Archive for the ‘Homeschool’ Category

Booklist: Our Favorite Silly Books

We love silly books so these are some of our favorites. Being silly does not mean a book is not living. It just means it is a lot more fun.

To keep things as simple as possible, I divide the books into four ages ranges: preschool to early elementary; elementary; middle years (roughly 5th-8th grades); and teens. Keep in mind that many harder books can be read aloud to younger children and that older ones can still enjoy and get a lot out of easier books.

Favorite Silly Books

Adams, Douglas. Hitchhiker’s Guide (series) and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (series). We love these books. They are a bit atheistic. Dirk Gently is probably less so. Teens.

Anderson, M.T. Pals in Peril (series). With titles like Whales on Stilts and The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen, you know they are silly. Middle years +. (Anderson has some other good books but some also have more mature content.)

Angleberger, Tom. Horton Halfpott. Some of Angleberger’s books are fairly twaddle but we liked this one. Middle years.

Clark, Henry. What We Found in the Sofa and How it Changed the World. We still remember that rare zucchini-colored crayon. Maybe a little twaddle but we liked it. Middle years.

Dahl, Roald. The king of silly living books. I can’t pick just one. Some of our favorites are: The BFGJames and the Giant Peach, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but he has lots of wonderful lesser-known books as well. Elementary-middle.

Jinks, Catherine. How to Catch a Bogle (series). We loved these. Middle years.

King-Smith, Dick. Twin Giants. King-Smith has lots of animal stories (which also have a fair amount of silly) but this one is just silly. Elementary.

Mayne, William. Hob Stories (series). We loved Hob and his pockets. Elementary.

Lindgren, Astrid. You know her from Pippi Longstocking (classic silly) but she has lots of other great books. One favorite is The Children of Noisy Village. Elementary-middle.

Lowry, Lois. The Willoughbys. Lowry is prolific and has some series books (The Giver) and some good chapter books (Goonie Bord Greene, also a bit silly) but this one is just silly. Middle years.

MacDonald, Betty. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (series). Classic silly chapter books about kids who do wrong and get just punishments. Elementary.

Slobodkin, Louis. Round Trip Spaceship, Spaceship in the Park, and Spaceship under the Apple Tree. Wonderful older author. Elementary-middle.

Steig, William. Steig has so many great (long) picture books it is hard to pick just one. You probably know Shrek (not much like the movie) but what about Solomon the Rusty Nail and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble? Elementary.

Wodehouse, P.D. Jeeves (series). Silly isn’t just for little kids! Middle years-adults.

Wood, Mary Rose. The Incorrigibles (series). Because it is our favorite series ever, I have to include the Incorrigbles again here. Middle-teens.

What are your favorite silly books?

Booklist: Myths, Fables, and Tales

Today’s list is about tales: famous stories retold including ancient myths, fables, and legendary tales. For tales that are adapted from Shakespeare’s plays, see this post on literature.

To keep things as simple as possible, I divide the books into four ages ranges: preschool to early elementary; elementary; middle years (roughly 5th-8th grades); and teens. Keep in mind that many harder books can be read aloud to younger children and that older ones can still enjoy and get a lot out of easier books.

Myths, Fables, and Tales

Bulla, Clyde Robert. The Sword in the Tree. A Viking story. Bulla’s books are wonderful. Elementary-middle.

Caudill, Rebecca. Contrary Jenkins. Old West tall tales. Elementary.

Climo, Shirley. Atalanta’s Race. Picture book of the classic Greek story. Elementary.

Colum, Padraic. The Golden Fleece. I love how Colum weaves together a bunch of myths within this one narrative. He also has The Children of Odin (Norse myths) and versions of Homer. Middle years +.

d’Aulaire, Ingri and Edgar. Book of Greek Myths and Book of Norse Myths. The d’Aulaires’ volumes are wonderful, illustrated ones. Elementary-middle years.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Wonder BookTanglewood Tales, and The Great Stone Face. Ancient stories and modern ones. All ages.

Homer. The Odyssey, trans. by Robert Fagles. We read this edition together when my kids were in high school. Teens.

Hutton, Warwick. Theseus and the Minotaur. Picture book. Elementary.

Irving, Washington. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. Classic American tales. We used the Rabbit Ears version fo the first and an edition edited by Moses for the second. There is a lot of depth to these stories so they can be read again by teens (see this post on high school literature). Elementary +.

Kellogg, Steven. Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. Picture book. Elementary.

Marshall, H.E. Stories of Beowulf Told to Children. Elementary +.

McCaughrean, Geraldine. This wonderful author has lots of beautifully illustrated versions of classic stories: The Odyssey, 1001 Arabian Nights, Gilgamesh, and the Canterbury Tales. Elementary +.

Morris, Gerald. Knights’ Tales (series). Decent chapter book versions of King Arthur stories. Elementary.

Osborne, Mary Pope. American Tall Tales. From the author of the Magic Treehouse series. Elementary. She also has chapter book versions of tales from the Odyssey.

Pyle, Howard. The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood and The Story of King Arthur. Pyle’s books are older and wonderful. Middle years +.

Pyle, Howard. Books of Wonder (series). Shorter folklore like tales. Elementary.

Rabbit Ears Treasury (series). This publisher has a lot of books of tales. Elementary.

Reynard the Fox. A French story in poetic form. Middle-teens.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queen. An old British story in poetry. We read selections. Middle-teens.

White, T.H. The Once and Future King. King Arthur. Middle-teens.

Zeman, Ludmila. Gilgamesh Trilogy (series). The Mesopotamian myths in picture book form. Elementary-middle.

Scientific Evidence for the Power of Fiction

Dear Reader,

Just a few random thoughts today from books I have been reading.

First from Virginia Woolf, a feminist writer of the 1920s:

“Fiction is likely to contain more truth than fact.” A Room of One’s Own (Leonard Woolf, 1957) p. 4

And Abigail Marsh, from a secular professor of psychology and neuroscience:

” . . . books are windows into the minds of the people who wrote them and the people who are written about. Fiction, in particular, represents what the psychologist Keith Oatley calls ‘the mind’s flight-simulator’ — a vehicle for exploring the rich mental and emotional landscapes of people, we have never met.

