It is generally accepted that Charlotte Mason formal lessons don’t begin until the age of six, and that there’s really no such thing as a Charlotte Mason kindergarten. I often see the phrase, “Charlotte Mason didn’t approve of kindergarten” as a reply to a new homeschooling mom’s anxious question about what to do with her five-year-old child. But, after spending a good amount of time reading Home Education, I wasn’t convinced. Was Charlotte Mason against Kindergarten? Could a Charlotte Mason Kindergarten fit in while still trying to follow her principles? And if so, what would it look like?
History of Kindergarten
Today’s Kindergarten as we know it is a distant relative of the original kindergarten, established by Friedrich Froebel in 1837. He was the first person to recognize that a child’s brain undergoes rapid development from the ages of zero to three. He established Kindergarten schools that centered around a child’s need to play, allowed children to spend plenty of time outside, sing songs, and develop socially. These things were based around the integral principle that children need to observe. In a Parents Review article by Rev. William Burnet, M.A, he described a kindergarten school that he visited:
Everything seemed to be done to promote the physical, mental and moral welfare of the little ones, and to attach them to their teachers and each other. On the whole, this was an ideal kindergarten.” Volume 12, 1901, pages 953-957
This school, where games, songs, and drawing prevailed over reading, writing, and “‘rithmetic,” focused on healthy child development rather than specific learning outcomes. In his article, Rev. Burnet described kindergarten schools that he visited where Froebel’s principles weren’t as closely followed. Even in Charlotte Mason’s day, Kindergarten had started to veer from its original conception.
Now, when we hear the word “Kindergarten,” we understand it as a grade level. It comes before first grade, whether the child attends a brick-and-mortar school, homeschool, or even attends an online school. In the past, the word “kindergarten” referred to an actual school. These “gardens for children” contained highly trained teachers and non-academic, yet structured, activities.
Charlotte Mason and Kindergarten
While Charlotte Mason didn’t think it was necessary to send children to Kindergarten Schools, she believed that a mother made the best “Kindergartnerin” (kindergarten teacher.)
It is hardly necessary, here, to discuss the merits of the Kindergarten school. The success of such a school demands rare qualities in the teacher– high culture, some knowledge of psychology and of the art of education; intense sympathy with the children, much tact, much common sense, much common information, much ‘joyousness of nature,’ and much governing power;–in a word, the Kindergarten method is nicely contrived to bring the child en rapport with a superior intelligence….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 Kindergartnerin; for who so likely as she to have the needful tact, sympathy, common sense, culture?” Home Education, page 178
Perhaps, indeed, this of the Kindergarten is the one vital conception of education we have had hitherto.” Parents and Children, page 30
And while she did not recommend trying to replicate an organized kindergarten school at home, she said that the principles are worth learning about and working out for ourselves.
Though every mother should be a Kindergartnerin, in the sense in which Froebel would employ the term, it does not follow that every nursery should be a regularly organised Kindergarten. Indeed, the machinery of the Kindergarten is no more than a device to ensure the carrying out of certain educational principles, and some of these it is the mother’s business to get at, and work out according to Froebel’s methods–or her own.
So, instead of completely ignoring kindergarten by saying that Charlotte Mason didn’t approve, we have an assignment. We, the mothers, need to understand Froebel’s principles, or come up with our own convictions. In short, to answer the question I initially posed, no- I don’t believe that Charlotte Mason was against kindergarten.
Principles of Kindergarten
You can read Froebel’s Letters on the Kindergarten in the public domain, but honestly, as stated in the forward of the book, he did not have a way with words. The letters are a little bumbling and difficult to decipher. But thankfully, a PNEU article outlined the principles of Froebel’s Kindergarten that are worth using in our homes (don’t forget to do your own homework, though!) You can see the entire article, by Elinor A Welldon, on the Ambleside Online website.
I’ve quickly outlined these principles here. It’s interesting to me that there are some new ideas, in addition to what Charlotte Mason recommended for the early years in Home Education.
