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    **Updated** Making AmblesideOnline Work: The Gory Details

    May 24, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    This post first appeared in February of 2010. I would call this a “rerun,” except I did quite a bit of updating. I changed some parts that I thought were not clear, wrote it from the perspective of having completed an additional year of Ambleside, etc. This version deals with a more independent student. For Year One students, the original version may be more helpful. The first post was definitely what worked for me then … and this is what’s working for me now.

    Who knows? Maybe I’ll write a version of this every year or two or so…


    I’m really looking into Ambleside Online and think it may be more appropriate for my children…

    I have NO idea how to implement AO, I mean none. I feel like I’ve read the website cover to cover, but have I missed some big page that gives me weekly ideas or instructions on how to gather materials and organize my day? How in the world do you do your lesson planning? From where do you get your ideas and material? I get a nervous knot in my stomach everytime I think about actually implementing and going day to day. I guess for me, AO sounds beautiful and majestic in theory, but actually doing it just befuddles me. I do have all 6 of CM original volumes and have read/skimmed most of it.

    Would you have pity on me and tell me…what am I missing????

    The above is a portion of an email I recently received. Let me tell you, I have been there. Seriously. Only, my difficulty was more generalized. When my children were very young (as in: not yet school age), I knew there would come a day when I needed to begin giving lessons daily, and I had no — and I mean no — idea in how to actually pull that off.

    As a disclaimer, before I go on, I want you all to understand that I am not a complete and utter Charlotte Mason person. Our approach here is a fusion between Charlotte Mason’s philosophy and Christian classicism. I have many reasons for this: I love them both, and I think they are complimentary rather than at odds, and it suits our family perfectly. I give the disclaimer, though, because I don’t want you to think that the advice I’m giving is 100% Charlotte Mason Approved.

    It isn’t.

    Now, I haven’t read all of Mason’s volumes (yet … I own them and I have read about two-thirds, and at that part more than once), but so far I don’t see anything about formal study of the entire Trivium, even though grammar is taught formally, and rhetoric seems to be taught almost intuitively. I love this, but I also plan to add in a couple text books, especially for logic. My plan is to use Martin Cothran’s Material Logic and Peter Kreeft’s Socratic Logic in the later years,but never to replace any part of Ambleside; rather as an addition to it. All of this is to say that, as the years go by, I will probably look more classical than I do now.

    One More Disclaimer

    This post covers the steps I use to plan the early years, meaning years 0 through 3. I will probably post something for managing the additions brought on by Year 4 in the future…after I’ve actually done it!


    For those of you who are unfamiliar with Charlotte Mason or AmblesideOnline, I have a list of quick helps for you:

    1. Anne White’s An Introduction to Charlotte Mason. This is your best starting place if you have no clue what I’m talking about.
    2. If you are a big reader, then either get yourself a copy of Charlotte Mason’s six volumes or read it free on the Ambleside Online website in a modernized version. Do not try and print this out! Mason wrote thousands and thousands of pages over her very long life and you will rue the day you tried to print this.
    3. If you want something more manageable, I have heard good things about A Charlotte Mason CompanionA Charlotte Mason EducationFor the Children’s Sake or When Children Love to Learn. Just remember that whenever you read a book that isn’t an original source, you are getting someone’s perspective on that source, which may not be entirely the same thing. I haven’t read any of these because I prefer Mason’s own works, even though that means it’ll take me a lifetime to master them all. However, some folks find them very helpful, and you might be one of them.
    4. There are a number of websites that you could check out to try and form a vision for what you want in your own home. My favorites are listed here.
    5. There are also blogs that deal with specific aspects of Mason’s methods, such as nature study or art study. I understood the concept of nature study better after reading the blog Handbook of Nature Study, and I have also found the sister blog Harmony Art Mom occasionally helpful.

    Gathering Materials

    The number one easiest way to gather the materials for AmblesideOnline would be to grab the booklist for the year you are doing and enter the titles on Amazon, press “add to cart,” enter necessary information, and quietly wait for everything to be delivered to your front door. God bless that UPS man.


    Then, all you would need would be odds and ends, like something to use for a nature journal, some art supplies, and whatnot.

    For me, though, I have running lists, and when I buy books I usually have four windows open with which I am price-checking. I also enter books for the coming years on my PBS wishlist from time to time, so that I can gather as many as possible as we go. (Remember: the cost of shipping will factor into your average price-per-book.)