” . . . fiction enables us to become emotionally invested in the characters we encounter, to care about their plights and their fates.” The Fear Factor (Basic Books, 2017) pp. 243-44

Marsh goes on to argue that written fiction does this better than other media because it requires the use of the imagination in a way visual media do not. She cites studies which show that reading fiction increases people’s compassion and empathy and further says that:

“People who read fiction (but not nonfiction) are better at identifying complex and subtle emotions in others’ faces. And when subjects in one study were experimentally assigned to read a work of literary fiction, they reported increased empathetic concern for others even long after they had closed the book.” p. 245

If you are uncomfortable with these non-Christian sources — and even if you are not — I also highly recommend “Christians and Lit,” a recent episode of the Mortification of Spin podcast in which the hosts discuss the value of fiction, and give lots of good book recommendations.

Off to do some reading!


Booklist: Books about Literature and Authors

Today’s list is one of the shorter one: books about literature and authors.

To keep things as simple as possible, I divide the books into four ages ranges: preschool to early elementary; elementary; middle years (roughly 5th-8th grades); and teens. Keep in mind that many harder books can be read aloud to younger children and that older ones can still enjoy and get a lot out of easier books.

Books about Literature and Authors

Berne, Jennifer. On Wings of Words. Re Emily Dickinson. Elementary.

Coville, Bruce. William Shakespeare’s … (series). Picture book versions of the bard’s plays. Elementary-middle.

Johnson, D.B. Henry Builds a Cabin, Picture books on Henry David Thoreau. Elementary-middle.

Lamb, Charles and Mary. Tales from Shakespeare. Narrative versions of select plays. Elementary-teens.

Lorbiecki, Marybeth. Louisa May and Mr. Thoreau’s Flute. Re Louisa May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau. Picture book. Elementary.

Ludwig, Ken. How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare. This book is for the adults but I highly recommend it, especially if your own understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare is limited.

Maltbie, P.I. Bambino and Mr. Twain. Re Mark Twain. Elementary.

McCaughrean, Geraldine. Stories from Shakespeare. She also has a version of The Canterbury Tales. Lovely illustrated books. Elementary.

Nesbit, E. Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare. Narrative versions of select plays. Elementary-teens.

Stanley, Diane, The Bard of Avon and Charles Dickens. Stanley has lots of biographies. Elementary-middle.

Whelan, Gloria. Pathless Woods. Re Hemingway. Middle years.

Winter, Jeanette. Emily Dickinson’s Letters to the World.  Elementary.

Yolen, Jane. My Uncle Emily. Re Emily Dickinson. Elementary.

Lastly, this list is supposed to be books about literature but I wanted to add the Poetry for Young People series (various authors) for wonderful, illustrated introductions to many great poets.

Booklist: Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and Dystopian

As I work on this quarantine project of posting lists of the books we’ve read over the years, I have put off this particular collection. Fantasy, and those other similar genres like science fiction and dystopian, is such a huge category in children’s and young adult literature these days and so much of it is so bad.  But fantasy itself is something I support. Books which take us to other, completely fictional worlds with different rules than our own often have a lot to say about the real world. I am trying to edit this list as I go and to give you only that best, or at least to provide honest assessments. I am sure there are many more which could be added to this list but here are some of our favorite fantasy and dystopian books.

To keep things as simple as possible, I divide the books into four ages ranges: preschool to early elementary; elementary; middle years (roughly 5th-8th grades); and teens. Keep in mind that many harder books can be read aloud to younger children and that older ones can still enjoy and get a lot out of easier books.

Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and Dystopian Books

Adams, Douglas. Hitchhiker’s Guide (series) and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (series). We love these books. They are a bit atheistic. Dirk Gently is probably less so. Teens.

Alcock, Vivien. The Stonewalkers. Older book about statues that come to life. Middle years.

Alexander, Lloyd. Time Cat, Arkadians, and Prydian (series). Alexander is a good author. Elementary-middle years.

Babbitt, Natalie. Search for Delicious. Not sure of the quality of this one my daughter read. Middle years.

Baker, E.D. Frog Princess (series). I am not sure they are great but my daughter liked them. If you have a girl that insists on princess stories, they are probably a safe choice. Middle years.

Banks, Lynne Reid. Fairy Rebel and Indian in the Cupboard (series). Elementary-middle years.

Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan. Classic fantasy. Middle years.

Bode, N.E. Anybodies (series). My daughter loved these. Middle years.

Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. I read this one aloud to my high schoolers (yes! you can still do read alouds with high schoolers, and you get to do more meaty books). It is a fairly slim book and we all enjoyed it. I do edit some as I read for mature content but I don’t think this one had much. Teens.

Bradbury, Ray. Martian Chronicles (series). We actually only listened to the first one but they seem to wonderful older sci-fi with nothing disturbing or mature. Middle-teens.

Buckley, Michael. Sisters Grimm (series). The whole family loved this series in which fairytale characters play a major role. Teens (but we did them as audio books much younger).

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. Rackety-Packety House. Dolls come alive. From the author of The Little Princess. Elementary.

Cameron, Eleanor. Court of the Stone Children. Statues coming alive is a popular plot. Middle years.

Collins, Suzanne. Gregor the Overlander (series). My son loved this series. Teens.

DiCamillo, Kate. Magician’s Elephant. Elementary-middle years.

DuPrau, Jeanne. City of Ember. Dystopian. For a modern book this was is decent. It is written for a slightly younger crowd than ost dystopian I think. There is a series but I can only vouch for the first one. Middle years.

Eager, Edward. The Well-Wishers and Half-Magic. Middle years.

Farris, Jean. Once Upon a Marigold (series). Another okay one if you have a girl that insists on princesses. Middle years.

Funke, Cornelia. Inkheart (series). My boys liked these. A four book trilogy (I know, it bothers me too). Teens.

