I grew up taking ballet lessons. I wore leotards and tights almost every day of the week and could often be found practicing my pirouettes in the mirror of the bathroom. Ballet taught me so much, including discipline and focus. While ballet is beautiful to watch—and the goal is to make it look effortless—it requires a very specific set of skills to accomplish well. In essence, ballet has principles which must be followed again and again to produce the desired outcome. Without knowing those principles, ballet dancers wouldn’t hold the same air and beauty that they do.
The foundations of a Charlotte Mason education is, in many ways, similar to my early ballet lessons. Ms. Mason, a British pioneer of home education, established a set of principles within her philosophy of education to help guide the parent, and child, towards a beautiful outcome.
If you are looking to learn more about this philosophy of homeschool, here are the three principles that guide any Charlotte Mason homeschool.
1. A generous curriculum
When a child asks for a second helping of dinner, we happily comply because we know they need nutrition and sustenance. A Charlotte Mason education is based on generous helpings, or servings, of ideas that provide mental nutrition to the child. The term “spread the feast” is a phrase you will often hear when discussing this principle. It simply means providing your child with a generous, varied, and rich curriculum. This generally means exposing your children to many different subjects including, but not limited to:
- nature study
- foreign language
This generous feast can feel overwhelming and the desire to “do all things” can quickly feel defeating, but that’s where Ms. Mason’s other principles come into play, offering practical help for the parent.
2. Short lessons
It’s easy to let the idea of a large and generous feast feel overwhelming, but short lessons are the answer. Ms. Mason recommended children’s lessons be quite short with children ages 6 to 8, practicing no subject longer than 20 minutes, with most lessons being between 5-10 minutes. This principle is two-fold: First, it helps hold the child’s attention easier, thus building the habit of attention. Second, short lessons keep the child from experiencing overwhelm or burnout. Did you know that most children’s average attention span is their age plus one minute? So for example, the average 8 year old’s attention span is 9 minutes. Ms. Mason intuitively knew this and built her lessons accordingly. Just like training for a marathon, however, as the child grows, the length of time they can “run” grows. As children become older, their lesson times increase, helping them to build a greater habit of attention and focus.
3. Varied lessons
The combination of short, varied lessons is perhaps my favorite aspect of a Charlotte Mason education. For me and my children, it was a game-changing revelation and I’ve never looked back. Ms. Mason expressed that it’s not enough for the child’s lessons to be short, they must also offer variety and interest. This takes us back to the generous spreading of a feast—varied lessons are where we put the idea of a feast into practice. Just as short lessons help protect the child from feeling overwhelmed or mentally exhausted, varied lessons also support this practice.
If you’ve ever stared at a computer screen for hours, working on a project, or read material hundreds of pages long, then you know what mental fatigue can feel like. For a child, who reaches mental fatigue much more easily, the principle of variety helps keep their brains more fully engaged—which really just means it’s more fun! And don’t we want our school day to be more fun and less fatiguing?
A varied lesson entails mindfully switching between subjects to help the child engage different parts of the brain throughout their lessons. For example, a reading lesson, which generally takes more mental effort and focus, would be followed by art lessons, which engage a different part of the brain. Both reading and art are equally valuable in a Charlotte Mason education, offering the child mental stimulation, focus, and rest depending on where the lessons fall in the day. Another example would be to follow a skill like handwriting, which uses fine motor skills, with a lesson like singing that uses a completely different set of skills and muscles.
These back and forth, varied lessons offer engagement, reprieve, and fun—for the child and the parent. Together, the variety also supplies both sides of the brain with stimulation, which helps overall retention. I don’t know about you, but I feel really excited and encouraged when my kids actually remember something we learned in school!
The beauty of a Charlotte Mason education, in many ways, is its simplicity. It can seem complicated when you add up the number of subjects covered, but the principle of short, varied lessons honors the child and the teacher, providing structure and much needed mental engagement. And the wide, rich spreading of a feast of ideas adds the nourishment their brains crave. Whether you are just beginning to incorporate parts of Ms. Mason’s method or consider yourself a veteran, these principles remain foundational. When you follow them, you and your child can more easily pirouette through your day, enjoying yourselves as you go.