CM Monday – Education is an Atmosphere

Charlotte Mason’s motto was: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.”  Meaning “the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas.” She called this the three educational instruments.

I am starting this week with the idea of Education is an Atmosphere.  This can be found in Volume 6 – Towards a Philosophy of Education, Book 1, Chapter 6.

As we break down what is meant by “the atmosphere of environment,” we need to read Charlotte’s words directly.  She begins the chapter by criticizing the current fad of creating the “perfect environment” in which children will learn, simply by being surrounded by all the right colors and stimulating materials.  Apparently, fads in education come and go, because I see the same idea now; that children will somehow learn by osmosis if only they are surrounded by stimulating toys/art/educational resources, the right calming (or stimulating) colors, and if the right music is constantly played from pregnancy on…

Certainly, there is merit to exposing a child to an environment that is tailored for learning, but that cannot comprise the entirety of their education.  Charlotte feels that environment, or atmosphere, is only 1/3 of a proper education, and her idea of the right atmosphere is decidedly more natural:

It is not an environment that these [children] want, a set of artificial relations carefully constructed, but an atmosphere which nobody has been at pains to constitute. It is there, about the child, his natural element, precisely as the atmosphere of the earth is about us. It is thrown off, as it were, from persons and things, stirred by events, sweetened by love, ventilated, kept in motion, by the regulated action of common sense. We all know the natural conditions under which a child should live; how he shares household ways with his mother, romps with his father, is teased by his brothers and petted by his sisters; is taught by his tumbles; learns self-denial by the baby’s needs, the delightfulness of furniture by playing at battle and siege with sofa and table; learns veneration for the old by the visits of his great-grandmother; how to live with his equals by the chums he gathers round him; learns intimacy with animals from his dog and cat; delight in the fields where the buttercups grow and greater delight in the blackberry hedges…

It is not an artificially created environment that appeals the most to children, but one where they are allowed to play, explore, and socialize with family, elders, and peers.  Maria Montessori shared similar thoughts about how children learned best.  Her schools are filled with simple toys and opportunities for natural curiosity and exploration.  Research has shown, that especially in the first six years of life, imitative play is the most important part of a child’s education.  Imitative play does not require stimulating paint colors, or expensive toys.  In fact, my kids enjoyed playing with pots & pans, empty food containers, and a plain brown box (every kid’s favorite toy!).

On a practical level, there should be:

1. Access to quality books, whether in the home, or a nearby library.

2. Toys that provide a true educational value, and not just “entertainment.”

3. Outdoor time, every day if possible.  Kids need fresh air and outside time to actually absorb what they are learning.  It’s true!

4. People to talk to and love.  Pets to love are a bonus!  Kids who are loved just learn better.

5. Wholesome, healthy food.  Brains need good food and it should be a priority of any place where learning happens…at school or at home.

On a less “practical” level, a learning atmosphere should be peaceful, as chaos detracts from educational opportunities. The chaos level of a home is particularly important for a homeschooling family!  Not only is this the learning environment, but also the place where we live, play, and relax.

There should be an adult who is available to the children, for all of their questions and to offer gentle guidance for learning and exploration.  In fact, a lively and engaged adult is the key to a quality education – not to reveal all the answers to the children, but to help them discover the answers on their own, and enable independence in learning.

As a Christian, the spiritual component of our home atmosphere is the most important. I truly believe if we are putting God first, and listening to the urging of the Holy Spirit, then everything else will fall in line.


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