Gannett, Ruth. My Father’s Dragon (series). Wonderful chapter book level choice. Elementary.

Grahame, Kenneth. The Reluctant Dragon. Another good elementary choice. Elementary.

Hale, Shannon. Goose Girl. My daughter liked these. Middle years.

Ibbotson, Eva. Secret of Platform 13. Ibbotson is prolific. Elementary-middle years.

Jinks, Catherine. How to Catch a Bogle (series). We loved these. Middle years.

LaFevers, R.M. Theodosia (series). My son liked these. Not sure of the quality. Middle years.

Langton, Jane. Astonishing Stereoscope. Middle years.

LeGuin, Ursula. Catwings (series). Elementary-middle.

Lewis, C.S. Narnia Chronicles  (series). Classic Christian fantasy. Young children will not get all the imagery and that’s okay. Let them get what they can from it. Elementary-teens.

Lowry, Lois. The Giver. Award-winning dystopian. Middle years +.

Keyes, Daniel. Flowers for Algernon. This is a wonderful, thought-provoking sci-fi book but it does have mature content. Teens.

MacDonald, George. The Light PrincessThe Princess and Curdie, and The Princess and the Goblin. Another Christian writer. Elementary-middle.

Mayne, William. Hob Stories (series). We loved Hob. Elementary.

Meloy, Colin. Wildwood (series). My son liked these. Not sure of the quality. Middle-teens.

Nesbit, E. Enchanted Castle and Psammead (series). Nesbit is wonderful. Middle years.

Orwell, George. Animal Farm. A great first dystopian book because there is no mature content and with animals as the main characters it can appeal to a lot of ages. We used it for literature study (see here). Middle years +.

Riordan, Rick. Kane Chronicles and Percy Jackson. Mythological characters. We liked these when we listened to them though I hear later books get more sexual and not necessarily in traditional ways. Teens.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter (series). I know there are mixed feelings on such things. I am okay with positing a world of magic, even if it is ostensibly within this real world. My boys loved these books and read them again and again. Middle years+.

Selfors, Suzanne. To Catch a Mermaid and Fortune’s Magic Farm. My daughter liked these. Not sure of the quality. Middle years.

Sendak, Maurice. Brundibar. Dystopian picture book from the author of Where the Wild Things Are. I love this book. Elementary+.

Selznick, Brian. Invention of Hugo Cabaret. Wonderful book. Elementary-middle.

Slobodkin, Louis. Round Trip Spaceship. Wonderful older author. Elementary-middle.

Thurber, James. Thirteen Clocks. Wonderful. Elementary-middle.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (series). More classic Christian fantasy. Middle years +. Look also for his lesser known books which tend to be easier: Smith of Wootton MajorLeaf by Niggle, and Roverandom.

Ursu, Anne. Breadcrumbs. My daughter liked this. Not sure of the quality. Middle years.

White, T.H. Mistress Masham’s Repose. Wonderful older book. Middle years.

Wilson, N.T. 100 Cupboards (series). I have been told he is a Christian. Elementary-middle.

What would you add to this list?

Stages of Development in Classical and CM Education

sDear Reader,

I am in the midst of a mini-series on developmental psychology. My goal with this series is to evaluate the major trends and ideas within this field from a (reformed) Christian perspective with an eye to seeing how we can appropriately make use of the insights of these mostly secular scholars.

The previous posts in this mini-series are:

Having looked last time as Jean Piaget’s theory of the development of the child’s intellect and reasoning abilities, I would like today to look at how the stages he delineates line up with both the classical and Charlotte Mason philosophies of education.

To recap, Piaget distinguished four stages of development:

  • birth-age 2: the sensory-motor period in which the major goal is for children to learn object permanence, the idea that things which we cannot see still continue to exist
  • ages 2-7: the preoperational stage which is characterized by transductive thinking. Children in this stage see things as belonging only to one category. Thus one’s mother cannot also be a sister and the person who is taller is assumed to be older.
  • ages 7-11: the stage of concrete operations in which children begin to be able to do things in their heads. At this point we begin to see that our knowledge comes not solely from the things themselves but also from our logic and the images we construct in our heads.
  • ages 12-15: the stage of formal operations in which children begin to be able to think about thinking. At this point they can handle grammar which thinks about words and algebra which uses abstract concepts.

Beyond these stages Piaget saw no further growth in intellectual ability though one could still acquire new knowledge.

We do not typically associate a Charlotte Mason education with stages of development.  I would suggest, however, that there is at least one major stage distinction she does make, that between school-age children and pre-school age children. A Charlotte Mason education did not begin until age 6 or 7 and she did not expect children to do formal schoolwork or to narrate books that were read to them until that age. Over the course of their school career, children would advance in some ways, moving to harder books, beginning harder subjects like Plutarch, and trading copywork for dictation. She did not in any way describe these as stages, however. They seem to represent more of an advancement of knowledge and ability than new intellectual milestones. Even with subjects like grammar which were delayed until middle or high school ages the concern seems to be not so much for the stage of development as the obtaining of background knowledge which is necessary to understand the subject. On the other end of the age ranges, Mason did very much believe in giving the youngest children real ideas to chew upon and not withholding meaty intellectual materials, albeit age-appropriate ones, from them.

Classical education has many definitions and many versions are available today (see this post and this one). I am going to speak today of what I would deem the most regimented of these modern varieties (at least in terms of staging), that first espoused by Dorothy Sayers in her Lost Tools of Learning and later carried on by Douglas Wilson and others. This version of classical education is characterized by its use of the Trivium [1]. The Trivium distinguishes three stages, each of which necessitates a different approach to education. In the early years, the Grammar stage focuses on memorization. In the middle years, the dialectic stage emphasizes logic and disputation. And finally, in the upper years the rhetoric stage focuses on language and making persuasive arguments. These stages roughly correspond to elementary, middle, and high school levels. In each stage there is a different kind of learning. Those in the grammar stage, for instance, learn mainly through memorization. The grammar stage is for obtaining the building blocks. In the middle, dialectic stage, the child begins to manipulate those building blocks and to make logical arguments. In the rhetoric stage the focus is on expressing oneself and communicating those ideas which have been formed. It should be noted as well that there would also be a pre-school stage, an age below which formal education begins.

