I love this quote from Charlotte Mason’s first volume of her series on education:
“The resourcefulness which will enable a family of children to invent their own games and occupations through the length of a summer’s day is worth more in after life than a good deal of knowledge about cubes and hexagons, and this comes, not of continual intervention on the mother’s part, but of much masterly inactivity.” [Home Education, p.131]
It’s one of those make me feel good quotes because my kids are generally good at amusing themselves. I try to allow them plenty of free time. It doesn’t always work. There is school, of course, which takes a few hours a day. And then they have a fair amount of outside activities. With four children, it is not hard for those to add up. But they still end up with a lot more time left over than they would if they were in school.
These days we talk of free time, and many lament our seemingly overscheduled children. Charlotte Mason spoke of “masterly inactivity.” This particular quote comes in the midst of a discussion of kindergarten, which it seems Miss Mason was against. Today we mostly take kindergarten for granted (though it my state many towns still have only half-day kindergarten though many parents push for full-day programs). But there is still much discussion of early childhood education as the formal education of children gets pushed earlier and earlier to ages 4 and 3.
Charlotte Mason argues that by leaving children on their own we encourage in them personal initiative. It is this that she refers to as “worth more . . . than a good deal of knowledge about cubes and hexagons.” (I don’t think she would argue for completely free-range children with no supervision, but that is another discussion.) When we leave children to themselves, they must come up with their own entertainment. They make their own games. Where there are a few children, they must learn to work together. They build their imaginations. I find with my own children that they often act out what they have learned, playing at WWI, for instance, and thereby reinforce learning. But even if they do not, there are still many benefits even beyond the kindergarten years.
Another point Charlotte makes is that children do not always need us as mediators. This is actually a major part of her educational philosophy as I understand it. We too often come between the children and the material they should be forming relationships with. We do this by processing the material for the children. We ask them preset, fill-in-the-blank type questions. We give them summaries and not real books to read. Narration lets the children digest their own intellectual food. So too when children are left to run around outside without our constant interference, they form their own relationships with natural things. Left alone with art supplies, they come up with their own projects and ideas.
It is hard often for us to step back and to not direct our children’s attention. On a walk outside, I often find myself saying, “come look at this , children.” And that not not always inappropriate. But we homeschool parents, especially, need to learn sometimes to turn off the commentary, not because education ever stops but so that the children can find their own way.