VII: The child gets knowledge by means of his senses
Young children learn a lot just from watching what goes on around them, and exploring objects with all of their senses. They become familiar with common things, learn about form and distance and perspective and mechanics and seasons and so on.
It is possible to overtax a child with the wrong kind of work — but children don’t get tired of exploring new things; it’s the work they’re suited for in these early years. We should provide plenty of things to explore — and, when invited, supply the words for these things. In the early years, it is better not to use words as the primary vehicle for teaching, but things.
A sense of beauty grows from early experience in nature. A child observes naturally — as people get older, some retain this tendency while others lose it.
Mason tries to walk between too much structure or restriction on the one hand, and too much freedom or laxity on the other hand. Sometimes it sounds like she errs on one side or the other, or applies the concern where it doesn’t seem applicable. Like here:
Now, consider what a culpable waste of intellectual energy it is to shut up a child, blessed with this inordinate capacity for seeing and knowing, within the four walls of a house, or the dreary streets of a town. Or suppose that he is let run loose in the country where there is plenty to see, it is nearly as bad to let this great faculty of the child’s dissipate itself in random observations for want of method and direction. (68)
It’s especially the second sentence that bothers me — as if children can’t really benefit from being able to explore freely without someone guiding and building on their explorations. I think there’s a time and place for direction and method, and a time and a place for unstructured, barely supervised exploration.
VIII: The child should be made familiar with natural objects
Mason argues that the country is better than the town, because knowing which side of the street a store is on is not especially good for growing wisdom, whereas country objects are interrelated, members of larger systems, examples of whole species or groups. Kids don’t necessarily need to know all the technical terms for what they notice as they explore in nature — with enough exploration and observation they’ll make their own connections, comparisons, contrasts.
Kingsley writes: “in learning true knowledge they [scientific men] will have learnt also their own ignorance, and the vastness, the complexity, the mystery of Nature. But they will also be able to rule, they will be able to act, because they have taken the trouble to learn the facts and the laws of Nature” (71).
Mason believes that learning early to love nature will provide a child with “pure interests, absorbing pursuits, health, and good humor,” serving to deter him from sin. I suspect it’s just as possible to sin while loving nature — but likely enough there’s less chance of getting in trouble there.
IX: Out-of-door geography
Whatever can be found in surrounding nature can be compared to geography of other places — small trees and hills and ponds made analogous to great forests, mountains, lakes and seas.
While outdoors, children can be made acquainted with the various positions of the sun at various times of day, as well as the variations in weather. Both sun and weather can be opportunities to talk about things such as time and distance. Walking is another introduction to distance — a child can measure his pace, and use it to measure the distance of various parts of the outdoor environment. He can also measure how much time it takes to walk one of these parts. From there, he can calculate how much distance he would cover in a given time, or vice versa.
By observing the sun’s rising and setting, the various positions between, and the effects on shadows, a child can learn to use the sun to determine direction — first east and west, and if she stands with east on her right and west on her left, then north is before her and south behind. Then she can consider what things in the house, in the yard, in the neighborhood, in the town, lie in which directions. She can also notice the directions of winds, from smoke, waving branches, moving clouds, and learn that winds are named for the direction they’re coming from, not the direction they’re blowing.
Later, introduce a compass, and guide the child in observing its movements as he walks as straight as he can, or in a slow circle, or turns right or left. Introduce the idea of boundaries, such as a field being bounded by a hedge, another field, or a stream. Chidren can draw rough maps or plans of places they’ve explored, labeling the compass points; sometimes they can pace the place and draw their plan to scale.
X. The child and mother nature
In this section Mason makes clear that she does not expect all outdoor time to be occupied in direct teaching. Indeed, she argues that the greater difficulty for the parent is to keep herself from talking too much, and to limit the number of teachings in each outdoor excursion. Here’s a quotation that to me stands quite in contrast with the one above that bothered me:
…the child stares up into a tree, or down into a flower––doing nothing, thinking of nothing; or leads a bird’s life among the branches, or capers about in aimless ecstasy;––quite foolish, irrational doings, but, all the time a fashioning is going on… (79)
The mother can occasionally call attention to something she finds especially lovely in the landscape, even occasionally mentioning the pleasure God has in this thing he has made and in the pleasure it brings his children. Both should be shared as delight rather than as teaching or exhortation.
XI: Out-of-door games, etc.
There should be a brief lesson in foreign language, perhaps ten minutes for six new words and recalling previously learned words. The words may be related to something in the surroundings.
After lunch, the little ones may nap outdoors while the older ones play games, especially games that allow them to shout and move quite freely. These may include singing and dancing games, jumping rope, tag, ball, follow-the-leader, and also games that involve the discipline of rules, such as baseball and soccer.
Climbing, leaping, boating, and swimming are to be encouraged, not avoided. Children will learn “courage and caution from their own experiences,” and are more likely to fall, not less, when startled by a mother’s overzealous warning (84).
Obviously, children should be dressed appropriately for this kind of play.
XII: Walks in bad weather
An hour or so morning and afternoon should continue in winter, with all the same kinds of observations, notes in the diary, and language lesson.
Likewise, by all means go out in the rain — wearing breathable clothes rather than stuffy raincoats — save the raincoat for times when the child won’t be able to change clothes on arriving back home or at church or school or wherever.