When I first started implementing the Charlotte Mason philosophy, I thought I could just use what I had learned as a Charlotte Mason teacher and apply it to the early years. But I was oh-so wrong! A Charlotte Mason “preschool” is very far removed from school. Over the past several years, I’ve taken the time to dig into Charlotte Mason’s writings and learn just what she thought this “quiet growing time” should look like. She had some very specific recommendations for a child’s early education. While she didn’t intend to include formal lessons, children would still be surrounded with rich learning opportunities: through play, through observation, and through real-life experiences.
In this complete guide, I’ve included quotes from Charlotte Mason as well as links to help explain each of these topics. I hope that this will encourage you to start using Charlotte Mason’s methods in your home as soon as possible!
A Principle to Remember
The principle that I think is most important to the early years is Charlotte Mason’s very first one:
I think that sometimes during our children’s first years, we’re waiting for something else. Maybe for them to sleep through the night, or for them to start communicating. We think, “I can’t wait until he/she is old enough for…” I’m not going to say that these thoughts are wrong, but I think that they can distract us from the amazing people our children are right now!
Another aspect of this principle is that these amazing people, whom God has put in our care, want to learn. They don’t need us to cloak information up in Pinterest crafts, or tell them every little detail that they’re observing. Even hours-old infants are capable of learning on their own!
"We believe that children are human beings at their best and sweetest, but also at their weakest and least wise. We are careful not to dilute life for them, but to present such portions to them in such quantities as they can readily receive.” Parents and Children, page 232
Personally, I think this is the most important early years principle because we need to view our children as capable learners during this time. We will feel more comfortable having an unstructured “preschool” if we understand that our children are constantly learning through play, observation, conversation, and from the Divine Teacher, the Holy Spirit.
31 Days of Charlotte Mason: Children are Born Persons from Afterthoughts Blog
"Such habits as these, good, bad, or indifferent, are they natural to the children? No, but they are what their mothers have brought them up to: and as a matter of fact, there is nothing which a mother cannot bring her child up to…” Home Education, page 105
Habit training is so important during the early years! This is based on another one of Charlotte Mason’s principles: Education is a discipline. In order to establish positive learning habits and attitudes for the future, we need to work on habits during the early years. Our children will develop habits, either good, or bad! If we don’t work on good habits, the bad ones will take over!
Early Years Habit Training How-to’s
Habits for Your Young Child
Habits for The Early Years: A Mother's Journal digs into habits to work on with young children, but I want to share Charlotte Mason’s “big three” habits. She wrote about these the most in-depth, and I see them as being the most beneficial for the early years. These habits are attention, obedience, and truthfulness.
During these years, we model habits for our little ones. I think it’s important to not only work on our children’s habits, but to make sure that we are appropriately modeling habits we want them to develop.
"Nine times out of ten we begin to do a thing because we see some one else do it; we go on doing it, and—there is the habit!” Charlotte Mason
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg (affiliate link)
What to Do During the Early Years
This is the section you’ve probably been waiting for: what should we spend our time doing with our children during these early years? I first thought that we should just spend lots of time outside, and while that makes up a big portion of it, Charlotte Mason did have other learning suggestions for the early years.
Delay Formal Lessons
First thing’s first: in the early years, according to Charlotte Mason, you don’t have to teach formal lessons to your child. Charlotte Mason recommended delaying lessons until a child’s sixth birthday. But, she also presented the possibility of starting lessons earlier than that.
"No, let us be content to be the handmaids of Nature for the first five or six years, remembering that enormous as are the tasks she sets the children, she guides them into the performance of each so that it is done with unfailing delight; for gaiety, delight, mirth, belong to her method. If a child chooses to read and write before he is six, let him, but do not make him; and when he does begin, there is no occasion to hurry; let him have a couple of years for the task.” The Parents Review, Volume XXIII
“We begin the definite ‘school’ education of children when they are six; they are no doubt capable of beginning a year or two earlier but the fact is that nature and circumstances have provided such a wide field of education for young children that it seems better to abstain from requiring direct intellectual efforts until they have arrived at that age.” A Philosophy of Education, page 159
This isn’t to say that your child shouldn’t learn things like the alphabet and counting. Notice how she italicized the word “direct” in the passage above? She said that a child can learn these things through play.
Spend Time Outdoors
"Let them once get touch with Nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life.” Charlotte Mason
Let them once get touch with Nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life.” Charlotte Mason
The majority of your child’s learning time should be spent outside. Children learn so much from nature. This outdoor time is crucial to their development and serves as a foundation for their future learning.
What Children Learn Outside
Although spending hours outside each day (Charlotte Mason recommended 4-6 hours!) can seem daunting to the modern mom, they are so meaningful to a young child. Children learn:
- Observation skills
- How to use their five senses
- Control over their bodies
- Refined fine motor skills
- Appreciation of nature and its Creator
- Understanding of plants and animals around them
Making the Most Out of Outdoor Play During the Early Years– This post explains Charlotte Mason’s recommendations for outdoor play during the early years.
