Laying the feast

“We spread an abundant and delicate feast… and each small guest assimilates what he can.” – Charlotte Mason

Charlotte Mason was writing here about the need to provide our children with a rich, diverse, interesting, tempting, beautiful education. An education which invites them to consume diverse ideas and stories and concepts, tempting them in with lovingly prepared morsels and encouraging them to dig deeper and fall in love with learning.

I love this idea of laying the feast, and have been thinking a lot about it recently. Mason was writing specifically about (home) education, and as we go forwards in our homeschooling journey I am sure it will continue to inspire and motivate me. But I also feel it is a really valuable idea for those pre-school years, raising babies and toddlers. It is a simple and wonderful concept.

I also really love that she refers to children here as “guests”. How much better would our society be if each child was treated as a valued and respected guest by their caregivers, whose wishes and needs were truly listened to with empathy and love? At difficult moments I try to ask myself: “How would I respond if this was an adult who was having a tough time? How would I speak to them?” The idea of thinking about our children as beloved guests is a powerful one – made more so by the fact that, just like guests, they will not be living with us forever.

We have our children for such a short time, and it is up to us to fill that childhood with an abundant array of experiences and ideas.

A WORD ABOUT THE PREPARED ENVIRONMENT

I think the concept of laying the feast ties in well with the Montessori idea of the prepared environment. If Mason wants us to lay the feast, then Maria Montessori wanted the feasting table to be at the child’s height, with appropriate crockery, and a vase of fresh flowers!

If I were to lay a real feast, I would also think about presentation and appearance. So too I put emphasis on these things when laying the metaphorical feast.

I believe that children will get the most out of surroundings which are calm and uncluttered, where they know where their belongings are, can reach them, and then replace them to be used next time. I recognise my immense privilege as I type this – we are lucky enough to own our home and to have space to store our belongings. But it does not have to be expensive – a few baskets at child height next to a small rug is a wonderful place to start with a child’s space.

LAYING THE FEAST FOR FRIDA AT 26 MONTHS

Let’s be clear – children do not need to be in formal education to be learning! Frida is constantly learning, all day every day, so this is not about actively “teaching her”. It is more about me being intentional with how we will spend our days, and the sorts of books and toys which we provide her with.

Some days are “perfect” – we bake, go to the park, model with clay, read poetry and curl up with piles of books, build a beautiful seascape for her animals, then prepare supper together, leaving a tidy home. Other days are less so – we don’t leave the house, I do a little too much benign neglect, I hand out raisins in exchange for a minute to empty the dishwasher, we barely read two books, I find myself saying yes to requests to watch “Room on the Broom” yet AGAIN and the house is a mess! That is just real life. But I find it helpful to constantly remind myself about laying the feast for my daughter, and what that feast should look like, and I find that – really stretching the metaphor here! – on days where the feast has been well set, she may be nourished enough to tide her over on a day where it’s looking more like cheese on toast.

Here are some of the ways in which I aim to lay the feast for Frida:

Surrounding her with good books. We have a lot of books for Frida, and we take great care in choosing books which are good quality for her to enjoy – I will often try and see inside a book before buying it, even if it’s purchased online, or I seek out recommendations from those whose opinions I value.If she shows an interest in a certain topic or author then that might guide our decisions. We maintain a balance between story books, and factual books – Frida loves both. What is important to me is that they are well-written, beautiful, and use rich vocabulary. I really love using books to introduce new concepts or facts to Frida, such as how her body works, or what microbes are, or the names of different jelly-fish. She might not understand everything in every book she owns, but she “assimilates what she can” and we have certainly watched her knowledge and vocabulary grow and grow. If she has a new interest – microbes are her current obsession – then we follow her lead and will find ways to further explore and discuss the theme with her. We usually set new books out on her shelves and then she can choose what she is interested in. We also make regular trips to the library.

Using rich language. We use rich and accurate language with Frida, both when talking to her and in the books we choose. We don’t shy away from long or unusual words, but will take time to explain to her what they mean, and model them in sentences. Every child will develop language at their own pace, but I see no need to wait until they are speaking fluently before introducing rich language. A brilliant tool for this is poetry, as it often combines interesting language with strong metre and rhyme, and I read aloud daily to Frida from various books of childrens’ poetry. I also recite short seasonal verses and rhymes, and Frida is now enjoying reciting these on her own.

