These last few weeks I have been posting about Charlotte Mason and her philosophy of education. DK is not school-aged yet, and even when he is, I’m not certain that I’m going to homeschool him – but Charlotte Mason also has a lot to say about children’s lives in the years before school – so I’m trying to let her philosophy guide me in my at-home early years with DK.
There is a lot to sift through, but I think it boils down to three things:
- Great books (see my post about Living Books)
- Time outside
- Establishing good habits
These are the three priorities I now set for myself every day with DK. Today, I’m going to talk about time outside. I’ve written a couple of posts about how important I think it is for children to play outside. I think that was what initially drew me to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy – her emphasis on long, unstructured hours outside. She writes, “They who know what it is to have fevered skin and throbbing brain deliciously soothed by the cool touch of air are inclined to make a new rule of life, “Never be within doors when you can rightly be without.” (Home Education, p. 42)
This is easier said than done though, and it has taken significant commitment on my part to get outside and stay outside with a toddler. In the beginning, it was hard to just get out the door. I didn’t have the right gear, DK didn’t want to go, I didn’t know where to go, it was easier to just stay inside and not go out. But now that we’ve made it part of our daily routine, it has become commonplace and we are usually outside at a park 3 days per week for 3-5 hours.
“3-5 hours?!” you might ask. “What do you do during that time? There’s no way I could keep my kid entertained and happy outside for that long”. Well, dear Internet reader of my imagination, I’m glad you asked! It has not been an overnight thing. It has taken training both for me and for my son to be happy and occupied during these hours. Allow me to tell you, in this blog post, of some of the things that work for me some of the time.
Charlotte Mason writes,
“Supposing we have got them, what is to be done with these golden hours, so that every one shall be delightful? They must be spent with some method, or the mother will be taxed and the children bored. There is a great deal to be accomplished in this large fraction of the children’s day. They must be kept in a joyous temper all the time [Hahahahhahaha See my note below], or they will miss some of the strengthening and refreshing held in charge for them by the blessed air. They must be let alone, left to themselves a great deal, to take in what they can of the beauty of earth and heavens; for of the evils of modern education few are worse than this – that the perpetual cackle of his elders leaves the poor child not a moment of time, nor an inch of space, wherein to wonder — and grow. At the same time, here is the mother’s opportunity to train the seeing eye, the hearing ear, and to drop seeds of truth into the open soul of the child, which shall germinate, blossom, and bear fruit, without further help or knowledge of hers. Then, there is much to be got by perching in a tree or nestling in heather, but muscular development comes of more active ways, and an hour or two should be spent in vigorous play; and at last, and truly least, a lesson or two must be got in.” (Home Education, p. 44-45)
Before we go any further, let’s just address the one hilarious line, “They must be kept in a joyous temper all the time”. Yeah, “thanks for the tip Charlotte, let me get right on that – controlling my two-year-old’s temper” is what I thought when I first read this. But upon further reflection, I don’t think that what she means by this is that they have to be happy and smiling the whole time, I think they have to be comfortable. Or, at least the way I interpret it is “if you don’t feel good, you don’t act good”. DK needs to be warm (but not too warm), fed, watered, well rested and healthy in order to enjoy his time outside. If he isn’t – there’s no point to even being there.
So now, let’s break down the rest in context of my outing today.
Today, we went to a park near our house. We walked there with the stroller and in the stroller we had a toy car, a ball, a monkey mat, a change of clothes and some diapers and wipes in a ziploc bag, a packed lunch, water, sunscreen and hats. We stopped at a Starbucks on the way (mama needs to be kept in a joyous temper too) and instead of going to the playground first, we went as far from the playground structure as possible to a cluster of trees.
I let DK out of the stroller and I let him wander off to wherever he wants (within a reasonable eye-sight-I-can-sprint-that-far-in-5-seconds-to-save-him-from-a-lion-distance). I’m not sure if it’s just DK’s personality or if there’s anything I did specifically that trained him to not Forest-Gump run away as fast as his little legs can carry him, but he’s pretty good with sticking nearby. He likes to wander away and explore but he checks his distance, looks back to see that I’m still there and I’m still watching him, and if I can’t see him, I casually stroll towards him. I suspect it’s more to do with his personality than anything, as I have friends who do the exact same thing as me and their kids are halfway to Timbuktu before they eat a timbit. Charlotte Mason would probably attribute it to habit training, but as my sample size is only one, I definitely cannot say that it’s anything I did specifically that makes him stay within a 40 foot radius of my body. He’s a cautious kid, and I’m taking advantage of that!
There is one tree back there in the park that DK discovered all on his own one day whose roots form little basins in the grass and on Thursdays, after the sprinklers have watered the grass overnight, there are little pools of water at the base of the tree. He loves to poke sticks in these pools, toss acorns, grass, etc. This is usually what he does first. He did not initially think to do all these things with the pools of water. I had to show him once. But now that he knows sticks can be pushed down into mud and stand up straight and that acorns make a satisfying little “plop” when they hit the water, he’s spent hours experimenting with what else “plops” versus “plips”. He’s also expanded his experiments to things I did not show him.