    But here are the important things to do when starting the early years:

    1. Start with the booklist(s) for the year(s) you are planning. You can find them using the links on AmblesideOnline’s curriculum main page. This is the bulk of what you need to use the curriculum. I know that some families use the library for this. I like owning the books in general, and I have three other children who will use them, so they are worth the investment to me. I buy many of our books used. Please, I beg of you, do not buy any books published by a company called Wilder. These books are often abridged, even though they don’t declare it anywhere in their product information, and I have also read reviews complaining about the quality (i.e., typos, binding, missing the Table of Contents, etc.).
    2. Print out your geography maps. (We have a globe, so I didn’t need to do this for Marco Polo, as it covers a lot of ground and a globe works really well for it.) I use printable maps that I find online by using our dear friend Google. Geography readings are from Holling C. Holling books in the early years (plus Marco Polo’s journeys in Year Three) though you really can map whatever you take interest in as you go.
    3. Choose something for penmanship/copywork. Two years ago, I bought a font so that I could type up copywork worksheets until the time when my children are ready for their own commonplace books or reading journals. You can also do a google search and find free copywork pages, though I don’t know if they’d last you a year.
    4. Choose a phonics program. Or, do it yourself using Bob Books. And, by the way, children don’t always need reading instruction. With naturally strong readers, you can watch for weaknesses; I wouldn’t subject a child to phonics unless they need it. Having the child read aloud to you will allow you to make sure they are not becoming a slipshod reader.
    5. Choose a math curriculum. For now, we use Math Mammoth plus Wrap-Ups.
    6. Choose a foreign language? I believe Mason suggested learning one French word per day or week or something in the early years. I don’t know; we didn’t start this until Year Two, and we are learning a tiny bit of Latin using Song School Latin and we’ve slacked on that lately, so writing this makes me feel guilty. Great.
    7. Choose a handicraft and buy/gather necessary supplies. If you are stuck on thinking up handicrafts, here is a list of ideas for very young children. General ideas can be found here. This has been an area of weakness for us, so I was very blessed this year when we started swapping lessons with another family. I teach piano lessons to some of their children, and we are blessed to be learning early sewing skills (needlepoint right now) from them.
    8. Make a wall timeline. We didn’t do this in Year One, but have really enjoyed it in Years Two and Three. Ours is inexpensive and easy to duplicate.
    9. Gather supplies for learning folksongs and hymns. Ambleside assigns a monthly hymn and one folk song per term. I tend to choose others because I have specific goals (like making sure the children first know the songs we sing in our congregation). The AmblesideOnline website often has links for the songs, and if not you can find what you need online, for free, using Google. In the past we have used YouTube to aid us in learning folk songs.
    10. Buy or download the music you need for each term’s composer. Ambleside’s composer section is here; one composer is assigned per term. I tend to just buy a CD from a composer and play it while the children are doing their chores or having quiet time, occasionally telling them the composer’s name. This works fine until your CD player breaks. (Ask me how I know.)
    11. Find and purchase or print copies of the paintings for artist study. Ambleside assigns one artist per term, and information about that can be found here. As a general rule, you will study one painting for two weeks, and then move on, so that by the end of the term, you will have studied six paintings from the single artist. I tend to find the paintings via google, download them, turn them into a .pdf file, and have them printed nicely by Office Depot. Wikipedia is a good place to look for paintings.
    12. Buy a nature journal and necessary supplies. You can use whatever medium you like. My oldest just began watercolor pencils for this; my second child uses crayons or colored pencils to color what I draw for her.

    This is all you need in the early years. As the years go on, you are supposed to add in study of a musical instrument, lessons on Plutarch and Shakespeare, a foreign language in addition to Latin, formal grammar, and so on, but this list will get you through the first few years, I think.

    Planning the Days

    Okay, AmblesideOnline will tell you what you need to do in a week, but the day-to-day is up to each individual headmistress. I cannot tell you how everyone plans, but I can tell you what I do.

    To begin with: Circle Time.

