What does a Charlotte Mason preschool look like? Is it just nature walks and picture books? Here’s how your children can get the most out of their early years and be ready to tackle their elementary years.
Charlotte Mason Preschool
Mason called these early years a “quiet growing time.” If we look around at a lot of modern day preschools and kindergartens though, quiet is the last thing that comes to mind! Mason’s world of the 1800s is different in many ways from our own, but little minds and hearts still develop and learn with the same principles they did hundreds of years ago.
Why Children Don’t Need Preschool
Yes, really. I’m going to start off by making the case that a 3-5-year-old does not need a formal preschool. They don’t need to learn all of their letters, be able to count to 20, and know the difference between a square and a triangle. They don’t need to glue cotton balls onto construction paper.
The experts decided preschool and kindergarten are all about getting kids ready for school and the 8-hour school grind. But is that what’s really best for these tender little souls? Do they need to be stuffed with facts or fall behind before they even start?
The research is saying no.
The Case Against Preschool
By 3rd grade, children who attend rigorous preschool programs have worse test results, have more behavioral issues, and were more likely to have a learning disorder than students not in an academic preschool. Young children have high levels of chronic stress hormones just 2 months after starting kindergarten.
The United States Department of Health and Human Services conducted a massive survey to find out once and for all if government preschool programs worked. While graduation rates were higher and incarcerations were lower, it wasn’t really thanks to academics.
By functioning as a glorified child-care service, programs like Head Start helped give parents the time they needed to improve their family’s lives. The children however didn’t necessarily have better academic gains than their peers.
This is not to knock early education programs and the families that rely on them, but rather to highlight they may not be working the way we think they’re working.
A Better Approach to Preschool
So if little Susie doesn’t need rigorous academics, what does she need? Mason, like Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner, knew that young children learn best through play. They need experiences and toys that encourage open ended play and creativity.
By giving them access to organic interactions with their world they naturally thrive. We want to encourage and cultivate creativity and free thought, not stifle it. Mason delayed any formal academics until age 6 and instead focused on good habits, character building, and sparking the joy of learning.
What a Charlotte Mason preschool does NOT look like:
- No long periods of seatwork at a desk
- No worksheets
- No junky paper crafts that clutter the home
- No forcing learning or formal academics
- No memorizing lists of facts the children don’t understand
- No long days inside
A Golden Opportunity
We as parents have the unique privilege of helping cultivate our children’s minds and hearts. These early years are crucial to building the foundation of good habits and character that will last our children a lifetime. Academics are the first floor of the building, but it will ultimately sink and fail if they don’t have the foundation under them first.
The Ultimate Guide to a Charlotte Mason Preschool and Kindergarten
There are some very good resources out there to help parents implement Mason’s early years approach in their homes. My intention is not to give an exhaustive, step-by-step curriculum here, but to point you in the right direction. Consider this your roadmap to help you know where you’re going and why.
I’ll also add that I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time researching Charlotte Mason preschools so you don’t have to. You don’t have to read a dozen full size books on early education, and even more scholarly articles or dig through everything Mason said about little students like I have.
This is my attempt at condensing all of that information for you. I’ve included a list of references at the bottom though in case you’re a total research nerd like me and want to dig further. Let’s get started!
“Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” Charlotte Mason
The Prime Directive
Star Trek fans will know that the prime directive of Star Fleet is to never interfere with the natural development of a foreign people. Homeschool parents have a similar goal. We want to cultivate natural development, not step in and take it over.
Our true prime directive however is much more important. If our children never know and come to love their creator, then all of this means nothing. By helping them see who God is, that He loves them and has a plan for them, we’ll have done the most important thing.
Habit Training in a Charlotte Mason Preschool
I’ve already touched on this, but developing good habits in our children is one of the first priorities as a parent. When they’ve learned the habits of paying attention and listening to their parents, everything that follows will come so much easier.
Teach by example and don’t overwhelm them. Focus on one good habit at a time, be consistent, and model it for them. Laying Down the Rails is an excellent resource for all the nitty gritty details of how to do habit training.
Don’t Insult Them
Some educational programs focus on creating a child like environment for the student to live in. Everything is cute, little, and merely an adaptation of the real world. Mason disagreed with this approach.
“When we say that ‘education is an atmosphere,’ we do not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called a ‘child-environment’ especially adapted and prepared, but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the ‘child’s’ level” (Mason Vol. 6).
This doesn’t mean we need to expose our preschoolers to the hard facts of life from day one. Rather it means that we let them live and learn beside us and with us, not sheltered in their own world.
