This next part of Volume I: Home Education: Training and Educating Children Under Nine is called Lesson as Instruments of Knowledge and it is quite extensive, covering all sorts of lessons for what I’d consider to be a wide age range. With that said, she spends quite a bit of time focused on the German concept of Kindergarten (and the Kindergärtnerin, who Charlotte declared the “artist among teachers”).
Charlotte Mason gives a brief bit of background information on Froebel and his (then quite new) concept of Kindergarten. Interestingly enough, she seems to say that though Froebel was German, and though there were a number of kindergartens in Germany, it was the America in which the concept really took off. She bemoans the fact, however, that the term had become quite generic in American usage, and could mean any of a number of things, rather than a strict, or even loose, adherence to Froebel’s philosophy.
As we know, today Kindergarten in the United States is simply the proper noun for the year of school preceding first grade. One of its distinctions is that attendance is usually not required by state law.
Very early in this section, Miss Mason says,
[W]hatever be the advantages of Kindergarten or other schools for little children, the home schoolroom ought to be the best growing-ground for them.
Does this mean that Charlotte is opposed to Kindergarten? (Considering that we are approaching a “Kindergarten” year with our current five-year-old, this is not a question I ask flippantly.) The answer seems to be both yes … and no.
We must remember that Charlotte was not a “homeschooler” per se, for she believed in sending children to school around nine or ten years of age. Her conviction was that, before this age, lessons were best learned at home, for a variety of reasons, some of which we will discuss in connection with the idea of Kindergarten.
Charlotte wrote that the Kindergarten method was very personality-centered. In other worse, the key to Froebel’s entire methodology was a charming, competent, broadly educated teacher (called the Kindergärtnerin):
[I]n a word, the Kindergarten method is nicely contrived to bring the child en rapport with a superior intelligence. Given, such a superior being to conduct it, and the Kindergarten is beautiful—’ ’tis like a little heaven below’ ; but put a commonplace woman in charge of such a school, and the charmingly devised gifts and games and occupations become so many instruments of wooden teaching. If the very essence of the Kindergarten method is personal influence, a sort of spiritual mesmerism, it follows that the mother is naturally the best Kindergärtnerin; for who so likely as she is have the needful tact, sympathy, common sense, culture?
Not every Kindergarten today is based upon Froebel’s methods, but the assertion still stands. In early education, children are largely attracted to their teachers, aiming to please their teachers, and so on. Early education has an indisputable tendency to be personality driven. Since this is the case, it is best for the children to remain attached to their mothers, rather than becoming attached to adults outside of the family.
Of course, Miss Mason has an exception to this: the nurse or governess, who is under the direct supervision and command of the mother.
All of this is very interesting to me, but as our family educates our children at home, as “Kindergarten” is just another stage of that process, I’m more curious about what Miss Mason believes should be done during the “Kindergarten year.” I’m also interested in her warnings concerning Kindergarten, as there is no reason to think that our family is exempt from such pitfalls simply because I am doing the teaching.
So let’s list out the potential shortcomings of Kindergarten:
- Field of Knowledge too Circumscribed: Miss Mason says that even though it is possible for children to fold paper precisely, identify the names of shapes or numbers or letters precisely, and so on,
all of this is being learned at the expense of much of that real knowledge of the external world which at no time of his life will he be so fitted to acquire….[W]hile the exact nicely graduated training of the Kindergarten may be of value, the mother will endeavour to give it by the way, and will by no means let it stand for that wider training of the senses, to secure which for her children is a primary duty.
And what is this “wider training of the senses” that Miss Mason is reminding us of? Why, Life Out-of-Doors, of course! The idea here is that Kindergarten causes us to focus on one thing (indoor, more formal lessons), spend too many hours on that one thing, when there is something else better and more fitting for the children to be doing and learning at this age.
- Persons are not Grown in a Garden: Miss Mason finds the original “intention as meaning an out-of-door garden life for the children” delightful. But the Germans, with their affection for central planning, turned the child-garden into more of a greenhouse. A method that attempted to make A + B always equal to C, in an absolute, mechanistic sense. Miss Mason was unsure that, even if A + B would equal C, that this should always be so. Ought children always to be treated as plants and given a precisely measured amount of sunlight, water, and soil? Miss Mason appears to have thought that a perfect environment is detrimental for the forging of true personalities. Kindergarten, however, specializes in perfect (unreal) environments for children. The child is viewed as “a plant in a well-ordered garden.” Miss Mason says that
to figure a person by any analogy whatsoever is dangerous and misleading; there is nothing in nature commensurable with a person….The outcome of any thought is necessarily moulded by that thought, and to have a cultivated garden as the ground-plan of our educational thought, either means nothing at all, which it would be wronging the Master to suppose, or it means undue interference with the spontaneous development of a human being.