“The Poll-parrot stage [= the grammar stage] is the one in which learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished . . . The Pert Age [= dialectic] . . . is characterised by contradicting, answering-back, liking to ‘catch people out’ (especially one’s elders) and in the propounding of conundrums . . . The Poetic Age [=rhetoric] is popularly known as the ‘difficult’ age. It is self-centred; it yearns to express itself; it rather specialises in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness, a reaching out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others.” (Dorothy Sayers, “Lost Tools io Learning,” Kindle Loc. 169)

Comparing these three systems would give us the following:

Piaget Mason Classical [2]
0-2: Sensory/motor 0-6: No schooling 0-6: No schooling
2-7: Preoperational      “
7-11: Concrete thinking 6+ Schooling 6-12: Grammar stage
12-15: Formal operations 12-14(?): Dialectic
15-17: Rhetoric

The big commonality here is that all three agree that there is a stage (or 2) that lasts up until age 6 or 7 during which traditional, formal education is not appropriate [3].

One might think from this chart that classical education lines up fairly well with the modern scholarly theory of child development as exemplified by Piaget. I would like to suggest, however, that there are some profound differences.

The biggest differences come in the view of the young child. For Piaget the child does not think like an adult but he is always constructing his reality. That is, he is taking in information and responding to his environment, continually constructing and redefining his mental model of the universe.  For Sayers and those who follow her, the young child, up to age 12, is a memorizing machine. His storehouse, if you will, is being filled with information at this stage, information which he will only really start to utilize in the next stage. Mason does not directly address how the child learns but she presents to even young children what she would call vital or living ideas and she assumes that the child is able to take in, or digest, these ideas.

It is the view of how learning happens and how the child reasons (or doesn’t) that is behind these differences. For Mason the child is able to reason; this is not a taught but an inborn skill and he simply must be given quality material on which to use this skill. An analogy which used to be used frequently in Charlotte Mason circles is that of pegs and things to hang on them. A Charlotte Mason approach says that children need pegs first; they need fixed points, so to speak, things they have relationships with and only when they have some connection can they take information and hang it on those pegs. A classical approach, on the other hand, starts with the information and only when there is a stockpile of facts learned does the child have pegs which allow him to sort it all and fit it all in (of course this analogy was provided by the CM folks, not the classical ones). Another way to say this would be to say that in Mason’s philosophy the facts and information do not make sense to us and will not be retained or be useful until and unless we have a context in which to make sense of them.

In a classical education, the early years, up to age 12, are largely for memorization and the acquisition of information. Reasoning as such is not done at this age and is a skill which must be taught.  The analogy for this would say that the child needs material to work with before he can build. Supplying the building blocks, in the form of facts and information, is the first stage. [4]

Piaget says that children do not reason as adults do but he does see their reasoning skills developing naturally given the right educational circumstances. It is not that young children don’t reason for Piaget but that they do so differently. He sees a process of disequilibrium and accommodation by which children learn. They begin with one view, a thesis, which is then challenged, the antithesis, so that they must adjust and come to a new view, the synthesis [5]. If there is an age before reasoning for Piaget, it is the 0-2 age bracket. The awareness of object permanence he sees as the foundation for all later learning. After it is in place, reasoning can begin. Elkind, who follows and expands upon Piaget’s ideas, sees the years between 7 and 11 as the period of “work” for the child [6]. This work, however, does not equal rote memorization which Elkind deems “anathema to critical, innovative thinking” (Power of Play, introduction). “Even at this stage children  . . . want to understand, not just repeat and imitate” (ibid., p. 7).

The role of the teacher also varies. The teacher in classical education is paramount. He is a mentor and guides the process of learning in a fairly involved way. Though modern applications vary, the process of dialectic which is characteristic of classical education involves a dialogue between teacher and student(s) in which questions are asked and answers elicited. Piaget’s approach, in contrast, sees the teacher as one who creates an environment in which the child can learn, but he would say that the teacher cannot in a real sense teach anything. The child must do his own learning as he builds his concept of the world. Charlotte Mason is a little closer to Piaget on this. For her, the teacher does not create an environment but spreads a feast of ideas, the focus being on intellectual materials more than physical ones, and the child has freedom to “ingest” these materials but cannot be forced to do so.

In the end, I am not sure that the specifics of the staging matter as much as our ideas about children’s ability to reason and how they may or may not develop over time. For both Piaget and Mason reasoning is natural though Mason would say that the child is born with all his faculties intact and Piaget sees reasoning ability as developing over time. For classical educators like Sayers, reasoning ability is something that is taught. The view of the role of the teacher in each follows upon the view of reasoning, with classical educators giving teachers the most involved role and Mason giving them the least. All three would agree that formal learning is best delayed until around age 6 or 7. What happens between ages 7 and 11 is perhaps the biggest divide. For Sayers this is a time of memorization. She calls this the “poll-parrot” stage and says that children of this age take pleasure in memorizing and have little desire to reason (see quote above). For her it is a time to gather materials but not to construct. For Piaget, the child is always constructing reality and takes little pleasure in memorization but desires to understand. Mason’s motto (or one of them) is that “education is the science of relations” which for her means that children must always build relationships with what they are studying.  Information without relationship or context is useless.

My quick take-away from all this would be that modern developmental psychology tends overall to support Charlotte Mason’s views more than those of Dorothy Sayers and the other classical educators who follow her with the caveat that it does lead to a more staged approach which it might be wise for us to take into account.



[1] There has been a movement in classical circles away from the Trivium as Sayers defined it. See Shawn Barnett, “Dorothy Sayers was Wrong: the Trivium and Child Development,” Circe Institute (Aug. 9, 2019).

[2] The ages here are somewhat fluid depending on whom one is reading. I am basing the specifics on “What is the Trivium”  by Harvey Bluedorn from Trivium Pursuit (1993).