Preschool and Kindergarten Nature Time
Time in nature is one of the cornerstones of a Charlotte Mason education. Mason had lofty ideals and recommended children spend at least 4-6 hours a day outside. Is it practical? No. Is it what’s best for them? Probably.
Most of us aren’t going to get anywhere near 6 hours of outside time a day, but the idea is to have as much as possible. Play outside, eat outside, learn outside. And once they’re worn out, Mason said they can nap outside!
Not only will little ones learn exploration and feed their curiosity, but they can learn about the weather, animals, which way is north, where does the sunset, which way is grandma’s house?
Have sensory experiences. Encourage them to touch, hear, smell, and listen to everything they can. Knowing when to use what sense is just as important as using them. Feeling a leaf or holding a frog from nature is a good thing, but trying to chase down a skunk is another experience entirely.
- Spend lots of time outside exploring nature, but don’t push a bunch of facts on young minds.
- Don’t freak out if they find a toad or a slimy worm, get excited with them.
- Teacher and student can both record their findings in a nature notebook and a calendar of firsts.
Learn a Foreign Language
Think about how babies learn to speak. First, they hear the words from you and see how they connect to real life objects and experiences. It isn’t until they have a good grasp on speaking the language that they start to learn to read it. Learning a foreign language is the same.
- Listen to and sing foreign language songs together
- Listen to audiobooks or videos (without subtitles!) in the language
- If you’re fluent enough in the language, read books to your children, but don’t point out the words.
Read Living Books
Quality over quantity is what’s important here. Choose beautiful stories and picture books that teach character traits, stimulate curiosity and an appreciation for the world. You can read more about how to find the best books here. These books are some of my favorites for little ones:
- Winnie the Pooh – A.A. Milne
- Peter Rabbit – Beatrix Potter
- Old Mother West Wind – Thornton Burgess
- Hans Christian Andersen’s Complete fairy tales
- Mother Goose nursery rhymes
Teaching Letters and Numbers
It’s not that we ignore the alphabet and counting, we’re just making in a fuller sensory experience. Instead of abstract concepts on worksheets, count the plates on the dinner table together. Count up your graham crackers at snack time.
Use magnetic letters they can touch and manipulate. Draw letters in a tray of sand or in the dirt outside. Make a game of it.
“When should he begin? Whenever his box of letters begins to interest him. The baby of two will often be able to name half a dozen letters; and there is nothing against it so long as the finding and naming of letters is a game to him” (Mason, Vol. 1).
Let your little ones see good artwork. They may not appreciate a museum just yet, but point out beautiful pieces in large art books. I love these board picture books featuring famous artists. Help them create with fingerpaints, crayons, and sculpt with playdough.
This is also a good time to develop an appreciation of music. Play Bach and Beethoven in the background or turn it up and dance together. Sing them songs, hymns, and folk songs and help them learn to sing along.
More Charlotte Mason Preschool Ideas
- Play singing games like London Bridge, and the Farmer in the Dell.
- Play memory games, like this matching animals one
- Jump rope, play ball, make snowballs. Make and move together!
- Tell them stories and fairy tales from memory. Use your voice and movements to make the story come to life.
- Start learning easy handicrafts, like sewing cards and finger knitting
Charlotte Mason Preschool Curriculum
While a curriculum isn’t necessary, some moms want one to help guide their preschool journey. Some states and countries require Kindergarten. Keep in mind that there are many “Charlotte Mason inspired” curriculums, but they deviate (sometimes a lot), from the intended method. If you prefer to have a true CM curriculum, here are some of my favorite options. Most are either free or low cost.
- Our Preschool Life – Simply Charlotte Mason
- Early Years Curriculum – A Modern Charlotte Mason
- The Idea Nest – My Little Robins
- Ambleside Year 0 (suitable for Kindergarten but needs adjusted for preschool)
- A Quiet Growing Time – Wildwood
What activities does your little one love to do? Leave a comment and be sure to share with a friend!
- Christakis, E. (2017). The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need from Grownups. Penguin Books.
- Gray, P. (2021, May 24). The Case Against Universal Preschool. Psychology Today.
- Piper, K. (2018). Early childhood education yields big benefits — just not the ones you think
Any academic boost from preschool fades out after a few years. Surprisingly, it still has lifelong effects. Vox.
- Shafer, S., Smith, K. (2009). The Early Years: A Charlotte Mason Preschool Handbook.