into a routine or rhythm, and the original timetable disappears. The timetable is a tool and a means to an end.

The educational philosophy that lends itself particularly to rhythmic days is Waldorf, so this is where I have been looking for inspiration in this area. Charlotte Mason schedules are typically more formal and start at age six, and Montessori (as I understand it) allows for a specific period of "work" within which the child has free choice of activities. This schedule from Practical Waldorf at Home: Kindergarten with Your Three to Six Year Old by Donna Simmons includes much of what I would like to include in an early years routine - housework, outdoor time, "Circle Time" (which for us would include morning prayers), creative play, stories, art and craft, and reading aloud.

  • 8.00 Household chores
  • 8.30 Morning walk
  • 10.00 Snack time followed by Circle Time and finish with a story
  • 10.45 Creative play or project based on the story
  • 12.00 Lunch preparation and lunch
  • 1.00 Rest time
  • 2.00 Outdoor or indoor play
  • 3.30 Craft activity or painting
  • 4.30 Read aloud followed by supper preparation

The specifics would be different to fit into the natural rhythm of our family, but this gives an outline I could use as a starting off point. I know from experience that our daily rhythm constantly mutates as the child grows and changes, and it is also seasonal - we tend to spend more time out and about in the summer and more time indoors in winter. Days that include outside activities, play dates or errands obviously look different to those spent entirely at home.

Enjoying nature

Charlotte Mason advocates spending as much time out of doors enjoying nature as is practically possible, so that children come to truly know its different aspects. I think in the past I have registered the list of things she recommends should be accomplished and skipped over the fact that she intends them to be mentioned lightly and occasionally, as a minor part of the time spent outdoors. The heart of her method is experiencing nature so that it becomes a part of the child.

Thinking back to my own childhood I can see just what she means. I grew up experiencing nature. My father was a farmer, so I naturally spent a large amount of time out of doors. There is so much that I knew without ever consciously learning. I knew how wheat grew from watching the first shoots to the ripe crop; I knew the feel of the ears and the taste of the individual grains. I knew a daisy from making daisy chains. I could still describe one from memory in detail - the look and feel of the petals and the stem, the way the stem could be pierced with a fingernail to thread a chain, the flower's evening sleeping habits. I knew hawthorn hedges and blackberry bushes, acorns and conkers, how to suck the nectar out of a dead nettle, and which nettles are dead and which sting. And as an adult I love nature. I am happy to recognise old friends and to make new discoveries. I enjoy keeping a nature notebook and learning more about nature.

Realistically, I can't give my own children the same experience. Spending hours outside just isn't going to happen. I'm too much of a fair weather person, a real limitation given our unpredictable and often damp climate. I also only have the use of the car a couple of days a week. The open spaces within walking distance are few and getting to other places by public transport is time consuming. Our garden is small and limited to grass and a hedge; I have black thumbs, and the few things I do manage to grow, Tevye - who is sometimes overly tidy-minded - digs up.

So how can Little Cherub and I enjoy nature together? How can I help her to experience it, rather than turn it into a lesson, given our limitations? This list of ideas is a beginning, that I hope to expand as time goes on. 

  • Regular weekly trips to our local country park, which combines ancient woodland, newer plantations, heathland, pasture, a lake and a pond with nature study area. Aim to stay for two or three hours, not just take a quick stroll round the lake!
  • Visit countryside and parks just to play outdoors - not always be tempted to gravitate to the playground and swing on the swings, or at least to make that only part of a trip out.
  • Start gardening projects and follow them through.
  • Turn my failed rockery into a wildflower garden. (Out of the mouths of babes: "Mummy, why are there a load of rocks dumped at the top of the drive?" "That's my rock garden." "No it's not, it's just an untidy heap of rocks.")
  • Replace my ancient unused bird feeder, and fill it.
  • Encourage Little Cherub to grow things (indoors and out).
  • Keep a seasonal nature table, Waldorf style
  • Modelling - make my own enjoyment of nature obvious; take out my own nature notebook again and work on it regularly.
  • Read picture books with nature themes, both fiction and non-fiction. (Does experiencing nature vicariously through books count? Yes, I think it does so long as it is an extension of real experience, not a replacement for it.)
  • Be aware of opportunities for outside time. For example, allow extra time when walking places so we can stop and smell the roses. Literally.
  • Cultivate "masterly inactivity". Gently pass on occasional nuggets of interesting information, but avoid falling into the mindset of cramming in "education". Smell the roses. Don't analyse them! 


