I’m not going to dwell on how to plan in this series because there are so many wonderful resources for that already. Teaching from Rest by Sarah Mackenzie is the absolute best- she has also studied under the Circe Institute and Dr. Perrin of Classical Academic Press, so it is all in the same vein and full of practical wonderful tips for the day to day. A little birdie also told me that Sarah is having a master class Feb 8 and 15 on focusing and aligning your homeschool day (especially when you’re feeling foggy), dovetailing so nicely into what I was saying about checking the map in the last post. Isn’t that perfect? I have taken Master Classes from Sarah and they are so unbelievably chock full of great information. Worth every penny. I’d also point you to the rest of the Schole Sisters for resources- Mystie Winkler and visiting guests Jen Mackintosh (Wildflowers and Marbles) and Dawn (By Sun and Candlelight) just wrapped a great series on planning too.
Here is where the rubber meets the road. Early childhood.
For those of us raised in seen-and-not-heard traditional environments, it is probably the most mysterious stage of them all. It’s also the stage that is sort of assumed or left out of most educational writing and thought, especially those in the Classical and Charlotte Mason vein. If you are perhaps a young parent with a two year old reading all sorts of homeschooling literature, you’re probably a bit puzzled and yet inspired by most of what you’re reading. You know you want that kind of education for your kids when they reach school age, but what do you do in the meantime? Especially when most of the literature discusses not really beginning in earnest until around age seven? That’s quite a bit of time. I wondered the same thing.
When my eldest two were moving into the sort of kindergarten, first grade years, we began faithfully working on letters and numbers and all in the traditional fashion, but it was hard going. Our school-y times just draggggged. We eventually got to a point where they were both reasonably reading and writing enough to pursue other subjects, but I don’t think any of us look back on that time with fondness. I resolved then and there that when the next two were jumping into those years, I’d have a much better understanding of early childhood and elementary years. I think the reason it is not often mentioned in Classical and Charlotte Mason literature is due to the fact that both sort of assume the child is growing up in the very sort of environment Montessori, Steiner, and Malaguzzi describe- one that is not familiar to many modern readers because our whole basis of life at home and in the world has changed so fundamentally and has become very bifurcated and shattered. Thus, I’ve found reading and studying these approaches has helped me to “fill in the blanks” so to speak.
I started where any modern, twenty-first homeschooling mother would start- a Google Search.
Suddenly, a world I had never even heard of bloomed before my eyes. Unfamiliar names like Maria Montessori, Loris Malaguzzi, and Rudolf Steiner were bandied about with abandon. The common thread through them all is a gentle, beautiful, holistic, child-led education that has no drudgery at all. While they may all quibble in the details, if you were to walk into any early childhood classroom in this vein, they’d look very similar. The environment is beautiful and natural. Everything is child-sized, but not in a cartoonish, cloying way- these are simply smaller replicas of what mom and dad use at home. When you walk into an environment like this, the room is both quiet and buzzing with activity. Children move around with purpose- intently playing. Just playing.
Play is the work of the child. – Maria Montessori
As I said before, toddlers don’t need instruction in viewing the world with wonder, inquiry, and joy. They can teach you more about it than you could ever teach them. I think half of our job as educators past the early childhood years is to help them hold on to that superior skill and not squash it. I firmly believe that a mastery based education is going to continue to nurture this ability and spark in the student throughout their learning years.
There is no way I could even begin to break down everything I’ve learned from these schools of thought, but I wanted to bring them into this series because I believe that they are wonderful tools in nurturing children in early childhood that sets them up for a great adventures as they begin the grammar years. I’d strongly encourage you to research them more on your own if you are curious- I’m including a resource list at the bottom of this post to encourage this very thing. I’d also note here that I find using these approaches are extremely helpful when dealing with a child who has processing delays or special needs- as all three are based on multi-sensory learning. I have carried ideas that are typically meant for two or three year olds well into upper level elementary learning for my child with Sensory Processing Disorder. It is their very gentleness that I appreciate the most- they are easy to adjust for an older child in a way that doesn’t make the child feel talked down to or worse, judged, for not being able to do them- we should never underestimate the healing power of play. So instead, I’m going to note the major theme I learned from each that I found most helpful. The overarching theme you can really think about with all three of these is the idea of intentional play. All three see the teacher as guide, not didactic near-dictator of learning ideas. They take direction from the child’s play.