    I first learned about the concept of Circle Time (not part of AO, but I use it to accomplish AO) from the Preschoolers and Peace site. This is how we start our day, every day, four days per week. During Circle Time, I cover just about everything that can be done with all children at the same time. So, for me that means prayer, Bible reading, manners training, poetry reading, hymn singing, folk song learning, artist study/art narration, history reading, and so on and so forth. Whatever from AO, whatever from our personal goals, whatever can be shared in Circle Time, Circle Time is where it goes. I think that the only thing that can be done together which isn’t on my list is Nature Study and that is because (1) I am terrible about doing this consistently and (2) it needs to be done out of doors while I prefer Circle Time indoors, or at least sitting down.

    Circle Time has been the key to our success with AO, I think. Otherwise, it seems like this long, insurmountable list. Also, Circle Time is when my littles learn a bit about having lessons. If they are old enough to be awake, they are required to come to Circle Time and participate to the best of their ability. This has really prepared them for joining the ranks of Amblesiders in our household. Plus their poetry recitations are darn cute.

    You can see an example of our Circle Time plans here.

    Son E. gets a weekly spreadsheet directing him for the other parts of his day, which includes: math worksheets, typically three readings with narration (one he reads on his own and narrates aloud, one he reads and narrates in writing, and one I read and he narrates orally), wrap-ups. copywork, piano practice, and sometimes articles for him to read. I think that is it. Handicrafts are a part of our days, technically speaking, but they really come and go. We don’t do them consistently, and we often find ourselves doing them on weekend afternoons instead of during the week. This isn’t because they aren’t important, but because I’ve found that when the children are in the mood, they just seem to do better at the whole thing, so I watch for opportunities and capitalize on them. Having a time when we are going to have handicraft lessons has helped motivate the children to work on their projects a little more so that they are ready to progress at their next lesson.

    To organize Circle Time, I sit down with one paper divided into four days (four days, because we choose to do four days of lessons plus one day where we are out and about, either visiting relatives, serving in some small way, baking together, receiving handicrafts lessons, or taking a field trip) in front of me, plus a blank sheet divided by half-hours to use for a “master schedule” in order to play with a full day.

    The first thing I do is look at the master schedule and fill in the known quantities: breakfast, lunch, chore time, etc. If I know that something always happens at a certain time (even the ending of my youngest child’s nap), I write it in. No sense fighting the inevitable. Once I’ve written all of this down, I can usually pinpoint my approximate starting time for Circle Time (for the past two times, Circle Time has served as an extension of breakfast, and I will continue doing this until it doesn’t work anymore).

    You can check out my Average Day Charts to see what we’ve done in the past.

    Before I do anything else, I scribble in the things that I want done daily during Circle Time. For me, those are things like Bible, manners, poetry, and working from our memory binder (which works great for me now that I organized it using a binder version of Simply Charlotte Mason’s Scripture Memory System). Then, I have a third paper that has listed the things I want done weekly, and I start to assign those things a day on my Circle Time page. So, for instance, I have one day where Circle Time focuses on learning a new song, and another day that focuses on artist study/art narration, and so on. I like to read something from my John Bunyan rotation twice weekly. As long as my list for what I wanted to accomplish in Circle Time was thorough, yet reasonable, this is usually successful on the first attempt.

    In my planning for Son E’s weekly spreadsheet, instead of working from a list, I am working from the Ambleside weekly schedule and breaking it up into days. I usually have all the books in front of me at that time so that I can check chapter lengths and make sure I’m not overloading a single day. The easiest thing to do is probably to just write what day of the week you want next to each assignment. I typically type up into the spreadsheet so it’s ready to go when I need it, but it always starts from this sort of organizing: printing off the weekly schedule and dividing each week into days, keeping in mind that each reading will need to be narrated (including geography, which uses a map or globe as a narration tool).

    I feel compelled to note that many families have found success in simply putting the weekly schedule onto a clipboard and checking off readings as they go. For now, I enjoy having the readings spread fairly evenly over four days. Plus, I like not having to think about it all. Remember how Charlotte Mason said that the greatest effort we put forth in life is in making decisions? How tedious she thought it would be if we had to decide to take each stroke with our toothbrush, or lift each fork of food to our mouths? Well, all of this planning is where I make decisions up front, and then just follow orders the rest of the time. The days are much easier for me this way–no decision making for school.

    The next thing I do is fill in the rest of the spreadsheet with whatever else needs to be accomplished (remember my list above that included math and copywork, etc.?). When my son was younger, I had everything planned out in an order that worked well for me because I had other children to manage and he needed or wanted me with him almost all the time. Because he works from a spreadsheet on a clipboard, I find myself doing almost no scheduling of his day. He is a good worker, and now that he mastered Charlotte’s concept of alternation, he is able to plan a Mason-style morning on his own.