Providing opportunities for practical life experience. I involve Frida as much as possible with real tasks such as cleaning, baking, and cooking, as well as encouraging self-care in areas such as toileting, and in making valuable contributions and choices outside of the home (selecting and scanning library books, choosing fruit and vegetables in the supermarket). I see this as giving her a diversity of rich, hands-on experiences, as well as setting the foundations for growing independence and the joy and pride which that will continue to bring her.

Giving her open-ended and beautiful toys (and uninterrupted time to play with them). Play is the work of the child! And I want Frida to have good tools. We have prioritised open-ended wooden toys (such as Grimms) as well as wooden animal figures, dolls and a dolls house, and playsilks. Some of these are expensive, but my hope is that they will see Frida and any future children we have through many years of happy, imaginative play. There are no batteries, and they are very hard to break, and seeing how deeply Frida plays I feel they were well worth the investment. I also set aside big chunks of time for Frida to play without interruption. This is so valuable, and I really see her reaching the “flow” state as she plays happily.

Prioritising time spent outdoors in the natural world. People have written whole books about the importance of being outside for children (if you’re interested Last Child in the Woods and How to Raise a Wild Child are both excellent), so I will not cover that here! But I do try and get Frida outside at least once a day, even if that is just into the garden. Being outdoors together feels like a feast just by itself – there is such an abundance of things to see, smell, discuss, touch, climb… Frida gets so much joy from being in nature, which would be worth it alone without all of the knowledge she takes from it too. Vocabulary from naming plants and insects and animals, science (Does this sink or float? How do plants grow?), gross motor skills…. the full list is long!

Planning interesting outings. Once or twice a fortnight we will take a trip to do something a little bit special, such as go to a pond with frogs, go to a museum, or visit a wood. I love these days as I think they bring something special to our time together, and often form memories which we then talk about for months to come or which lead to further exploration in books. For example, we have been pond-dipping for toads and frogs recently, which has led to natural learning about life-cycles in books, and discussion about other baby animals, which then led to discussion about mammals giving birth to live young vs. animals which lay eggs, which then led to… you get the idea!

Encouraging arts. Frida has free access to simple art materials and I often offer her the chance to paint or create, and we will sometimes take trips to galleries to look at art. The illustrations of many of her books are beautiful too. I have started to be more intentional about exposing Frida to music, including live concerts, and exploring pieces of music with her. She is old enough now that I am thinking about taking her to children’s theatre or dance performances in the near future.

Carefully selecting “work” materials. You will notice I have put this last, not because I don’t think these are important, but because I think children can do with very few. There is so much pressure to buy more more more for our children – a pressure which I am absolutely not immune to – and it is just not necessary. Frida has some shelves with work materials on them (for example including bead threading, modelling clay, and a stacking puzzle) and honestly? I think if I took them all away tomorrow it would be fine! When she is a little older I will be looking into getting her some materials related to literacy and numeracy, but at this stage I think books, good-quality toys, and ample opportunities to be involved in practical life tasks are much more important.

How do you set the feast for your child? 

Practical Life: Flower Arranging 

I’ve been wanting to do some simple flower arranging with Frida for a while now. Frida loves flowers, and flower arranging felt like a perfect summer practical-life activity. 

We often have fresh cut flowers in our home – a luxury, but one which I feel adds a valuable element of beauty into our environment. 

I thought we would start off really simply today, with flowers, which Frida chose from the shop and I then trimmed, and a vase, which I had already filled for her. 

This meant her focus was solely on the task of arranging the flowers into the vase.

Once Frida had filled the first vase, I provided her with more flowers and a second vase. Once that was done, she wanted to keep going, so she filled a small vase for the shelf in her playroom. 

Frida was quite tired when I offered the activity to her (she hasn’t been talking naps for a while) and it went down very well. It’s such a soothing activity, beautiful and fragrant and peaceful, perfect for restoring calm. 