[3] I say “traditional formal education” because Piaget would have schools for children below age 6/7 but they would not be doing seat-work and the other things that we think of as traditional schoolwork.

[4] It is a bit unclear to me why the age divisions given in Sayers’ Trivium are what they are. According to Elkind (The Power of Play, p. 122), the ancients, i.e. the original classical educators, saw reasoning as a necessity for formal education and since this education begins around age 6 or 7 we must posit that reasoning also does.

[5] We can see in this process the influence of the evolutionary mindset which assumes that the organism (a child in this case) must adapt to its environment when there are changes or any kind of conflict.

[6] See this earlier post on Elkind’s theories.

Applying Piaget

Dear Reader,

I am in the midst of a mini-series on developmental psychology. My goal with this series is to evaluate the major trends and ideas within this field from a (reformed) Christian perspective with an eye to seeing how we can appropriately make use of the insights of these mostly secular scholars.

In the first post we looked at how as Christians we should think about the social sciences. We then looked at some of the major thinkers in the field of developmental psychology with particular emphasis on their personal belief systemsAnd last time we looked at some of the major trends within the field and how we as Christians should approach the subject.

Today I would like to focus in on the ideas of Jean Piaget. As we saw last time, the various thinkers tend to concentrate on different areas of development. Piaget looked primarily at intellectual development and how we come to know things (i.e. epistemology). Since my on-going project is to create and refine a reformed Christian philosophy of education, this side of things is of particular interest.

Piaget distinguished four stages of development:

  • birth-age 2: the sensory-motor period in which the major goal is for children to learn object permanence, the idea that things which we cannot see still continue to exist
  • ages 2-7: the preoperational stage which is characterized by transductive thinking. Children in this stage see things as belonging only to one category. Thus one’s mother cannot also be a sister and the person who is taller is assumed to be older.
  • ages 7-11: the stage of concrete operations in which children begin to be able to do things in their heads. At this point we begin to see that our knowledge comes not solely from the things themselves but also from our logic and the images we construct in our heads.
  • ages 12-15: the stage of formal operations in which children begin to be able to think about thinking. At this point they can handle grammar which thinks about words and algebra which uses abstract concepts.

Beyond these stages Piaget saw no further growth in intellectual ability though one could still acquire new knowledge.

When we looked at how a Christian should approach the social sciences, we said that we are most likely to glean information from these secular scholars when they are speaking of mundane (=this-worldly) issues. Of the thinkers we have been considering, I find Piaget’s theory most intriguing and potentially helpful because it does seem to stick to fairly concrete matters. Though Piaget himself seems to have had a fairly materialistic outlook (in the sense of considering only the material universe and nothing of a transcendent or spiritual nature), we can still appreciate his scholarship as it touches on these concrete areas.

David Elkind, who largely follows Piaget, says that children do not think the way we do though they do feel as we do. Piaget gives us some guidelines for how children do think and what may be expected of them at various ages. As Christians we have to note that children are fully human. Spiritually they are as we are, accountable for sin and capable of a relationship with their Creator (dependent upon His grace of course). But this does not rule out the idea that their thought might be different than ours in some ways.

With these ideas in mind, I would make a few observations about the specifics of Piaget’s schema. Though the very youngest children may not think as we do, we should not underestimate their intelligence. The thing they have to learn in their first years which Piaget sees as the foundation of all later intellectual effort — that objects continue to exist even when they disappear from our sight — is huge. This is a giant intellectual leap and it is taken largely without any help from older people. We seem naturally to want to play peek-a-boo with small children and we delight in their delight in the game, but the cognitive leap that is made here would be made even if we did not do so. Though this is not an idea we directly teach to children, I would venture to say that very nearly 100% of them learn it [1]. And this is a major intellectual accomplishment. We could look at a one-year-old and say: “How stupid! He does not know his mother still exists when she leaves the room” or we could look at the same situation and say: “How brilliant! These very small people accomplish a major intellectual paradigm shift, larger than any that will occur later in life, without any direct aid from us.”

One last note on this first stage — the realization that objects and people still exist when we can’t see them is the huge intellectual advancement that characterizes this stage. It is nothing less than a paradigm shift which allows further logical thought. But it is far from all that these little people are learning. The attainments they make in understood and to a lesser degree spoken language in their first two years are astounding and we should not underestimate that degree of real intelligence that is at work there, largely without intentional teaching on the part of adults.

If we all come to understand object permanence, yet many adults seem to be stuck in various ways in the other stages. Most of us are able to accept that one person can be both a mother and a sister, but we are often fooled by the bigger=better mentality even as adults. Elkind gives the example of a glass that is short and wide versus one that is round and tall. Once she has learned some degree of abstract reasoning (ages 7-11), a child will be able to discern that the taller glass does not always hold more [2]. And yet restaurants use this glass trick to give us less for more money all the time. We may know the truth if we stop to think about it but even as adults we are not always aware of the truth.

My own very unscientific observation would be that, beyond the acquiring of object permanence, there are ways in which we all — and some more than others — fail to fully demonstrate that we have mastered these stages. On the other end, the students in my Sunday school classes (ages 2-6) have at times demonstrated reasoning beyond their stage (though this varies a lot from child to child). This would lead me to a much more fluid understanding of the stages.

I would add to this Lev Vygotsky’s understanding that as we progress we are often able with help to do that which we cannot yet do on our own. This leads to a mindset which says not “don’t expect this child to do X task yet; he is not yet at that stage” but “we need to push the child a little; he may be able to do more with some help.” [3]

There are a number of implications here for how we approach education–

We must acknowledge that children will not always see the world as we do. Piaget said they think differently. The things which matter to us will not always be the things which stand out or matter to them. I believe this supports Charlotte Mason’s technique of narration rather than more traditional reading comprehension as it allows the child to tell what he knows and does not expect him to get from a text what an adult would.

We must also be patient. There are some subjects which the child will not be ready for until they have achieved certain intellectual milestones. Grammar instruction is wasted on the very young. Subjects like grammar and algebra should be saved until the child is at least 12.

