Curriculum, Practical Application, Reading, The Art of Play
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Naked and Blue at My Back Door by Sandy Rusby Bell

Several years ago I opened my back door to call the children in for a snack. I was greeted by my seven, five and two year olds, all completely naked and painted blue. We had recently been reading about how Julius Caesar fought the Celts in Britain. Susan Wise Bauer told us that the Celts “were tall, muscular, warlike men. They were so proud of their height and strength that they went into battle naked! They wore only metal collars and tall metal helmets that made them look even bigger. They carried heavy iron swords and wooden clubs. And they painted themselves blue all over, because they thought that the blue lines would magically protect them from swords and arrows” (Story of the World, Volume 1: Ancient Times, p 276).

Embarrassing as this incident was, living as we did on a corner lot in the suburbs, I knew my children had truly made the story their own. And almost seven years later, they can still describe it in great detail.

When I speak with other people educating using Charlotte Mason’s methods, a common theme emerges: children create entire worlds out of the stories they hear in their lessons. One friend remembers fondly how her children would descend to the basement to reenact what they had read in history only to emerge every three hours or so to find some food.

When my older children were little, they became Laura and Mary and little baby Carrie (is it a testament to the power of story or the power of my daughter’s strong personality that Mary and Carrie were played by my sons?). They wore old-fashioned clothes, did arithmetic on slates, made molasses on snow (it tastes horrible by the way), churned butter and had Little House on the Prairie birthday parties.

Sadly, this summer I noticed that my children were no longer “creating worlds” from their reading. Their play had become rather prosaic and I was starting to hear the forbidden words, “I’m bored” far too often.

What had happened?

It wasn’t difficult to trace the root of the problem. This September my eldest daughter began high school. My plan for these years has always been to have the younger children’s schoolwork that requires my direct involvement done by about 1:00 so that my daughter and I could spend a few hours discussing what she’s reading, looking at her written narrations, working on composition, reading Shakespeare and Plutarch together. She is reading virtually all of her own work independently but I believe that this time set aside each day is absolutely essential for reaping the full benefits of a broad liberal education.

Early last spring, as I began to plan for the fall, I took stock and realized that in order to do this, my younger children were going to have to become more independent. There were some things that would still require my focused attention. I had started a new math program with one of my boys, which requires a fair bit of teacher involvement but which I really believe to be the best for him and was clearly showing results.  I was trying to always be with the children when they worked on their Copywork and Spelling Dictation so I could immediately cover any mistakes. As much as possible, the children were narrating immediately after reading a passage.

But there was one big change we could make. If I could get the youngest children reading really well by the fall, they could do so much more on their own. They could, theoretically, do much of their math independently if they could read the directions.  And they could read much of their own coursework.  And so, reading lessons became my number one priority.  I had all the best intentions. I really felt that the world would open up to them as soon as they could read well.

We had also spent eight years reading through history in chronological order, and I planned for us to start with the Ancients again in September. The problem was, we had the entire 20th century left to cover in about 6 months. A lot happened in the 20th century! We diligently read through a popular homeschooling history resource to get ourselves an outline of the 20th century. Instead of taking our time, and delving deeply into what we were studying, reading about each event in modern history became something to check off our to-do lists.

This spring was an unusually busy time for me and there were some days that all I got done with the youngest children was Bible, a reading lesson, math and our dutiful, but joyless, reading from our history book.

And guess what? Their progress in the mechanics of reading slowed down, their math stayed at about the same level, and they remember absolutely nothing about the 20th century except what they already knew from other books they had read.

And perhaps saddest of all, their imaginative play suffered. Saddest not just because they were sometimes bored. As Charlotte Mason tells us, losing themselves in play of this sort is “not for the children’s amusement merely: it is not impossible that posterity may write us down a generation blest with little imagination, and, by so far, the less capable of great conceptions and heroic efforts, for it is only as we have it in us to let a person or a cause fill the whole stage of the mind, to the exclusion of self-occupation, that we are capable of large-hearted action on behalf of that person or cause” (Home Education,  p 153, emphasis mine).
Developing an imagination has tremendous moral implications.

I think that in order to truly be able to love my neighbour as myself, with all that that implies, I must be able to imagine myself in his life. And most often the ability to do that comes from books. How often have I become passionate about the struggles of a group of people after I’ve read a well-crafted story about them?

I would argue that it is not knowing history that will help us to avoid repeating it, it is feeling it. It is one thing to know that six million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis in World War Two, it is another thing to have “lived” through the years of appeasement leading up to the war with a Jewish mother, and then experienced her fear for her children when the Nazis invaded and then sobbed with her when her children were taken from her. One cannot have “experienced” such a thing and not always be watchful for parallels in current events and determined to never let it happen again.

I have learned my lesson.

We will keep working on reading lessons and math and spelling and handwriting, but first, I will feed each child “the meat he requires in his history readings, and in the literature which naturally gathers round this history, and imagination will bestir itself without any help of ours…” (Home Education, p. 295).

And I will never again rush through 100 years of history but will trust that it is better to “linger pleasantly over the history of a single man, a short period, until [the child] thinks the thoughts of that man, is at home in the ways of that period. Though he is reading and thinking of the lifetime of a single man, he is really getting intimately acquainted with the history of a whole nation for a whole age” (Home Education, p. 280).

I will remember that  “a child does not lose by spending a couple of years in acquiring [the mechanical skills of reading and writing] because he is meanwhile ‘reading’ the Bible, history, geography, tales, with close attention and a remarkable power of reproduction, or rather, of translation into his own language; he is acquiring a copious vocabulary and the habit of consecutive speech. In a word, he is an educated child from the first…”(A Philosophy of Education, p. 30).

And my children play, almost always completely dressed, in our yard in the country.

© 2008 Sandy Rusby Bell


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. proverb31wife says

    Thank You! I thought I was loosing my mind when my children who usually love to “do school” said, “I’m bored”. ACCK!!

    This post has helped me to put several things into perspective. I like Sandy have put quantity in place of quality.

    Many, many thanks!

  2. Sandy, There are so many concepts on curriculum, history and other ideas that you have hit upon that are, I believe, exactly what Mason in all of her writing trys so hard to tell us! Splendid job! You have clearly caught the vision of a Mason curriculum. . . that spirit of the times or the culture the children are reading about; living it internally so much and as you say, feeling it, to the point of being able to “play” it for hours and hours. That is learning and living.

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