During this time, I can happily sit on my monkey mat. DK doesn’t let me read or do anything singularly focused, he gets too interested in what I am doing, wanting to climb all over me and not playing – so I use this time to heighten my own skills of observation and improve my own nature knowledge. There are at least three bluebirds that live in our tree and I get a special thrill every time I see that flash of blue fluttering in the sky. Our tree is a Pin Oak and has moss growing up the trunk. The grass underneath our tree is patchy and the blades are thin. The sound bluebirds make is different from that of some other bird that is nearby that I have yet to identify.
Before reading Charlotte Mason, I thought I had to narrate everything DK did, I thought I had to talk to him constantly, to teach him all the time. I would say things like, “Oh you’re picking up an acorn, the acorn is brown, you’re throwing the acorn. Plop goes the water”. But seriously, who wants to hear that?! I would SCREAM if someone did that to my every move. So now, wiser and with better self-control, I sit back in silence.
At some point, DK gets tired of his own scrambles and he comes back to me for a visit. He often brings me a little treasure he found, and I say a something like, “Wow, this acorn has crack in it.” Sometimes I tell him something I noticed in my observations while he was playing and try to draw his attention to it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Charlotte Mason predicted this visit in her writings. She writes,
“Our wise mother, arrived, first sends the children to let off their spirits in a wild scamper, with a cry, halloo, and hullaballo, and any extravagance that comes into their young heads….By-and-by the others come back to their mother, and, while wits are fresh and eyes keen, she sends them off on an exploring expedition – Who can see the most, and tell the most, about yonder hillock or brook, hedge, or copse. This is an exercise that delights children, and may be endlessly varied, carried on in the spirit of a game, and yet with the exactness and carefulness of a lesson”. (Home Education, p. 46).
So, following her example, I’ve started asking DK to tell me what he saw at the tree. He usually babbles something unintelligible – but that doesn’t matter. This is the very very beginning of composition – learning to tell orally what he saw or experienced. I also like this exercise because whether I understand him or not, I am giving him, a whole person, equal time to share his first person narrative with me.
Then, I’ll usually ask him to go get some nature item for me. “DK, can you bring me a stick?” “An acorn?” “A rock?” “A leaf?” and on and on until we have a nice little collection. Some days DK is super into it. Some days he wants me to go with him, and I do, and we search together. After we have a good pile of objects on the monkey mat, we sort them, count them, talk about which are big/little/soft/hard/wet/dry etc. This is what I consider our “lesson”. If DK wants to go to the playground after this nature ramble, we go.
“This is all play for the children, but the mother is doing invaluable work, she is training their powers of observation and expression, increasing their vocabulary and their range of ideas by giving them the name and the uses of an object at the right moment — when they ask, “What is it?” and “What is it for?”, And she is training her children in truthful habits, by making them careful to see the fact and to state it exactly, without omission or exaggeration”. (Home Education, p. 47).
On our days outdoors, we often eat an early lunch outside. When we were in Tinkergarten, our leader handed out cloth bandanas to each kid to use as a placemat for their lunch. I couldn’t believe how well this worked to get DK to sit down and eat his food, so I went to Michaels and I got a bandana handkerchief for $2 to throw in our stroller for our al fresco lunches. It takes up no space, is lightweight, and really gives him a sense of formality “it’s eating time now, sit down”.
To leave the park (or go anywhere within the park), we play a great game. It’s called “Touch the tree”. The premise is this: I point to a tree that is in the direction I want us to go and we run up to touch it. Once we touch it, we find another tree that is in the direction we want to go and we run up and touch it. We can get all the way to the park exit this way.
Sometimes we go to parks that are not near our house (like county parks or state parks). Those days, we often stay too late to avoid a car nap on the way home, so sometimes I just push DK around in the stroller while I listen to podcasts until he falls asleep. Then I break out that monkey mat again and lay down myself underneath a shady tree.
I say sometimes, and I mean twice. It’s worked for me twice. Which I think that since it is more than once, is enough to write it on my blog and say it is “doable and worth trying”, and I am willing to try for a third success, but I don’t want to paint a picture that every day I spend an hour tanning in the sunshine while my son blissfully sleeps in his stroller after a morning of beautiful nature study. That would be misleading. It is not always this way. In the early days of getting outside, we had more bad times than good. But through perseverance and preparation we’ve both gotten better at being outside in nature for 4-5 hours at a time and I think we are both all the better for it.
I think when getting outside with a toddler, the zen phrase, “It’s the journey, not the destination” is very fitting. If we go out with a specific hike to tackle, I will find it frustrating because we aren’t doing it “right” or “at all”. But if we go with the intention to just wander for a few hours and see where DK’s whimsy and curiousity leads us – it shapes up to be quite an enjoyable way to spend the day.
I know I’ll forever melt every time my son picks me a dandylion and shoves it in my face to smell. It’s the little things that last a lifetime.