Yet, following Vygotsky, I do not think it is wrong to push children a little beyond what they may think of for themselves. Some children will progress faster than others and some will be able to grasp ideas if we give them a little direction that they may not have thought of on their own. Practically speaking, an example would be that when we are reading a story which raises issues of morality it is okay to ask questions which get the child thinking about nuances that would not have occurred to him on his own.  I also think it is okay to do some level of literary analysis that introduces terms like protagonist and antagonist and thereby gives children the vocabulary and categories to discuss concepts that they would not otherwise have grasped. [4]

One might conclude from all this that it is good to teach logic in a formal way. I am not sure I am ready to go there. The attainments which Piaget describes, if they are not gained naturally, can be taught through casual, conversational methods. Formal instruction in logic as it is often done is not necessarily going to match these stages or to aid the individual in moving along from one to the next.

The Charlotte Mason approach, which my own philosophy of education largely follows, does not speak of stages of development whereas the classical approach, which I have been fairly critical of, does delineate stages. Next time I would like to address this issue head-on and to look at how the stages of development delineated by modern scholars line up with each of these philosophies.



[1] One question I have is whether this stage, the discovery of object permanence, is ever missed. When Bowlby discusses attachment, we can say that there are young children who fail to attach to any caregiver and who are scarred for life by this lack. Do any children, even the most developmentally delayed, ever fail to obtain the idea of object permanence? That’s a sincere question; I don’t know the answer.

I would also note that, ironically, many adult scholars and philosophers have operated on the assumption that we cannot know anything that our senses and direct experience do not tell us. They seem by this to start by jettisoning this very first stage of human intellectual development.

[2] David Elkind. Giants in the Nursery (St. Paul: Redleaf Press, 2015) p. 170.

[3] This is a point which Carol Mooney makes in her book Theories of Childhood (St. Paul: Redleaf Press, 2013).

[4] For introducing literary analysis, I highly recommend the book Deconstructing Penguins. See this post for an example of how we have used it in our homeschool.

Booklist: The Life of Girls

We looked at boys’ life books so now it’s the girls’ turn.  These are books which depict a girl’s life and/or in which girls are the main characters.

To keep things as simple as possible, I divide the books into four ages ranges: preschool to early elementary; elementary; middle years (roughly 5th-8th grades); and teens. Keep in mind that many harder books can be read aloud to younger children and that older ones can still enjoy and get a lot out of easier books.

Girl’s Life Books

Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. A classic girls’ book. Middle years +.

Banks, Lynne Reid.  Farthest Away Mountain. From the author of The Indian in the Cupboard. Fantasy. Elementary-Middle years.

Birdsall, Jeanne. The Penderwicks (series). We loved these (the boys too). Middle years.

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. A Little Princess, Sarah Crewe and  The Secret Garden. More classic girl books. Elementary-middle.

Creech, Sharon. Ruby HollerChasing Redbird, et. al. Creech is a modern author with lots of good books featuring girls. Elementary-middle.

Enright, Elizabeth. Thimble Summer. Enright has lots of good books. This is one of my favorites. Elementary-middle.

Estes, Eleanor. One Hundred Dresses. Estes has lots of good books. Elementary.

Gaiman, Neil. Coraline. For the most macabre girl.  Middle years.

Gates, Doris. Blue Willow. Elementary-middle.

George, Jean Craighead, Julie of the Wolves. A well-known book about an Eskimo girl. The plot includes a rape scene. Middle years.

Hirsch, Odo. Hazel Green (series). My youngest loved these. Elementary.

Horvath, Polly. Canning SeasonEverything on a Waffle, and One Year in Coal Harbor. Horvath has a lot of good books. Elementary-middle.

Lenski, Lois. Strawberry Girl. Old-time Florida. A classic. Middle years.

Lovelace, Maud Hart. Betsy Tacy (series). An older series which has seen a revival. Elementary-middle.

Lowry, Lois. Goonie Bird Greene  (series) and Anastasia Krupnik (series). My youngest loved the Goonie Bird books especially. Elementary.

MacLachlan, Patricia. Sarah, Plain and Tall. My oldest loved this one. Look for the sequels too. Elementary.

McCloskey, Robert. Blueberries for Sal. Classic picture book. Early elementary.

McKay, Hilary. Saffy’s Angel and sequels. We really liked this series. Middle ages.

Montgomery, L.M. Anne of Green Gables (series) and Emily (series). You know Anne of Green Gables, but my daughter tells me her other series are even better. Middle years.

Paterson, Katherine. Jacob I Have Loved, Paterson has a lot of good books. Middle years.

Porter, Eleanor. Pollyanna and Pollyanna Grows Up. Despite the negative connotation of the name Pollyanna, these are good books. Middle years (read aloud earlier).

Rylant, Cynthia. Cobble Street Cousins (series). I don’t love all Rylant’s books but these are decent easy chapter books. Elementary.

Snyder, Laurel. Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains. Elementary-middle.

Spyri, Johanna. Heidi. Classic. Middle years.

Stratton-Porter, Gene. Freckles and Girl of the Limberlost. Wonderful older books. Middle years.

Streatfield, Noel.  . . . Shoes (series). Older books with names like “Ballet Shoes.” Middle years.

Umansky, Kate. Clover Twig (series). Silly. She has a great boys’ series too. Middle years.

Vanderpool, Clare. Moon Over Manifest. Middle years.

Whelan, Gloria. Listening for Lions, et. al. Whelan has a lot of good books, often historical. Elementary-middle years.

What would you add to this list?

Trends in Developmental Psychology

Dear Reader,

As a part of my ongoing quest for a Reformed Christian philosophy of education (see this page), I have decided that I really need to read some developmental psychology. I want to get a sense for what the world has to say about how kids develop and what their needs are.

Not long ago we looked at how as Christians we should think about the social sciences. The short version is that the social sciences as a whole tend to rest on secular, materialistic presuppositions. Because we believe in common grace and we believe that all truth is God’s truth, we do believe that secular scholars can provide us with some good insights, but we always need to take these with a good heaping dose of discernment. In terms of child development in particular, we would expect more truth when the subject is on the smaller scale and deals with temporal matters but we should use more discernment when big picture things are in view.

