Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Charlotte Mason and the "Kindergarten Problem"

After that introduction, Charlotte goes on the warpath against Froebelian kindergartens, which were soaring in popularity at the time. Those of us who attended North American kindergartens in the late twentieth century might not quite understand her objections; we might think of singing along with the teacher’s autoharp (or boom-box), or of playing at the sand table, or painting with drippy paints at an easel; and of the whole thing being rather fun, at least in comparison to the higher grades; but the early kindergartens were not quite like that. Children were led through programmed activities involving boxes of geometric shapes, and other materials such as “folded paper and woven straw.” Sometimes they sat at little tables, sometimes they stood in circles and moved as prescribed (think of the actions for “I’m a Little Teapot”). (If you really want to know more about the purposes and methods of kindergartens at that time, see if you can find a copy of Norman Brosterman’s book Inventing Kindergarten.) When Charlotte Mason quotes Anne Sullivan as requesting not to be sent any more kindergarten materials for Helen Keller, she is rebelling not so much against the nice craft supplies as against the ways that they are supposed to be used.

“I am beginning to suspect all elaborate and special systems of education. They seem to me to be built up on the supposition that every child is a kind of idiot who must be taught to think, whereas if the child is left to himself he will think more and better, if less showily.” (Anne Sullivan, quoted in Home Education, pp. 195-196)

There was one more twist to the “kindergarten problem,” and that is that Froebel (like Pestalozzi before him) was undoubtedly a genius, with a deep desire to pass on his vision of the universe. A child who played with his wooden cubes, and made designs with toothpicks and dried peas, might have ended up with, at least, an amazing sense of artistic design. (Frank Lloyd Wright was apparently one of those.) But Froebel had died in 1852, when Charlotte Mason was ten years old; and by the era of Home Education thirty-plus years later, his own writings (dense and difficult) were skipped over by busy young teachers. His methods had been adapted and restyled; the activities were kept, but the understanding was lost. The kindergartens of Charlotte’s time might be called merely Froebel-ish.

And that is the context in which she wrote,

[if a child participates in too-structured early learning],during the first six or seven years in which he might have become intimately acquainted with the properties and history of every natural object within his reach, he…can distinguish a rhomboid from a pentagon, a primary from a secondary colour, has learned to see so truly that he can copy what he sees in folded paper or woven straw,—but this at the expense of much of that real knowledge of the external world which at no time of his life will he be so fitted to acquire.” (Home Education, p. 179)

The early-years curriculum described here is one which produces skillful hand-eye co-ordination, and also teaches children to think “showily,” to quote Anne Sullivan; but which misses out on heart. It is the equivalent of learning scales without music, or capitals of the world without people. It might even be read as an echo of St. Paul’s “If I do this or that good thing, but have not love, I am nothing.”

Ironically, those who recommend such a structured program (or its contemporary equivalent) might say that they are, in fact, providing “real knowledge of the external world,” perhaps in the same way that Eustace Scrubb was raised to enjoy pictures of grain elevators. Charlotte Mason, on the other hand, describes fortunate children whose early years allowed them to become “intimately acquainted with the properties and history of every natural object within [their] reach”; whose parents realized that they could pick up most of the common shapes-colours-numbers lessons simply by living, working, and playing. Playing included playing outdoors, as often as possible, and not only on playground equipment, or at soccer practice, but by climbing (trees, preferably), touching, digging, splashing in creeks or at the shore, listening, looking; particularly looking. “The child’s observation should be directed to flower or boulder, bird or tree; that, in fact, he should be employed in gathering the common information which is the basis of scientific knowledge” (p. 177). The goal is, like that of the kindergarten, to teach children to “see so truly”; but the eyes are focused here not on rhomboids and weaving straws, but on objects which will be theirs for a lifetime.

Excerpt from Ideas Freely Sown: The Matter and Method of Charlotte Mason, by Anne E. White (to be published soon)


  1. This speaks to my heart today. I especially love the connection to St. Paul. Thank you, Anne. :)

  2. Ooooh .... I like "to be published soon" :D