The most prominent characteristic of little children is their love of movement, their ceaseless restlessness showing itself in constant action of the tiny limbs and in cries and smiles… Froebel tells us how we may interpret these “utterances” of infants aright, and make them not only of use to ourselves, but also means of awakening in the little ones that sense of restful happiness which accompanies the discovery of new powers.” Parents’ Review, Volume 1, 1890/1891, pg. 26
Offering Positive Role Models
These of us who have watched little children closely must have been struck by their “power of mimicry;” everything they see done they are eager to try and do themselves; it is this desire to imitate which leads baby to take the effort to walk and talk; all day long the child is trying to reproduce what it sees others do. God has given this imitative power to the child as a means for self-development, for the strengthening of will-power and faculty generally, and for the calling forth of the moral side of child nature; but here, as elsewhere in nature, evil and good are closely allied; the child not only imitates the good it observes, but the evil also. Froebel saw this, and urged on mothers, and others upon whom the care of young children devolves, ever to remember that, what they are themselves, that, more or less, the children under their care will become.” IBID
Invention and Creativity
As the child grows, its desire to imitate is replaced to some extent by a longing to invent and originate; the little one is no longer content to follow blindly what others do; no, it wants, in its turn, to do, that others may follow….we should be careful to give them good toys–toys which will call forth their inventive powers, and a not too lavish supply of these. And more, we must teach our children games in which scope is given for the display of original thought, for inventive self-activity. This is what kindergarten games do, and this is why they are so deservedly popular with little children.” IBID
Stories- Told and Read
Another characteristic of child nature is love of stories. It is almost impossible to conceive a child who does not love stories, particularly fairy tales and tales of animal life. That this is so is due to the active imagination all children possess; their minds are never idle, and unless proper food is supplied to the child in the shape of good stories, told or read, and an interest awakened in it in nature generally, the child will satisfy its imagination wrongly, and a foundation for much moral trouble may be laid.” IBID
Religious Training Through Stories
…it is during the early years that religious impressions are first made; now it is that the heart is open and ready to turn to God and to drink in lessons of truth and righteous dealing, of purity and love; and stories are a most important means for helping forward this part of education.” IBID
Time With Peers
The companionship of children of his own age gives the child just the opportunity he needs for putting into practice the lessons he has learnt from stories and chats with his mother or nurse. It is well-nigh impossible to make the solitary child unselfish, contented, true, and pure, but give him companions, and the child sees the effect of his actions on his playmates, and learns to do right for their sake.” IBID
Songs and Singing
Again, it is as natural to children to sing as it is to birds to warble and to young lambs to gambol (frolic). Froebel saw this, and he urged on mothers the importance of singing with their little ones.” IBID
Acquaintance with Nature
Another Parents’ Review article explains the importance of nature in the early years:
The child is from its earliest years to be led to communion with Nature. “Every contact with her elevates, strengthens, and purifies. It is from this cause that Nature, like noble, great-souled men, wins us to her.” Walks and excursions into the country are therefore considered by Froebel an essential means of education in the first school-time.” A.P, Volume 3, 1892/1893, pages 657-665
Caring For Pets
The aforementioned article also brings up owning pets as an important part of child-development.
It is important also that children should have pets, and that the nature of animals should be explained to them.” IBID
Although not from Ms. Welldon’s article, I think it’s important to mention that there are other areas that Charlotte Mason recommended focusing on during the early years. Following a child’s lead when it comes to reading instruction and math instruction is well within her method. We do not need to squash a child’s desire to learn these things for the sake of avoiding formal lessons. You can read more about Charlotte Mason’s recommendations for the early years in my Complete Charlotte Mason Preschool Guide.
Your Own Charlotte Mason Kindergarten
A Charlotte Mason Kindergarten at home doesn’t need to be full of intense learning and formal lessons. We can intentionally offer experiences that hone our children’s fine and gross motor skills, observation skills, and natural love of stories. We can choose beautiful books that our whole family will enjoy together, and sings hymns together. There is no need to be afraid of the word “kindergarten.”