A Charlotte Mason Education, Nature Study, Observation, Paradigm Shift, Science, Science of Relations
Comments 3

Observation 4 by Carroll and Andra Smith

In trying to grasp Mason’s understanding of education as the science of relations we are met with her profound views of observation and its essential interconnectedness with real knowing and relationship.  In past blogs I have pondered some ideas about observation, especially in the natural world and then in the last blog, Anna and I tried to lay some foundations about understanding observation by exploring the relationship between the observer and the observed.  This relationship goes beyond that of gathering empirical data, or of amassing knowledge to exert power, or using the observed.  Mason’s expanded view of observation involves the person as a whole in a deep, interactive, experiential, caring relationship with the observed.  It is this kind of observation that enables us to know personally and care deeply and I hope to peel back some layers of what it means to have relationships by considering three different examples relating to a household object, language development, and nature study.  Before continuing, let me note that I do not mean to imply this kind of relationship is the same as a person-to-person relationship.

Let’s consider a piece of furniture in the home.  This end table is more than a piece of wood on which to sit a lamp; that is, it is more than just how useful it is to us.  Perhaps you rescued it from the curb trash pile, stripped the green paint, rubbed it smooth with sandpaper while enjoying the smell of freshly sanded wood.  You stained and sealed it, carefully going with the grain.  You are careful to not put water or a hot iron on it that may spot it.  You shake your head when you see a black marker smudge that Anna as a busy three year old left on it and see the bite marks that Corban’s dog left on one leg. Seeing Granny’s converted oil lamp on that table makes you smile. You can almost smell the cups of tea shared with different friends while discussing an election or admiring a new baby. When you misplace your current reading book, you always check the table.  The table is there, bearing the marks and dents, holding the lamp, the books, and the various cups that bring so many conversations to mind.  The day you would have to part with it would make you sad, not in the same way as parting from a loved one, but sad because it is holds so much reality from your life. Losing it will take away something that brings back certain memories and connections that you don’t want forgotten.

That table cannot be reduced to just the material of the wood and screws. Yes these are necessary for you to use it as a table but what matters to you about it goes beyond the function that it serves. What I have tried to describe here is a relationship with a thing rather than a person (although many times the relationship with things involves the lives of people.)  The relationship with this piece of furniture, as with all of life, is not just to observe and take it for our own control and use, but to observe, to appreciate, to savor the moment, to create, to admire, and to respect.

Hmmm, using our sense of smell for a thorough observation.

Hmmm, using our sense of smell for a thorough observation.

Now let’s move to consider observation and relationship in a different sphere, that of reading development.  When recently watching PBS, I saw a brief commercial about a mother ecstatic that her two year old could identify the letter R on a TV show.  Now, this blog is not about the consequences of the digital age, but I do want to use this example to consider Mason’s approach to observation regarding children learning letters.  Mason wanted young children to have a box of letters (letter puzzles and alphabet books before this).  I want to suggest that at the outset these letters are not to be used as a tool to teach children to read but as play things. The letters should be large enough that children can play with them by sticking their fingers through the holes.  As the children play with these letters, they are in the process of observation and forming relationships with them. The youngsters use them to create their own imaginary games or stories, maybe turning them into soldiers or characters from a book, or replaying events of the day with them under the sheets after the lights are out, even assigning them names (that don’t match the letter names).  The children become upset when the letters are taken away because they have formed relationships with their letters. Once the youngsters have played with and handled these letters, experiencing them tactually, imaginatively, kinesthetically, then it is a quite natural connection to recognize those letters in print because they “know” their letters. This kind of knowing, of having a relationship with their letters then expands to words, phrases, sentences, and so on.  This relationship then, develops even further and richer because as time goes on language becomes a primary tool for observation–a process that began with children playing with their letters.

Let’s return to the PBS advertisement where the little one learns to identify the letter R from the TV or electronic screen.  How much more distant the object of his learning is from him.  This child does not develop the same kind of relationship with letters as the child does who holds the letters, plays with them, takes her box of letters to bed to play a game under the sheets.  All this very real knowing and observing cannot be done with digital letters on a TV or computer screen.  All this is an example of Mason’s point about the science of relations as a key component of observation.

Another point is that while children at this stage are not taught directly how to read, their playing and interacting with the letters forms the background knowledge from which they learn to read which makes learning more personable and delightful and not at all tedious.

Our relationships with things may frequently be wrapped up in people but not always as in the case with Nature Study.  Just as we can love that piece of furniture, we can love to study insects and come to know them, respect them and appreciate them as part of creation.  By rejecting the implicitly matterialistic or utilitarian view of life which seeks to deconstruct life for our own usages, it seems to me that Mason by suggesting that all of life is about the science of relations is putting forth a certain moral responsibility (and others have referred to this as being God’s viceregents of this earth) towards all of creation and thus she pushed back against observation and science when they were for utilitarian purposes.  This is most clear in her approach to teaching Nature Study.

Getting the correct green takes a good amount of study, trying and retrying until it matches with what we are observing.

Getting the correct green takes a good amount of study, trying and retrying until it matches with what we are observing.