Art and craft

One of my regrets is that I didn't do enough hands on activities with my older children. Books are easy - you pick them up, read them, and (eventually) put them away again. Art and crafts are harder. They make messes that need to be cleared up. They require preparation. Over planning can lead to frustration when the child doesn't want to do your project, your way. Under planning means nothing will happen. This time round I want to push art and craft activities right up my priority list and make them a regular part of our day, rather than an extra that may or (more often) may not happen. Art and craft has such a lot to offer young children - it aids concentration, helps them to develop fine motor skills, encourages creativity, and gives them the satisfaction of seeing something they have made. It can tie in with every area of education - I love the idea of Waldorf style "main lesson" books, in which the child records their learning largely in art (at least in the earlier years). While I wouldn't want to start main lesson books too early, I would like to start to develop the skills that would make them an enjoyable part of learning later. 

So, where to start? A few ideas ... 

  • Work creative activities into the daily routine. For me this is the biggest challenge!
  • First Art: Art Experiences for Toddlers and Twos by Mary Ann Kohl - this has many, many suggestions for open-ended creative activities for little ones. She has also published a series of Preschool art books.
  • Model creativity - draw, paint and create myself. I enjoy most crafts, but drawing and painting are a challenge for me. I manage OK with a nature notebook or if I have instructions to follow, but a blank piece of paper and a pencil frighten me.
  • Have an art centre with a selection of baskets and trays containing appropriate activities available, Montessori style, and rotate them regularly. (I'm thinking along the lines of these Christmas art activities from Theresa at LaPaz Home Learning.)
  • Buy good quality materials - I'm not a purist about art materials, but I do think it makes sense to let children use better quality materials as soon as they are able to make proper use of them. I love the idea of the beeswax crayons and modelling wax used in Waldorf education and will definitely want to add them to our art supplies.
  • Keep a file of liturgical craft ideas - but be prepared for Little Cherub to develop them in her own way (do not fixate on how the finished product "should" look!)

Avoiding over stimulation 

I added this to my list with only the vaguest ideas of what I meant by over stimulation. On one level it is the obvious things - too much stuff and too much screen time. Even though I think I am fairly selective with toys the number can easily snowball - already I can see this happening with Little Cherub, as it did with her sisters. I'm not sure whether I need to be more selective, or simply to be careful to rotate toys so that the number available at any one time is limited. Probably both. I do rotate things already to some extent, but find that extra stuff easily drifts out and doesn't get put away again. I have always limited screen time for little ones, but even so it is easy for more TV / DVD time to creep in. Arguably any screen time is over stimulating for a toddler or pre-schooler. I'm not sure I would go this far - or maybe I just don't want to? - but I do see a need to keep it within narrow limits.

On the wider level, I easily fall into the trap of too much. Trying to do too much, rushing around too much, and cramming in one thing after another. Avoiding over stimulation means slowing down, taking time to smell the roses and kick the leaves. Time just to be, without constantly moving to the next thing. I also want to achieve a quieter, calmer atmosphere. Our family is loud - vociferous and argumentative, with a tendency for everyone to talk at once. Loudly. I'm sure quiet and calm needs to start with me, and I'm not good at it.

I see avoiding over stimulation not just as a negative thing, but as something that opens up a positive way. It should allow the creation of what I think Charlotte Mason means by atmosphere when she talks of education as "an atmosphere, a discipline, a life" ... a calm space within which learning is as natural as breathing.