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Teaching great ideas through art and literature

If you've ever spent a few days indulging in junk food that lacks much of anything that could be counted as nutritious sustenance, you'll probably find you start to crave piles of fruit and veg that will make up the deficit. However, if you continue with the junk food, you'll find fatigue and lethargy looming. Like our bodies need food - good, wholesome, nutritious food - in order to thrive, so our minds need to feed on wholesome and nutritious ideas in order to grow, think well, and find joy in life through healthy engagement with the world around us.

In building your atmosphere of home education, take time to think about what ideas you're providing your children. These ideas you place before them in your literature, your artist studies and your history books will be contributing to the diet you feed your children's minds.

Today, we're taking a look at some ways of building up a repertoire of healthy ideas from which your child can grow in their home school lessons. From this, and over time, you should see your child making their own connections between pieces of knowledge they've gained from various subjects. They will also start to elevate their vocabulary when narrating to you, and they'll recognise the types of ideas they should and should not dwell on - it will contribute to developing wisdom and discernment within their character.

1. Give your children good quality 'Living' books

Charlotte Mason lamented the use of second rate story books "with stale phrases, stale situations, shreds of other people's thoughts, stalest of stale sentiments.". In using good quality literature, your child will grow a love for and learn to enjoy concepts delivered through prose and poetry. She continues, "I saw it stated the other day that children do not care for poetry, that a stirring narrative in verse is much more to their taste. They do like the tale, no doubt, but poetry appeals to them on other grounds, and Shelley's Skylark will hold a child entranced sooner than any moving anecdote."

Stories about the animal world will impact your child's mind. Today my daughter called me into the garden reminding me of the story we had read about snails having a natural ability to return to their home even if they're moved away to an unknown spot. She had just been testing to see if this theory also applied to woodlice that she'd found. We had read this story about snails for about 10 minutes a month ago. She had not only recalled the story but decided to investigate further of her own accord. This is what learning is about!

Do the stories you give your child provide any room for their own thought processes to take place, or is it all laid out by the author? Is intrigue or silly amusing characters taking the place of provoking questions of morality and goodness? Does toilet humour replace an opportunity to show the child how to enjoy and investigate beauty in the world? I can think of quite a few authors that my kids enjoy reading or listening to that would fall into some of these categories. I'm not removing them from their literary diet, however, I'm making sure that amongst all this, they also hear the words of Shakespeare, Milne and Stephenson. Then, when we step out into our garden to watch the wildflowers of spring shoot up, this experience is joined with the recitation of "I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, with sweet musk-roses and with eglantine".

2. Show your child beautiful works of art

Nothing conveys the idea of a murky city scene overtaken by the grime of the Industrial Revolution better than a Turner painting. Its such an easy and beautiful way for a child to enter another world and begin to glimpse what their senses might experience as if they had stepped into the painted scene themselves. No child is too young to learn to appreciate works of art. I find it needs no prior understanding of the artist or the cultural setting. Rather, these discussions can grow from the child's observation of the picture. By looking at Vermeer's Milkmaid, my 6 year old began to imagine what her life might be like on a day to day basis. Why are the walls so plain inside her house? Who might she be pouring the milk out for? How many children might she have to feed? From this grows understanding of historical and cultural differences, and an empathy for a person in a situation that my daughter would never have experienced herself.

3. Give your child space to browse these types of literature on their own

Providing, you're happy with what you have lying around the house, don't always be standing over them as they learn to digest stories and poems. It's not our place to dominate their learning - the best learning will take place when they are on their own and choosing the material themselves. By stumbling upon a botany book or field guide lying around and flicking through the pages of insect biology and flower sketches, the child will learn to grow a fascination with the natural world that will fuel their desire to learn when playing outside another time. I had printed out a caterpillar identification sheet from Wildlife Watch and had left it lying around. My eldest child soon found it and began to identify which she had seen in our garden already this Spring. By studying some field marks of the unfamiliar caterpillars she is sure to take greater joy the next time she spots one in the garden.

Your aim is not to fill your child's mind with as much knowledge as they can squeeze in. It is to lay out before them a feast of learning. Imagine a large banquet table adorned with plates and dishes of all sorts. Some of it, your child will love, other dishes your child will taste and dislike. The point is, they've tried it. They've sampled the authors, artists and poets and made their own decisions on their tastes in the process. They've encountered characters that they would like to imitate and ones they disapprove of. In their mind, they will draw from ideas that they have considered and apply them to the development of future knowledge.

Although much more could be said on all this, hopefully this gives you an impression of what Living Books and works of art can do for your child's education. And hopefully your child will learn to echo the words of Shelley:

Teach me half the gladness

That thy brain must know,

Such harmonious madness

From my lips would flow

The world should listen then, as I am listening now

- To a Skylark

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