Help Them Learn Geography
Even without formal lessons, your child can learn to understand directions, distances, and the land formations around them during their time outside.
"By the time they have got somewhat familiar with the idea of distance, that of direction should be introduced. The first step is to make children observant of the progress of the sun. The child who observes the sun for a year and notes down for himself, or dictates, the times of his rising and setting for the greater part of the year, and the points of his rising and setting, will have secured a basis for a good deal of definite knowledge.” Home Education, page 73
Charlotte Mason explained that children should learn about these things before they are 9:
- where the wind is coming from
- compass skills
Have Object Lessons
In Parents and Children, Charlotte Mason spent a lot of time discussing object lessons. These are unstructured lessons that encourage children to observe everyday objects, both indoors and out. This is something that you can do when the weather is iffy, or when you just need a little down time.
Play is so important during the early years! Preschools full of worksheets, over-scheduling, and over-testing are thought to have increased the onset of Sensory Processing Disorder and have caused children to become clumsier and more stressed. Charlotte Mason said that organized play is not the same as free, unstructured play, and modern research agrees. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for sports, organized games of tag, or board games. Charlotte Mason mentioned all of these things in her writings! It means that your child needs plenty of child-led play time to practice using their imagination and to bond with others.
So this is not exactly Charlotte Mason’s advice for the early years (I wrote about how she recommended that young children avoid books here) but I think most of us agree that reading to little ones is SO very important. But, equally important, is choosing good books for our little ones.
"They must grow upon the best. There must never be a period in their lives when they are allowed to read of listen to twaddle or reading-made-easy. There is never a time when they are unequal to worthy thoughts, well put; inspiring tales, well told. Let Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’ represent their standard in poetry; De For and Stevenson, in prose; and we shall train a race of readers who will demand literature- that is, the fit and beautiful expression of inspiring ideas and pictures of life.” Parents and Children, page 263
The word “best” shows us that this area is subjective rather than objective, even though Charlotte Mason preferred things to be the other way around! There are plenty of book lists out there that can help you pick living books, but since there are so many books available today, you be the judge of what you want your child to feast upon!
Focus on Building an Idea-Rich Atmosphere
Charlotte Mason’s principle “Education is an atmosphere” is very important to the early years. Not only do we want to build a positive environment for our children, but we want to establish a learning atmosphere. We can do this by presenting them with worthy spiritual ideas to consider, beautiful music to listen to, speaking rich vocabulary words on a regular basis, and encouraging an interest in a wide range of things.
Let your child listen to classical music and beautiful hymns.
"It has been proved that only three per cent of children are what is called ‘tone-deaf’; and if the are taken at an early age it is astonishing how children who appear to be without ear, develop it and are able to enjoy listening to music with understanding.” Towards a Philosophy of Education, page 218
"It would be hard to estimate the refining, elevating influence of one or two well-chosen works of art, in however cheap a reproduction.” Home Education, page 131.
Charlotte Mason thought that young children should learn a foreign language just as they had learned their first language. We do this through The Cultured Kid and Talkbox Mom. Use the code REFVH6Y7G4ITQ to get $15 off of your first Talkbox Mom box and book.
"What is more, he has learned a language, two languages, if he has had the opportunity, and the writer has known of three languages being mastered by a child of three, an one of them was Arabic; mastered, that is, so far that child can say all that he needs to say in any one of the three- the sort of mastery most of us wish for when we are travelling in foreign countries. ” Towards a Philosophy of Education, page 35.
How to Teach A Foreign Language When You Don’t Speak One from Rooted Childhood
"Come and see the puff-puff, dear.” ‘Do you mean the locomotive, grandmamma?’ As a matter of fact, the child of four and five has a wider, more exact vocabulary in everyday use than that employed by his elders and betters, and is constantly adding to this vocabulary with surprising quickness; ergo, to give a child of this class a vocabulary is no part of his education. Again, we know that nothing escapes the keen scrutiny of the little people. It is not their perceptive powers we have to train, but the habits of methodical observation and accurate record.” Parents and Children, page 226.
The parent must not make blundering, witless efforts; as this is the highest duty imposed upon him, it is also the most delicate; and he will have infinite need of faith and prayer, tact and discretion, humility, gentleness, love, and sound judgment, if he would present his child to God, and the thought of God to the soul of his child.” Home Education, page 345
While your days don’t need to be planned out to the minute, structure is good for young children. Charlotte Mason referred to the habit of regularity, getting children used to the same things at the same time.
To me, Charlotte Mason’s ideas for the early years sounds like a beautiful childhood. You can find Charlotte Mason style ideas for the early years in My Little Robins' preschool guide, Idea Nest. You'll find scripture memory, hymns, book suggestions, habit training ideas, play scenarios, handicrafts, and more. A free month is available through the sign up below, and a more colorful, expanded book is available in both print and digital download in My Little Robins' shop.