Mason (1954) says, “Certainly these note books (she is referring to Nature Notebooks) do a good deal to bring science within the range of common thought and experience; we are anxious not to make science a utilitarian subject” (p. 223).  Again, she is pushing back against dualism–separating science from the rest of life and thus making it a utilitarian object.  She says elsewhere, “As a matter of fact the teaching of science in our schools has lost much of its educative value through a fatal and quite unnecessary divorce between science and the ‘humanities’” (p. 223).  Here Mason is deliberately pushing back against such dualistic thinking.  We are not to view God’s creation as an “object” to possess which tends to happen when we separate one subject, such as science, from another.  We are to view it relationally which requires the humanities.  Children should come “to know and delight in natural objects as in the familiar faces of friends” (Mason, 1953, p. 237).  This is the type of relationship I am trying to describe with the piece of furniture and the letter box.  It becomes like “the familiar face of a friend,” which prevents it from being separated into a box for science for utility reasons only to be deconstructed and used for our own purposes outside the moral parameters set for us in Scripture.

She (Mason, 1953) describes this more clearly by saying, “To know a plant by its gesture and habitat, its time and its way of flowering and fruiting; a bird by its flight and song and its times of coming and going; to know when, year after year, you may come upon the redstart and the pied fly-catcher, means a good deal of interested observation, and of, at any rate, the material for science.  The children keep a dated record of what they see in their nature note-books, which are left to their own management and are not corrected.  These note-books are a source of pride and joy, and are freely illustrated by drawings (brushwork) of twig, flower, insect, etc.  The knowledge necessary for these records is not given in the way of teaching.  On one afternoon in the week, the children (of the Practising School) go for a ‘nature walk’ with their teachers.  They notice for themselves, and the teacher gives a name or other information as it is asked for, and it is surprising what a range of knowledge a child of nine or ten acquires.  The teachers are careful not (italics hers) to make these nature walks an opportunity for science instruction, as we wish the children’s attention to be given to observation with very little direction” (pp. 236-237).  There are several things going on here.

First, observation is a self-directed activity and with this self-directed activity children are taking their steps toward appropriate dominion.  Children choose what they want to paint when they go on a nature walk.  Relationships cannot be worked out by others, but must be worked out by the participates:  the observer and the observed.  Hence the need for children to make their own choices when they go on a nature walk.  Second, teachers are to be very careful not to use these nature walks as a means to teach science-no utilitarian purposes for nature study, although, science is clearly being learned.  She (1953) says, “In this way they lay up that store of ‘common information’ which Huxley considered should precede science teaching. . .(p. 237).  This common information is all the things children learn incidentally by just being outdoors.  Third, there is a purpose but it is not a teacher-directed purpose (and, yet it is because it is the teacher who has the wisdom to allow them to engage with nature).  Fourth, by keeping these records the children are learning to be scientist while at the same time learning to see nature as an old friend.  In other words they are not learning science as just science divorced from the rest of life (dualism), but they are learning science and treating it as a friend.

I want to end this blog with this quote from Mason (1953), “Children should have relations with earth and water, should run and leap, ride and swim, should establish the relation of maker to material in as many kinds as may be; should have dear and intimate relations with persons, through present intercourse, through tale or poem, picture or statue; through flint arrow-head or modern motor-car: beast and bird, herb and tree, they must have familiar acquaintance with.  Other peoples and their languages must not be strange to them.  Above all they should find that most intimate and highest of all Relationships,–the fulfilment of their being” (p. 209).  There is no dualism here.  Education is seen as the science of relations through all of life–from the simple forms of nature to the Highest Relationship we can have–that is with God.

So, a child cannot develop these kinds of relationship with digital numbers, letters, or nature pictures on a computer screen.  While images on a computer screen can certainly increase our knowledge and understanding of the world, it isn’t just knowledge we are after, but it is relationship we are after.  This is not to say that computers and screens are bad and cannot be used.  Just as Mason lists the motor-car in her list, so we would list the computer or other types of technology.  That isn’t the point here.  The point is that children must do the labor of the mind for themselves, that is, in order for them to establish these kinds of relationships, they need to do their own observations, their own record keeping, their own descriptions; they must make ‘old friends’ with the world for themselves through observation.

Mason, C.M. (1953). Home and school education:  The training and education of children over nine.  Oxford:  The Scrivener Press.

Mason, C.M. (1954). An essay towards a philosophy of education:  A liberal education for all.  London:  J. M. Dent & Sons, LTD.

© 2013  Carroll and Andra Smith


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. lisacadora says

    Bravo, Andy and Carroll!!! This brings to mind Parker Palmer’s “To Know As We Are Known.” We are so accustomed to knowledge as personal gain that we end up mangling that which we seem to know, not really knowing it at all in the end.

  2. Alba Rice says

    Thank you for this article…it reminds me of,
    “He sees many things, but does not observe them; his ears are open, but he does not hear.” Is. 42:20
    The teacher’s job: allow the time for the relationship and be available for help if needed.

  3. Really helpful to think through giving our children a chance to develop a relationship with what they are learning. Your example of digital letters versus tactile letters was especially helpful. Thanks for posting this!

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