Last time we looked at the big thinkers in the field of child psychology, with a particular emphasis on their personal beliefs with an eye to how these might affect their scholarship. This post also contains a bibliography of the sources I have used in all of this.

Today I’d like to give an overview of the big trends in developmental psychology (as I have read up on it thus far) with some observations thrown in.

Overview: Big Ideas and Trends

On the most fundamental level, developmental psychology makes one big assumption: that there is development. Children are not merely short adults but they are different in some way and develop over time. Though it is perhaps not necessary that it do so, this assumption often comes from an evolutionary mindset which assumes change, adaptation as a response to environmental stimuli, and a certain trajectory.  Change says that there are differences — the child is not the same as the adult. When we speak of adaptation, we are talking about how change happens. Evolution itself assumes a linear trajectory (as opposed to a cyclical understanding or some other model). Inherent in the idea of evolution is progression. There is progress, movement in a particular direction toward some defined goal or limit. Like a limit in the field of math, the end game may be a limit which is never reached, but when we talk about child development, there is often a goal which can be achieved. There is some point at which, if all goes well, the individual is an adult with all the capacities and skills an adult is expected to have (of course, if something goes wrong in the development the individual may never reach some of these goals).

Here then are some major trends and distinctions:

Stages of Development

As far as I can tell, every major theory of child development assumes that this development happens in stages. That is, there are not just two places one can be, childhood or adulthood, but there are degrees of development along the way. A normally developing 10-year-old is closer to the adult standard than a 2-year-old and not so close as a 14-year-old.

Though the various theories all contain stages, they vary greatly in how many stages they distinguish. Some tie the stages to particular milestones (eg. Steiner of the Waldorf philosophy ties one to the loss of baby teeth), others divide the stages more loosely. If I had to generalize, I would say the common divisions are infancy (birth to age 2), early childhood (ages 3-7, possibly with one more division within that stage), the middle years (8-12 ish roughly), and the teens.

Another question that arises relative to stages is: What happens if a developmental milestone is missed? For almost all the stages are sequential. That is, one must achieve the developmental milestones (whatever that person defines them as) in order.  Some would say that one can make up for lost ground, others that more permanent damage is done if a stage is missed. For most, if not all, some degree of developmental delay is involved when stages are missed.

Trends across Time

In my list of the various the thinkers and their ideas (again see this earlier post), I discussed them more or less chronologically. Seen this way, we begin to distinguish broader trends. Many of the earliest thinkers tended to be philosophers. Their interest was in what man knows and how he knows it. In this, they were rejecting earlier modes of thinking which would have relied on the Scriptures and divine revelation as sources of knowledge. Instead, they turned to more mundane (in the sense of being earthly, not heavenly) sources. Their approaches tended to be sensory and experiential, looking to man’s senses and experimentation as the means of knowledge. They did not necessarily deny man’s spiritual nature, however, or turn completely to scientific explanations.

The next generation of thinkers began around 1850 and was much more materialistic. No longer do we have philosophers but scientists of various sorts providing the theories. The men of this generation were heavily influenced by Darwinian evolution. They tended to view the world and man as entirely physical. Man’s desires and his development can all be traced to biological forces. The interplay between a man and his environment was assumed to be pivotal in his development (much as in evolution an organism is influenced by and responds to its environment). They also tended to view people, and children especially, as animals upon whom one can experiment. Which is not to say that they were cruel but that they assumed that as you can conduct an experiment on animals and get standardized results so experiments on people can and should work the same way.

At the same time, or very soon after, there was a counter-trend, a move toward spiritualism. This spiritualism was not a return to historic Christianity but it was a rejection of pure materialism and an acknowledgment that there is more to man than the physical. In the cultural realm, this was characterized by the rise of theosophism, a movement/belief system which sought deeper and often hidden spiritual knowledge. It was a time when people were conducting seances and seeking our spirits. Maria Montessori turned to theosophism later in her life, and Rudolf Steiner, of the Waldorf movement, initially turned to theosophism and then developed his own, equally bizarre, philosophy/religion known as anthroposophism.

The more modern thinkers on the list tend to be materialistic in their assumptions but less biologically based than their predecessors. That is, they do not acknowledge a spiritual side to man but they do take into account other, not purely physical factors, such as man’s emotions and his need for relationship.

The Parts of the Person

Which brings us to the next point: Human beings are multi-faceted. They develop physically of course but they also have mind and emotions and relationships. The various theories tend to focus on one aspect of development. When they delineate different schemas, it is often because they are addressing different areas of development.

To those from the most materialistic, Darwinian mindset, the physical is all there is. For Freud the driving force behind everything is one’s desires which are all rooted physically in the body. Piaget’s theory focuses primarily on intelligence while Erikson is concerned with the formation of identity and Bowlby looked at the attachments (i.e. relationships) a child forms. Though they may focus on more than the physical, yet these theories are often still at their base materialistic. Bowlby, for instance, in discussing the attachments that babies and children form argues that these are done because they give an evolutionary advantage — the adult is more likely to protect and provide for the child who is attached to him.

These need not be contradictory theories. Because they look at different aspects of the individual, many of these theories can be combined and, looking at Elkind and other modern writers, this does seem to be a current trend.

A Developing Nature

Many, if not all, of the thinkers we are considering would say that there is a natural, inborn tendency for development in the child. This potential may need to be helped by education or it may be subverted by various detrimental forces, but it is to some degree the way a child is programmed.

Rousseau stands out on this point as one who believed society was the corrupting influence on the child. That is, like others he toured the child’s natural state and tendencies but whereas they saw education as a good which would develop the child’s own potentialities, he saw traditional education as a negative societal force which corrupts the naturally good person.

