When asked about my preferences regarding how to approach learning, I enthusiastically and without hesitation talk about Charlotte Mason. Although she lived in the 1800s, her advice about how children learn is as relevant now as it was then. Much of her philosophy can be summed up in how she viewed children. In her opinion they are “not vessels to be filled, but candles to be lit.”
Candles to be lit.
What would you rather do, eat a fresh meal or one regurgitated by someone else? When we cram information into a child’s mind that is what we are offering them, a regurgitated meal. Yes, we know things they don’t know, but how much better for them to discover knowledge, rather than be told.
Charlotte believed that rather than stuff the head with facts, we should provide learning opportunities and the child will discover what his development is ready to accept. You’ve seen it happen. A baby sits in the sand and plays with it, letting it sift through her fingers. She uses her senses to experience the sand, puts some in her mouth, etc. A preschooler plays differently. He makes tracks in the sand with a stick or toy. He notices his foot prints, pays attention to the differences between dry sand and wet sand. Introduce an older child and he builds a sandcastle. The older the child, the more elaborate the sandcastle. From experience the child learns how sand feels in his hands, in his shoes, in his eyes. By exposing him to sand, you “lit a candle.”
What does he remember more: the facts about sand you told him, or the facts about sand he discovered by experience? We are comfortable letting the baby discover sand without bombarding her with words, but hesitate to give the adolescent the same opportunity.
Once candles are lit, then what?
Do we tell them nothing? Let them get burned in the fire so they learn the stove is hot? Of course not. Once candles are lit, children are open to learning about the topic. Once curiosity is aroused, you aren’t offering regurgitated food, you are opening the buffet.
Let’s say you plan a trip to an aquarium. That’s getting the candle ready, setting the table. Now let’s say you get halfway through the aquarium, noticing this and that, when you get to the jelly fish exhibit. Your child’s eyes widen. He puts his hand on the glass and watches as the jelly fish float up and down. His mouth hangs agape. He doesn’t care about the sharks or sea horses waiting ahead, he wants to stare at the jelly fish.
His candle has been lit. Don’t snuff it out by pulling him away, insisting he see everything in the aquarium. Respect the child’s interest. Now he wants to know about jelly fish. The questions come faster than you can answer. One answer leads to three more questions. “Let’s look it up when we get home,” you say. Tell him what he wants to know, but more effective is to help him discover the answers to the questions he has. As soon as you provide more answers than he has questions, you’ve taken him away from the buffet and are giving him vomit.
Remember the child in the sand? Learning as much as he is ready to know? Sometime later, you’ll go back to the aquarium. Your child might rush right through the jelly fish exhibit and be fascinated this time by the sharks, or he might linger with the jelly fish, more questions might surface or the knowledge he has gained might become cemented from more exposure.
Every outing, every situation has candle-lighting potential, we just have to respect the child enough to see it, and respond to his level of interest.
Gracious Father, we bow before you, the Great I Am. You are our Creator and Giver of every good gift. We praise you for your holiness and mercy. We ask that you see us through the blood of Jesus and protect us from temptation and evil. Grant us wisdom to teach our children, to view them as you do. Steer us away from faulty philosophies and let us cling to what is good and true. Because of Jesus.