    While he is working through his spreadsheet in the mornings, I pull the little girls in for preschool and kindergarten lessons, which doesn’t take much time at all.

    So, now we have a Circle Time schedule, a spreadsheet, and a master schedule. The master schedule has Circle Time planned in. This is where we have to figure out where to put the spreadsheet work in time. If I understand correctly, Mason’s schools involved full mornings and free afternoons, and if you can pull that off, it’d be to your benefit. Afternoons are good for play, experimentation (boys build things, you know), handicrafts, free reading, climbing things, practicing piano, etc. For poor families, the afternoons were free for vocational work or training.

    I used to do the bulk of this planning in the month or two prior to the beginning of the school year. This year, it has worked better for me to plan term-by-term. Sometimes I needed to cut a week and condense. Sometimes I needed to move things around to accommodate other activities, like swimming lessons. Circle Time and the spreadsheet work has maintained the same rhythm throughout the year. I’m not reinventing the wheel each term. What I am really changing up are things like manners, how we do poetry, or what type of read-alouds we are doing (if we do any at all in that time).

    Getting a Vision for AmblesideOnline

    One of aspects that makes AO so difficult to get our minds around, I think, is that it is so simple. I, for one, with my public school experience, imagined that things could only be learned if the teacher spent hours and hours of time planning what the children were going to learn. Mason had a completely different approach. She said the children feed on ideas, and AO  becomes, then, their “food,” so to speak.

    We read these beautiful stories and the ideas are there for the taking. The children narrate, and as they go along the narrations become conversations, and much is learned, but this kind of learning cannot be planned. All that can be planned into the day is enough space for ideas to be feasted on.

    This has a feel about it that is akin to some descriptions of unschooling I have read, and yet it is not unschooling, if I understand unschooling properly, because the curriculum itself is orderly and planned out in advance by one who has authority over the child. However, I believe it shares one of the aims of unschooling, which is to grant the children a rich and enjoyable education.

    Once I did a year of AO, I was truly amazed by its simplicity…and also by its brilliance. I keep coming back to on thing: nature. Mason, I think, firmly grasped the nature of the child, and always taught with this in mind.

    Anyone else?

    I know we have some other AOers lurking around here, and some of you have far more years under your belt than I do. Anything I’ve missed? Any tips for us? And if any of you have past posts on how you do your planning, please link them in the comments.

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  • Reply 7 Online Resources We Use for Homeschool Success - Contently Humble July 25, 2019 at 9:19 am

    […] Making Ambleside Work: The Gory Details […]

  • Reply Melissa May 22, 2016 at 11:57 pm

    Thank you for breaking down what you do in your planning. I have just started AO in the last few weeks with my girls (8 an 6, with a 4 and 2 year old tagging along!) and am still trying to get a good grip on my daily/weekly schedule. I have taken your average day schedule and your Circle Time idea and am going to give it a go for a few weeks to see how it works for us. I love the idea of spending time together to start with, which should free time later on in the morning. However, I don’t have much in the way of common reading that I can fit in to CT, but will figure it out! 🙂 I will spend some more time searching the rest of your blog – it looks great!

  • Reply AJ November 3, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    Hi, I am trying to find your Average Day Charts, but the hyperlink takes me to a nature study page?? Is that correct? I’d love to look at your charts as I try to wrap my mind around Yr 1 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 6, 2015 at 7:08 am

      Oops! Sorry about that! I fixed the link and it ought to be working now. 🙂

      • Reply AJ November 6, 2015 at 12:42 pm

        Thank you!!

  • Reply 7 Online Resources We Use for Homeschool Success June 21, 2015 at 5:27 pm

    […] Making Ambleside Work: The Gory Details […]

  • Reply dustine April 16, 2015 at 6:38 am

    thank you so so sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much – we live in zimbabwe and are currently switching to AO – i have been a bot overwhelmed – okay a lot – and after prayer i found your blog – wow sooooooo helpful so greatful – thankyou – i pray you are very blessed Brandy – what an amazing gifted lady you are.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 16, 2015 at 7:35 am

      Oh, I’m so glad it helped! ♥

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts June 24, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    Welcome to Afterthoughts, Homestead Mommy! 🙂 I’m glad this post was even a little helpful.

