Renaissance. From the Latin “re” (again) + “nāscī” (to be born), perhaps more commonly known from the French “renaistre” (to be born again). As a Christian born again at the age of 23, this word is profound in my life. Renaissance: to have a new heart, a new mind, new eyes, lending to a new understanding of humanity and the vast love bestowed on us from a willing, sacrificial savior. Renaissance.
Much of my journey into the world of Charlotte Mason has felt like a renaissance. The shedding of the old, stale ways and embracing this new, living, breathing educational philosophy. Like the freedom felt in my faith, so too Charlotte Mason’s philosophy offers my family freedom as I follow her lead. And as I, like many other women I know, have experienced, this journey with Charlotte Mason is long and winding with new beautiful landscapes and understandings around every bend.
It was October in North Carolina’s piedmont. The air and soil were mostly dry—free of the humidity that plagues the summer months. The cool mornings and warm afternoons called for layers upon layers. Our precious coop gathered for another day of sweet fellowship and shared learning together. Our afternoon would be spent in the wide outdoors, open for the Holy Spirit to bring forth new and wonderful discoveries to our minds through the study of nature. On this day, our clever friend Mary brought us to a nearby corn field, that had already birthed its harvest. The field was dry and brown but for spots where corn kernels and cobs, scattered from harvest time, had given birth to new, vibrant green corn stalks.
Typically, nature study meant finding an object to identify and draw in our nature journals—moms and children alike. The children who felt confident in their drawing ability took time and great effort in their entries. The others hurried to find a specimen and sketch it in their books, lamenting their abilities, only to rush off in eager free play. This pattern became unsatisfying to us moms. We knew Charlotte Mason said, “[w]e were all meant to be naturalists, each in his degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things.” (Mason, Charlotte. Home Education, page 61) We meditated on this purpose of nature study. Were we finding this purpose fulfilled through our study of nature? Was it worth continuing nature study if an apathetic attitude was developing? Our intuition said no. But instead of resigning, we decided to dig in and educate ourselves. After all, we are persons just like our children and we believe Mason when she said,
…self-education is the only possible education; the rest is mere veneer laid on the surface of a child’s nature” (Mason, Charlotte. Towards a Philosophy of Education, page 240)
Our renaissance of nature study began with ideas. We read again “Out-of-Door Life for the Children” in Mason’s Volume 1 and listened to A Delectable Education’s podcasts (20, 22, 41 & 42). We read through the resources available through John Muir Laws and his partnership with The California Native Plant Society. In researching, we discovered that we had presented to our children a practice of nature study that was very one dimensional. To our children, nature study had become primarily an artistic effort. An effort that was measurable by an artistic standard, rather than a scientific one. Sure, we saw many interesting things in our time outdoors, but did our children ever truly care? Were their minds stirred by wonder? Maybe some. Maybe not.
In “Opening the World Through Nature Journaling: Integrating Art, Science and Language Arts,” John Muir Laws and Emily Breunig write, “…in order for journaling to work its observational magic—they need to know that the goal of such drawing is not to make pretty pictures, but instead to accurately observe and record data.” They further state, “[a]ny drawing, however crudely executed, is a success if it enables the student to see more clearly or document his or her observations.” As teachers and mothers, “…we momentarily put aside our art values to shift the students’ focus, and in doing so, free them to draw.”
(An aside: Sometimes along the journey with Charlotte Mason we come upon places where we trip. Maybe we fall flat on our faces. But the Holy Spirit is always there with an outstretched hand to help us swallow our pride and keep on moving. It also helps to have sweet sisters on the journey with you. Perhaps they’re even laughing with you in the dirt!)
So on that warm October afternoon, armed with this treasure chest of ideas, we took our backpacks full of our guides, nature journals, and pencils and we trekked out to a shady corner of that cornfield. We passed around fascinating examples of naturalists’ journals from Beetles: Science and Teaching for Field Instructors. The kids were intrigued and their wheels were turning. We presented to the children this idea of nature study and then gave them to the Lord as they set off to explore.
Time passed and the children began finishing their observations. Many continued exploring the bountiful curiosities of the cornfield. As families began packing up, there was one unlikely child still sitting with his notebook and pencils in hand. His mom stood nearby patiently waiting for him to finish his work. A wise mom, Lolly knew her child who ordinarily dreaded this time of the day was now fully engaged with nature study. Rushing him was not an option despite three younger siblings waiting to go home. An idea planted in his mind had taken root, giving birth to a beautiful observation in his journal, both in sketch and word. He sketched in his book the shallow roots of a tiny corn plant still attached to its kernel of corn, zooming in to draw and describe various details of the plant. Here was an awakened child! Renaissance.
…[W]e perceive that the great work of education is to inspire children with vitalising ideas as to the relations of life, departments of knowledge, subjects of thought: and to give deliberate care to the formation of those habits of the good life which are the outcome of vitalising ideas. In this great work we seek and assuredly find the cooperation of the Divine Spirit, whom we recognise, in a sense rather new to modern thought, as the Supreme Educator of mankind in things that have been called secular, fully as much as in those that have been called sacred. (Mason, Charlotte. Parents and Children, pg. 254)
Along this journey with Charlotte Mason, there have been tears. Tears of frustration and tears of weariness. But far more powerful are the tears of joy, amazement and thanksgiving when the fruit of this philosophy comes to bear in the hearts and minds of our children.
How have you presented the study of nature to your children? Has Charlotte Mason’s philosophy provided you or your family with a renaissance? Tell us about it!