One aspect of a Charlotte Mason education that was very attractive to me was the emphasis on the arts. I loved the idea of presenting children with the very best paintings, music, poetry and drama. The analogy of spreading the feast was a delightful one. This is what I longed to do – to spread the table with delectable words, ideas, pictures and let my children take a morsel here, a dollop there or any large chunk that appealed to them.
Soon after we were engaged, my husband-to-be gave to me Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s For the Children’s Sake explaining that this is how he would like for us to educate our children, should so God bless us. The words in this book inspired me. “‘Let the children at the best of life!’ is Charlotte Mason’s challenge to us. Life includes not only living experiences, but also the best that mankind has produced in art, music, books ideas, and many more areas.”
When I started to home educate our first, a daughter, I turned to the Charlotte Mason ideas and tried to follow them in cobbling together a first-grade program. I was relieved when in Abigail’s second year, what is now known as Ambleside Online was formed, and much of the work in mapping out a Charlotte Mason style education was done for me. The best part was that, alongside my daughter, I got the art history education that I had missed in my own schooling. Besides art, the Ambleside Online curriculum nurtured in both of us a love for poetry, classical music, nature study, handicrafts and of course great literature. All of these elements fed Abigail’s natural love for beauty in myriad forms.
My daughter was slow to enjoy independent reading. Reading aloud a literature-rich curriculum was a perfect fit. A wise pastor’s wife assured me not to worry. She explained that Abigail was probably very creative and imaginative. She obviously enjoyed listening to the lovely words and allowing her imagination to take flight as I read aloud to her. She was thoroughly inhabiting the stories or poems as I read them. For her, the work of decoding got in the way of this enjoyment. She knew how to read but did not like to. “Just wait,” my pastor’s wife told me. “Soon her fluency will catch up and she will be able to imagine to her heart’s desire even when she is doing the reading.” When she was 9 or 10, in the space of a month, she went from reading the American Girl books to reading Tolkien’s trilogy.
Loving Great Art
One of my fondest memories as a child was attending art shows with my dad. He was an engineer with an artist’s heart. When he retired, he was able to pursue painting and music, becoming quite an accomplished artist in his community. I loved art as a young girl and took quite a few lessons.
The practice of studying six prints each term from one artist, getting to know that artist and their works was a joy to both me and my daughter. We would often study prints, narrate what we saw, make our own sketches and interpretations of some of the prints, study the life of the artist and talk about what inspired the artist. Often Abigail would study a print and imagine a story about the subjects in a painting. We took advantage of free days at our local art museum and would sketch favorite paintings there as well. In addition to this, she followed a drawing curriculum at home in the early years. Off and on she took a variety of art classes in a private or group setting. In her early teen years she followed a rigorous program of advanced art study.
The Beauty of Nature Study
From her second grade year on, Abigail kept a nature notebook. Each term we studied a specific area of nature. I organized a nature club with our homeschool group that went to different venues to hold nature walks. I took my daughter with me on many organized wildflower walks. We learned together the names of the flowers. We often took our lessons outside, sprawled on a quilt with our books as we took breaks in which we studied the wildflowers, weeds and trees that surrounded us. One of my friends had encouraged me to provide my children with good quality jeweler’s loupes so they could examine all that they came in touch with in the natural world. My children became nature detectives, delighting in the delicacy and detail of God’s amazing creation. Anna Botsford Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study and Audubon’s field guides were my boon companions.
Delighting in Poetry
I loved the idea of just reading poetry each day to my children. It became a part of our daily afternoon teatimes which were celebrated with real Dutch tea, special cookies and classical music. I assembled collections of favorite poems to go along with each season and or holiday. Several of these were memorized by my children and recited at family gatherings. One of Abigail’s special delights was Cicely Mary Barker’s Complete Book of the Flower Fairies. She memorized several of these poems and pored over the charming and botanically correct illustrations for hours. Fairy poems by Rose Fyleman along with selections from Favorite Poems Old and New and poems from several antique books were read aloud many times over. We also followed the Ambleside poet for each term, which gave us a wide variety of poets as new friends.
Savoring Musical Classics
I made a point of playing selections of music from that term’s composer several times during the day. We listened at teatime and at dinnertime. We read biographies of composers and got to know what influenced and inspired them. We attended concerts for young people. Abigail studied ballet for many years, exposing her to many classical as well as modern pieces of music.
When my daughter was seven years old, I decided to start a little handicrafts club with other moms and daughters. For five years we met once a month and learned one handicraft per year. We started with embroidery samplers, then went on to knitting, crocheting, quilting and machine sewing. I stocked our home library with loads of handicraft books. Abigail made many gifts for her friends and family. The best resources were two books coauthored by Christine Fynes Clinton and Marjorie Cooper titled The Children’s Year and All Year Round. Our local county fair with its $5 prizes for every blue ribbon was a great motivator to develop her expertise with a wide variety of handicrafts.
Reveling in Great Books
The Charlotte Mason curriculum relies heavily on living books to teach every subject except perhaps math and grammar. Even before God gave us children, I started a home library of classic children’s literature. I read aloud to my children from toddlerhood on. The Ambleside Online selections as well as the books from the free reading list were all read aloud by me in the early years and then read by Abigail when she was older. She especially enjoyed well-written true adventure stories depicting the lives of courageous children. E. Nesbit’s fiction was also a favorite as well as Halliburton’s geography books.
The Artist at 16
Today my daughter is in her last year of high school. She hopes to graduate early and then apply to art schools. Through some providential circumstances, she has become an apprentice to a local well-known sculptor. She has complete access to his studio and is receiving instruction by him and his artist wife. Abigail favors a unique mix of vintage and handcrafted fashions, often remaking pieces to her liking. She has taught herself to felt wool, make paper from dryer lint and craft jewelry from junk. She has designed a line of original watercolor wildflower cards echoing some of the nature notebook pages of earlier years. Her taste in literature leans toward dark melancholy reads such as The Picture of Dorian Gray and books from Poe and Bronte. She loves to write and has her own fashion blog albeit with some egregious spelling errors — alas, THAT is not one of her gifts!
I might add that my other children were added to the mix as they became of age. By then, all of the above were just how we did our lessons, and the boys, 2 and 4 years younger than my daughter, while not as enthusiastic as she, joined us in our Charlotte Mason journey.
Even though I exposed mysons to many of the same influences and books as my only daughter, the results were not identical. One memorable trip to the local art museum illustrates the differences in my children. I instructed my older two children, Abigail and DJ, to select a painting to sketch. My daughter focused in on a lovely portrait by John Singer Sargent. My son — the electrical outlet in the roo
! All that just to say, growing an artist is not an exact science in which you mix four parts of this, two of that and a smidgen of the other and voila — your child is an artist. However, a Charlotte Mason curriculum is structured to expose your children to truth, goodness and beauty which will stand them in good stead no matter where their paths lead and how God chooses to use them.
I am so thankful to Charlotte Mason for instructing us in how to nourish our children’s souls.