If you take nothing else away from Montessori, her view of a child’s need and ability to learn autonomy is absolutely essential to a well-formed education. She felt very firmly that children are capable of doing many things themselves and that it was part of their early education to teach them these skills. In a Montessori early childhood classroom, you will find children playing and practicing at skills like setting the table, washing hands, taking care of their bodies (brushing teeth and hair), putting on clothes, preparing and cutting up snacks and meals, and just about any other sort of adult life-skill you can think of. The whole environment is oriented towards the child learning independence and autonomy. Everything is child-sized. The tools for the job are simple and beautiful, and they are always put back in the same places. This may seem a simple thing, but it cannot be overstated in our current American culture. Teaching our children about themselves and the world around them and how to care for things both physically and emotionally at a young age is probably one of the most foundational needs of an education, to form one’s virtue. Many Montessori materials looks like playing (which they are) but they are contained (usually on a beautiful tray or basket) allowing for close focus, and they are nearly always self correcting. A child using a Montessori tray will learn a concept by playing for as long as they like in whatever way they like-eventually discovering for themselves the order of the activity. There is always an example and an invitation to try it themselves. Montessori early language and math always concentrates in play while helping a child to recognize relationships between themselves and the subject at hand. If I could boil it down to one sentence, including Montessori ideals in your tool box means seeing relationships through play.
Waldorf (Rudolf Steiner)
There are many cross-over points between Montessori and Waldorf, as they were developing their theories in roughly the same time periods in the same part of the world. Waldorf also focuses on a gentle early childhood and the idea that subjects aren’t taught, but experienced. Waldorf very overtly affirms the spark within the child in a way few other educational schools of thought do. Not only do they talk about and encourage the students to see the spark within themselves, they also encourage the students to see the spark in the world beyond themselves. There are many of the Christian faith who will struggle at first with Steiner’s philosophies, but if you re-frame this idea as seeing the Icon of Christ both within ourselves and in others and recognizing the Logos within the world, Waldorf approaches are tremendously helpful. If there is anything I have taken away from my study of Waldorf, it is how essential it is to highlight the beauty and order inherent in the world. Waldorf environments will literally make you take a deep, calming breath- there is such beauty and softness and wonder. Chalk and wet-on-wet watercolor are used often, both incredibly forgiving mediums yet utterly satisfying in their beauty.
This approach is actually named for a community in Northern Italy where this education style first took root. It also formed later than the first two, in post World War II by a teacher named Loris Malaguzzi. It is clearly influenced by the ideas of Montessori, but has taken on its own unique flavor. It’s not an accident that this theory developed in a community- collaborative learning is one of the hallmarks of Reggio. One of the most repeated statements associated with Reggio is ” the child has a hundred languages”. An educator’s job is to learn from the child his or her unique language and foster it. One of the most helpful ideas I have taken away from the Emelia approach is how to document a child’s journey of education so that I as the teacher am participating in collaborative learning with them. It is taking a child’s inquiry, essentially, and making sure to ‘set the feast’ during the next learning period to foster that. I don’t see this as contradictory to a Classical. Charlotte Mason style education at all- if anything, it extends the idea, allowing a child to take what is being learned and scaffolding it to their own unique interests. It is as easy as taking a snapshot or quick video of a child’s work on your phone and pulling it up the next day and saying, “you know, you were wondering about this. What are some ways we can figure out the answer?” Reggio by far has encouraged me the most in fostering a sense of wonder and inquiry in my students, simply by listening to them and helping them find their own intuitive voice in seeking out knowledge and information.
There are tremendous resources available, and here are some of my favorites.
Matushka Emma has documented her journey in, as she put it “our own kind of Orthodox MondorfHomeschooling ;-)” and is probably one of the most visually practical ways of seeing how these different tools can be blended and used with young children. I’ve linked to her homeschooling category, but her Festal and Living and Learning Basket Categories are not to be missed.
An Everyday Story is just a fantastic resource for early learning, period. (To note: her oldest son has autism, and she often talks about how she shifts learning to support that, which is super helpful!) She focuses primarly on a Reggio Emelia approach, but you’ll see aspects of Montessori and Waldorf included, too. She shares documentation of what her kids are learning, which helps you to see how to listen to your own children’s inquiries. She occasionally hosts sponsored content, but she always makes it abundantly clear when those sort of posts appear.
Rhythm of the Home was a wonderful resource for gentle parenting and Waldorf style education ideas. It has since grown quiet, but the archives are still there and are tremendously helpful. I often will go click around when I need a quiet shot of beauty and encouragement, even though I think I’ve read the archives through two or three times.
Parenting Passageway was a huge game changer for me about six years ago. She not only discusses a blend of approaches between Waldorf and Montessori, she often discusses the bigger picture of the child in community and gentle parenting and discipline approaches. Even if you aren’t homeschooling your children, you will still find this blog to be very insightful and encouraging.
Michelle Garrells (wife of wonderful musician Josh Garrells) has begun The New Domestic in the last year or so and has such lovely illustrations of how a blended “Mondorf” type education works as well.
Bethany of Cloistered Away also serves as a pleasant visual resource for thinking about how these things might look. Nearly all of the bloggers I mention here have accompanying Instagram accounts which take their pursuits a bit further, but among them all, Bethany’s blog and Instagram account are the only “commercial” resource I link to. Both the blog and the Instagram account regularly feature sponsored content, so just be aware of that as you are reading.
For broader reading and understanding, here are the major websites for each approach.
This is the sixth entry in the Wonder and Inquiry Series.