Who knew Miss Mason had read Richard Weaver?
- Undervaluing Children’s Intelligence: A word that is thrown around in Charlotte Mason-style circles is “twaddle.” One of the primary characteristics of twaddle is that it is an insult to the child’s intelligence. It underestimates the child’s thirst for ideas. Simply put, it is the intellectual equivalent of baby-talking a child. Miss Mason wrote:
I am inclined to question whether, in the interest of carrying out a system, the charming Kindergärtnerin is not in danger sometimes of greatly undervaluing the intelligence of her children.
Miss Mason brings up the natural objection: don’t we see the children in these classes delighted by the silly songs, etc.? To this, Miss Mason replies,
[W]e all like to be managed by persons who take the pains to play on our amiabilities. Even a dog can be made foolishly sentimental; and, if we who are older have our foibles in this kind, it is little wonder that children can be wooed to do anything by persons whose approaches to them are always charming.
I have, for instance, seen my three-year-old respond quite positively to women who use a high-pitched voice and babyish words to speak to her, because it makes her feel special, not because her intellect requires it at all. Kindergarteners may learn cutsie songs, complete with hand motions, but Miss Mason would tell you that children take interest in learning real music, the kind that even an adult would not be ashamed to perform. The secret that eludes a lot of adults is that children have “great thoughts at other times.”
- Mediating too Much: Both teachers and mothers are tempted to get between the child and the subject at hand. We talk too much. We read a passage, and then tell the child exactly what it means rather than letting him digest it on his own. Kindergarten teachers can sometimes be like mother birds, chewing up the children’s intellectual food and spitting it into their mouths. Unlike baby birds, these children have teeth of their own, and are quite capable of using them, if given half the chance. I certainly understand the temptation to predigest things for my children. We have been taught that learning is so hard and requires so much planning that we don’t have the mental categories for a good but natural education. The art of being quiet and patient is important in any relationship with children. Miss Mason wrote:
The educational error of our day is that we believe too much in mediators. Now, Nature is her own mediator, undertakes, herself, to find work for eyes and ears, taste and touch; she will prick the brain with problems and the heart with feelings; and the part of mother or teacher in the early years (indeed, all through life) is to sow opportunities, and then to keep in the background, ready with a guiding or restraining hand only when these are badly wanted. Mothers shirk their work and put it, as they would say, into better hands than their own, because they do not recognise that wise letting alone is the chief thing asked of them, seeing that every mother has in Nature an all-sufficient handmaid, who arranges due work and due rest of mind, muscles, and senses.
Do we really believe that children can figure things out? Do we respect their intellect enough to let them try? There are entire (successful!) curricula based upon this single idea, of giving opportunities, and then allowing the children to self-teach. Of course, children surrounded by distractions from Nature often do not take advantage of the opportunities given them. It is extremely hard to raise a child in this way if the home is filled with computers, video games, and electronic toys. A neighbor of mine is amazed at how often my children are outside, and complains that her son never goes out, but stays inside playing his video games. I think she realizes the two are connected.
- The Society of His Peers is too Stimulating for a Child: Miss Mason begins this section by pointing out that all of us are stimulated by being with our “equals.” Being with said “equals” is a joy to us, and she holds up as an example the joy of college life, “wholesome joy for all young people for a limited time.” Her argument is basically that kindergarteners are not college students and not capable of handling the same experiences as college students:
But persons of twenty have, or should have, some command over their inhibitory centres. They should not permit the dissipation of nerve power caused by too much social stimulus; yet even persons of twenty are not always equal to the task of self-management in exciting circumstances. What then, is to be expected of persons of two, three, four, five? That the little person looks rather stolid than otherwise is no guarantee against excitement within. The clash and sparkle of our equals now and then stirs us up to health; but for everyday life, the mixed society of elders, juniors, and equals, which we get in a family, gives at the same time the most repose and the most room for individual development.
As I consider planning the days and weeks of our home education project, I am reminded that our everyday life should be our home life. There is nothing to apologize for, nor to compensate for. On the other hand, if I am not offering them “the clash and sparkle of their equals now and then,” I am doing them a disservice.
- Danger of Supplanting Nature: Now we come back to the German central-planning mindset. Froebel’s kindergarten classroom was apparently “perfect” in a scientific sort of way. Everything was planned, sort of like a factory attempting to produce the ideal childhood. Miss Mason says,
It is possible to supplement Nature so skilfully that we run some risk of supplanting her, depriving her of space and time to do her own work in her own way.