  • Reply Homestead Mommy June 22, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    I just found your blog when I was looking for other Ambleside users. This is our first year using Ambleside. 🙂 Love your blog, thanks so much for sharing. We also did circle time but for some reason not as much in the past year. I think it’s a great idea combining parts of AO with circle time for the family.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts May 29, 2011 at 11:48 pm

    Finally, I am getting back to the comments here…

    CM in the City: What do you use other than Ambleside? SimplyCM? Something else? Or perhaps you are one of those competent people who can actually choose books without help. 🙂

    Kelly: I do *not* have any resources on folk dancing, even though I’d love to include that. I think my little ones would love it, but I have no resources, though I have looked a little. If *you* ever find any, let me know, and I will do the same. Or if anyone lurking around here has some to share, that’d be great, too…

    Silvia: I like what you said about CM on top and AO as a tool. I think that is why people who come to AO without any knowledge of CM think it looks like a booklist and nothing else. They don’t have the tools to take AO and use it for a CM education. In my first version of this post, Lynn Bruce called what we are doign a “walking philosophy” in the comments. That was a good mental picture for me, and I still think about it now.

    • Reply Laura July 28, 2015 at 7:51 am

      This isn’t exactly folk dancing, but I have a book called ‘Children’s Counting-Out Rhymes, Fingerplays, Jump-Rope and Bounce-Ball Chants and Other Rhythms’ by Gloria T. Delaware. It was published in 1983. It has all the movements and words to hundreds of rhythmic activities including join-ins and staircase tales and narrative verses.

      • Reply Brandy Vencel July 28, 2015 at 9:54 am

        Thank you for the lead, Laura! I will look that up! 🙂

      • Reply Amanda August 26, 2015 at 8:04 pm

        When I taught elementary music in the schools, I used Jump Jim Joe and Chimes of Dunkirk. The books include the melody written out, the type of formation used (i.e. circle or set), a glossary, and lyrics for all of the singing games. Both titles are published by New England Dancing Masters Productions.

  • Reply Silvia May 26, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    I say TERRIFIC too, as CM in the City. Very unfortunately I can’t bring any experience to the table, or anything you haven’t said so eloquently.
    I only coincide with CM in the City, I’m grateful Ambleside has helped me to understand CM, and though with young girls, as an old gal 😉 I say happily I’m do feel confident as to not kill myself if I don’t follow it to the letter, even though I’m still (and always) learning. Actually, CM is what needs to be put at the top, and AO as a tool, because sometimes I inadvertently revert this order.

  • Reply Kelly May 25, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    The other day my younger kids were playing London Bridge and asked me if I knew of any other song-games like it. I can’t think of anything else besides Ring Around a Rosy. Maybe The Farmer in the Dell?

    Anyway, I thought of this yesterday when I was reading the last bit of the current chapter of Poetic Knowledge, when he says that for the Greeks, Music included music, poetry, and dance, meaning outdoor folk-dances. And then I remembered Charlotte Mason saying something similar to that — something about learning folk songs that have dances or games that go to them.

    Do you have any resources on that? I can’t even figure out what words to use so I can google it efficiently.

  • Reply Charlotte Mason in the City May 25, 2011 at 3:38 am

    Wow-terrific! I’ve been using AmblesideOnline for several years, and though I do not follow AO exactly, I’m grateful for how the site and schedules helped me understand what Charlotte Mason advocated.

  • Reply Pam... May 24, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    No, YOU are supermom. And thanks.
    If you decide to cover and existing notebook, binder or composition book, just find the boy fabric or scrapbook page, etc. that suits him. If you like the Trapper Keeper look, that works too. Or for an existing spiral bound, type in “boyz rule notebooks” and try this:

    I’m looking for boy ones too. Let me know if you find any good ones.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts May 24, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    It is affirming to know you would say this, too! Because you are SuperMom and we are still little. I just really like planning school. 😉

    You can link whatever you like, whenever you like. I trust you. 🙂

    ps. Thanks for your Commonplace Book post…I just read it this morning, and we are considering starting that next year, so good to think about. Do you have a more masculine example? I probably should be leaving this for you on YOUR blog…sigh…

  • Reply Pam... May 24, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    You said much of what I would have said, but I would have become exhausted in getting it all out there! thanks. Can I link to it on my blog in the area for newbie homeschoolers? What a great help.

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