The more I dig into Charlotte Mason’s volumes, the more I realize that the advice I often hear concerning “education” in the early years is wrong, or at least too minimalistic. People often say, “ Just read good books and play outside!” Now that I’m more than halfway through her volumes, I’ve realized that Charlotte Mason has a lot to say about a child’s first six years. Today I want to zero in on something Charlotte Mason talks about in Parents and Children that helps build observation skills: object lessons.
According to Wikipedia, an object lesson is “a teaching method that consists of using a physical object or visual aid as a discussion piece for a lesson.” These lessons were popular in the Victorian era, but Charlotte Mason viewed them a little differently. In Mason’s version, objects are the lesson.
You’re Probably Doing These Lessons Already
The baby is a wonderful teacher in this matter of object-lessons. To be sure, his single pupil is his own small self; but his progress is amazing. At first he does not see any difference between a picture of a cow and the living animal; big and little, far and near, hard and soft, hot and cold, are all alike to him; he wishes to hold the moon in his pinafore, to sit on the pond, to poke his finger into the candle, not because he is a foolish little person, but because he is profoundly ignorant of the nature of the contents of this unintelligible world. But how he works! he bangs his spoon to try if it produces sound; he sucks it to try its flavor; he fumbles it all over and no doubt finds out whether it is hard or soft, hot or cold, rough or smooth; he gazes at it with the long gaze of infancy, so that he may learn the look of it; it is an old friend and an object of desire when he sees it again, for he has found out that there is much joy in a spoon.” Parents and Children, page 181
I love this sweet little anecdote. When she describes the little boy curiously gazing at the spoon, I can just see Baby E in Victorian pantaloons, wooden spoon in hand. A few weeks ago, he literally tried to sit on a pond (in his defense, it was frozen, and the ducks could sit on it, after all). Mason’s description is so accurate. Through playing and observing, young children learn about the properties of objects and the world around them.
We Need To Intentionally Put Children In Front of Things Worth Observing
My object is to show that the chief function of the child- his business in the world during the first six or seven years of his life- is to find out all he can, about whatever comes under his notice, by means of his five senses; that he has an insatiable appetite for knowledge got in this way; and that, therefore, the endeavor of his parents should be to put him in the way of making acquaintance freely with nature and Natural objects.” Home Education, page 96
Our role as parents is to give our children as many opportunities to observe objects as possible, and to guide them in observation. We can do this through showing them what it looks like to use all of our senses, and by saying a few words about the object. Telling them every fact that we know about an object is not using masterly inactivity!
Why Are These Lessons Important?
He has a thousand questions to as, he wants to know about everything; he has, in fact, an inordinate appetite for knowledge. We soon cure all that; we occupy him with books instead of things; we evoke other desires in place of the desire to know; and we succeed in bringing up the unobservant man (and more unobservant woman) who discerns no difference between an elm, a poplar and a lime tree, and misses very much the joy of living.” Parents and Children, pages 181-182
This is the passage that really struck me and made me realize that the advice of “going outside and reading lots of books” isn’t what Charlotte Mason had in mind for the first five or six years of a child’s life. This slam on books stresses me out a little, because reading with my children is one of my favorite things! I don’t think she meant that we shouldn’t read to our children (and modern research tells us how very important reading aloud to our little ones is!) I think what she was communicating is that if we put children in front of books about objects rather than the actual object, they’re twice removed from the source. (It’s kind of like how we watched The Very Hungry Caterpillar on Netflix the other day!)
Allowing children to really soak in an object with all of their senses helps them to understand the world around them, develops the use of their senses, increases their vocabulary, and teaches them to compare and classify objects.
Teaching an object lesson (from Parents and Children)
- The lessons can either be purposeful or casual (180).
- The child will use his senses to find out all he can about an object (page 181).
- Lessons should occur daily (page 180).
- Vocabulary should be introduced if your child asks, but don’t throw difficult words in their just for the sake of it (189).
- Encourage the child to observe using all of their senses by modeling observation (page 192).
- Discuss a quality or two of the object, but don’t do an “exhaustive” object lesson (page 183).
An Object Lesson Game
A good plan is to make this sort of lesson a game. Pass your object round- a piece of bread, for example- and let each child tell some fact that he discovers by touch; another round, by smell; again, by taste; and again, by sight. Children are most ingenious in this kind of game, and it affords opportunities to give them new words, as friable, elastic, when they really ask to be helped to express in a word some discovery they have made.” Parents and Children, page 189
Doesn’t that sound like fun? I can’t wait to try it with Miss H!
Some Object Ideas
We had our own little object lesson last week. I put dried pasta in a big plastic container and placed it on a blanket. I got measuring cups and spoons and let Miss H and Baby E have at it. They were so interested in that pasta! E scooped and poured and ran his finger through the pasta. H noticed that it crunched and broke when she stepped on it, but that cooked pasta is soft and “squishy.”
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but Charlotte Mason mentioned these things for object lessons:
- Wasp’s nest
- Piece of bread
- Pumice stone
There is more to these object lessons, but I think this is a great place to start. Envisioning my Miss H and Baby E really paying attention, really enjoying the beautiful objects that come before them is motivation enough for me.