These sorts of thoughts are perhaps more appropriate today than when Miss Mason wrote them over a century ago. We live a world which has childhood really boiled down to a science. Children should turn their heads, track with their eyes, sit up, crawl, and walk in specific windows of time. Within reason, this is true. But intellectual development is not always as predictable (just read a bit about Einstein, if you doubt it). To map out and say that a child should learn something on a certain day in a certain amount of time, and to require that of all children despite their differences, is a danger. To apply this to my own situation, there is a danger in thinking that what I did for “kindergarten” with one child is exactly right for the next child, even though there will naturally be great similarities.
- Replacing Nature’s Classroom: Miss Mason comes back over and over to the idea that formal kindergarten tempts us to forget that the proper environment for children this young is the great outdoors:
Health, strength, and agility, bright eyes and alert movements, come of a free life, out-of-doors, if it may be…The resourcefulness which will enable a family of children to invent their own games and occupations through the length of a summer’s day is worth more in after life than a good deal of knowledge about cubes and hexagons, and this comes, not of continual intervention on the mother’s part, but masterly inactivity.
Miss Mason also said that she mostly agreed with the principles behind Froebel’s creation of Kindergarten, but that formal, school-based Kindergarten was only a single way of carrying out those principles. With that said, there were some benefits of Kindergarten that a child could also gain in a “well-managed Nursery” (meaning the child’s homelife). This would include:
- Training of a Just Eye and a Faithful Hand: Many of the “fine motor skills” taught in Froebel’s Kindergarten schools can be accomplished if a mother is diligent to train her children in household tasks. As examples, Miss Mason mentions straightening a tablecloth, hanging a towel, or packing a parcel. Miss Mason said that some of the games from Kindergarten might be brought into the nursery, to real benefit, “provided that the mother does not depend upon these, but makes all the child’s occupations subserve the purposes of his education.”
- Atmosphere of sweetness and light: Mason likes the feel of the Kindergarten — the atmosphere:
[T]he Kindergarten professes to take account of the joyousness of the child’s nature: to allow him full and free expression for the glee that is in him, without the ‘rampaging’ which follows if he is left to himself to find an outlet for his exuberant life. This union of joy and gentleness is the very temper to be cultivated in the nursery.
It is here that she mentions removing the child who is being “tiresome” from the company of the others until he is ready to join in whatever is at hand. He is not even really scolded, but the friction is avoided by removing him — he is not allowed to “disturb the moral atmosphere” of the nursery. This is almost exactly what was suggested to us in our parenting class when dealing with a grumpy child. Miss Mason, incidentally, is very big on atmosphere.
In all, I would say that Miss Mason thinks her approach to be (1) superior to Froebel’s kindergarten conception, (2) expressing all of the benefits of Froebel’s model, and (3) having none of the drawbacks. The problem, of course, is that we (or at least I) find some parts of Miss Mason’s approach to be easier than others, and it is tempting to disregard the parts that feel unnatural to us, while spending lots of time in the areas where we excel. However, Miss Mason believed her method as a whole respected the nature of the child, and I am seeing now that if going halfway in this is good, going all the way and becoming thoroughly proficient in all the necessary areas is much better.
I did a bit of research on Froebel, a very interesting man. He definitely had more impact on our country than his own, or at least that appears to be so in the limited reading I did. What I found fascinating is that the original argument for kindergarten and other forms of early childhood classroom education seems to have been the same as the early arguments for baby formula.
First, nature was observed (young children learn through play, games, hands-on activities, etc. — OR mothers make milk for their babies). Instead of recognizing in the former what Charlotte Mason did — that children are apt to learn in exact accordance with Nature if left mostly to self-direct in a natural setting — or in the latter, that mothers naturally make milk for their babies which is the ideal food for them, there was a resulting deep desire to turn Nature into a System that was superior to the created order. So we see scientifically-minded men like Froebel attempting to boil down childhood into parts that can be bought and sold in order to manage childhood into growing ideal men. Similarly, we have scientifically-minded men like Justus von Liebig (another German in the 1800s!) who believed that he could replicate mother’s milk — replicate Nature, if you will — by studying its parts and putting them together into a product that could be bought and sold in order to manage infancy into growing healthy men.
In time, kindergarten was hailed as “better than home” and formula “better than mother’s milk.”
If you notice, this is based on a materialistic assumption, the idea that Nature has nothing to it which cannot be seen and analyzed and replicated by manufacturing. That there is nothing to be conceived, but only perceived. That there is nothing spiritual about raising a child, or nursing a baby. But this is not so.
Nature is greater than the sum of its parts. This is one of the keys to understanding Charlotte Mason.
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