The Origin of Evil

For Rousseau, the child’s natural state is good and it is society which corrupts him. Most of our other thinkers would not agree about the effect of society but they would agree that the child is either naturally good or at least has the potential for good. Comenius, one of the few professing Christians on our list, said that the seeds of virtue are in the child (obviously, he was nor reformed; he was in fact a Brethren pastor). Pestalozzi said the child is naturally good and will develop along good lines in the absence of negative outside influences. Froebel specifically denied the existence of original sin and believed the child’s inner self is naturally good and that the bad comes from outside and from the adults in his life. Montessori’s views were also along these lines.

Erikson seems to have what might be termed the most dualistic understanding of development. Each of his stages — and he posits some 8 of them — is characterized by two options, the first being trust or mistrust. If the child gets what they need, they develop along the positive line but if they don’t they developed mistrust and later guilt and shames. (Though Erikson was also one who said that it is possible to undo the bad that has occurred in previous stages.)

Locke famously saw the child as a tabula rasa, a blank slate, neither good nor bad, but he did believe character was formed early on and, contrary to Rousseau, that the influence of society through education was necessary to make sure that good character and not bad was the result. Herbart as well saw the child as a blank slate with possibilities for good or evil. He believed morality could be taught.

There is no one on this list who says that there is naturally evil within children or that the evil which might come into their personalities comes from within them. For all evil is external to the person, whether it comes from the environment, society as a whole, or individual adults in the child’s life. I will reiterate here that the role of environment and experience in development tends to be significant for all our thinkers. This, as I have said, reflects an evolutionary mindset but perhaps also simply a godless one (by which I mean one in which God Himself is not a player). With no spiritual component, and in particular no spiritual actor, there are only so many forces and factors one can look to. There is the individual, other individuals, society, and the environment (which may include these others) as well as the individual’s interactions with these players which constitutes his experience. There is no God to act and there is no inner conflict. The forces which act on the individual are largely external to him.

Conclusions and Observations

Every one of our thinkers has his own personal belief system which influences his theories about the development of children. As Christians, we also have convictions which are going to influence how we view these issues. This is not my field and I don’t feel competent to propose a brand new Christian theory of child development, but I would offer some guidelines and questions to consider:

  1. Any Christian theory of child development needs to account for the child’s spiritual nature. We are not purely physical and our theory must reflect that reality.
  2. There is a Force beyond nature which affects our growth. That Force is a Personal God (meaning He is a Person, not a vague power).
  3. Children are not fundamentally different beings than adults. (Though we didn’t touch on it here, some of our thinkers did see children as different creatures, Steiner being the most prominent example.)  They are fully human with all that entails.
  4. Evil comes not from our environment or society or other people but from within ourselves.
  5. In fact, we are born with sinful natures. Children are not innocents.
  6. Sin is always serious, even if it is inadvertent. The fact that a person may not understand their sin as sin or may “not know better” does not make it not sin.
  7. We require a Savior. We cannot be educated out of our sinful nature or into godliness.
  8. Guilt and shame are not inherently bad things. They serve a purpose which is to drive us to our Savior.
  9. Self-esteem is not inherently good. What we need is to see ourselves in our true relation to our Creator. This stance acknowledges both the value of each human life and our fallenness.
  10. While fully human, children are in need of instruction. As they grow physically, so they also need to grow in wisdom and knowledge. (See this post on children in the Bible.)

These points fall far short of a theory of child development and say nothing about the particulars of the stages involved, if indeed there are stages. They do not answer questions about how children think or how we should teach them.

As I said in my post on how we deal with the social sciences, particularly on more mundane matters, there is a lot we can learn from secular scholars. Next time I would like to look a little more specifically at Piaget and his theories regarding intelligence.

Until then,


Booklist: Family Stories

Today’s topic is family stories: books that feature good, wholesome family relations.

To keep things as simple as possible, I divide the books into four ages ranges: preschool to early elementary; elementary; middle years (roughly 5th-8th grades); and teens. Keep in mind that many harder books can be read aloud to younger children and that older ones can still enjoy and get a lot out of easier books.

Family Stories

Alcott, Louisa May. Little WomenEight Cousins, So many family books here. Middle years.

Birdsall, Jeanne. The Penderwicks (series). They have some issues but we love the Penderwicks. Middle years.

Carlson, Natalie Savage. The Family Under the Bridge. Set in Paris. Elementary-middle years.

Caudill, Rebecca. Fairchild Family (series). The first book in the series is Happy Little Family which says it all. Elementary.

Enright, Elizabeth. The Melendy Quartet (series). A fun series. Elementary-middle.

Estes, Eleanor. The Moffats (series). My daughter liked these. Elementary-middle years.

Horvath, Polly. The Pepins and Their Problems. We have really liked Horvath’s books. This one is pretty silly. Elementary-middle.

Langton, Jane. Hall Family Chronicles (series). She writes adult mysteries too. Middle years.

Nesbit, E. The Railway Children. I love Nesbit. This one is a don’t miss. Elementary-middle years.

Norton, Mary. The Borrowers (series). Tiny people. Middle years.

Peterson, John. The Littles (series). More tiny people. Elementary.

Ransome, Arthur. Swallows and Amazons (series). The parents don’t play a large role but the series is very good. Middle years.

Rylant, Cynthia. The Lighthouse Family (series). Rylant is prolific and I don’t like all her books but this series is good. It is an easy chapter book level. The Cobble Street Cousins series by her is also not bad and the same level. Elementary.

Sidney, Margaret. Five Little Peppers (series). An older series. Middle years.

Taylor, Sidney. All-of-a-Kind Family (series). The good family series par excellence. Elementary-middle years.

Warner, Gertrude. The Boxcar Children (series). Classic mysteries. Choose the earliest books only. Elementary-middle years.

Waugh, Sylvia. The Mennyms. Middle years.

White, E.B. Stuart Little. A good family with one mouse child (though it is actually my least favorite of White’s books). Elementary-middle years.

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House on the Prairie (series). Elementary-middle years.

Wood, Mary Rose. The Incorrigibles (series). Okay, they are an odd family with some issues but we all adored this series. It is probably our family favorite of all the series/books we have read over the years. Middle years +.

What would you add to this list?