Frida was so pleased with the results! 

We distributed the vases throughout the house. I love the colours she chose. 

In future I will expand the activity by including pouring water into the vases, and eventually, cutting and trimming the flowers. 

Celebrating summer

June is here! And so (although I’m currently looking out of the window at rain) I’m declaring it summer in our home.

To celebrate summer over the next few weeks and months we will be:

  • Spending time outside. Hanging out in parks, exploring woods, running through commons, dipping in ponds, paddling in streams and pools, or just pottering around in the garden. I see huge value in returning to local outdoor spaces regularly, so that Frida can see the weekly and seasonal changes to the wildlife, and so we have a few spots which we visit often.
  • Eating (and making) healthy “ice cream” lollies. Anyone who follows me on Instagram (come and say hello!) will know Frida is a big fan of these. I tend to use a mix of whatever fruit / yoghurt / nut butter I have knocking about. Banana, cacao, vanilla, coconut milk, and avocado all make good additions. Great for breakfast when it’s hot, and perfect for snacks. For extra excitement layer two fillings. 
  • Making the most of the abundant flowers all around us. I’m talking flower arranging, making garden soup, using our beloved flower cards, flower petal “princess baths”, watching as buds open and bloom, and visiting some formal gardens.
  • Reading some of our favourite summery books. You can find out more about what we’re currently reading here. 
  • Rockpooling! I am really excited to do this with Frida, as we haven’t taken her yet.
  • Swimming. I will admit – I don’t take Frida swimming very often. I’m determined to give her more swimming opportunities, and summer is a good season to get motivated!
  • Eating picnics. Of course. A great practical life activity too – picnic food is often perfect for toddlers to prepare, washing fruit, chopping vegetables, making simple dips, and filling drinks bottles.
  • Growing berries. We’re currently growing a few strawberries and raspberries, and Frida loves going out every morning to check what has ripened and water the plants.
  • Taking regular trips to the seaside for ice-cream, paddling, and seeing friends and family.
  • Camping. I’m not sure if we will get round to doing this this summer, but I would really like to get away for a night or two and take Frida somewhere local to camp, maybe with friends or family.
  • Learning about Italy, before a family holiday at the end of summer. Reading books about Italy, making pizza together, talking about the wildlife, and learning a few words of Italian (and maybe a Campari or two for me…)
  • Taking it slow. Summer for me is not a time for rushing around! Long mornings spent reading books under a tree, painting in the garden, cool afternoon baths, supper in the garden, wandering from park to cafe to paddling pool – that’s pretty much my summer plan.

What about you? What will your summer look like?

What we’re reading: June 

I’ve done some book rotation, including some books with a summer / seaside / bugs theme. I often just show you a small selection of the books we have out, so I thought I would show you the whole of Frida’s book shelves.

Because it’s June, I’ve updated the seasonal books on the shelf in Frida’s room.

On her shelf she has: Summer / Outside Your Window: A First Book of Nature / Summer (from The Nursery Collection) / Flower Fairies of the Summer

When rotating books, I usually try to ensure a balance of current favourites and books we haven’t read for a while, reality-based books and books with an element of fantasy, easy books and ones which are a little more challenging (either because they are longer or deal with more complex topics).

Top shelf: Dogger (MF) / Paddington in the Garden / When We Were Very Young  (MF) / Wild Animals (also published as British Animals) MF) / Out and About: A First Book of Poems (MF) / The Story Orchestra: Four Seasons in One Day (MF although there are accompanying sounds)

Middle shelf: 199 Things Under the Sea (MF) / Tiddler / Meg at Sea / The Storm Whale (semi-MF) / British Seashore (MF) / The Blue Whale (MF)

Bottom shelf: Bee: Nature’s tiny miracle (MF) / First Facts Bugs (MF) / 1001 Bugs to Spot (MF) / Look Inside: Your Body (MF) / Summer  (MF) / Eating the Alphabet (MF)

MF = Montessori-friendly, ie. reality based

We also have a basket of library books in our sitting room. I do try to keep these separate just for ease, but in the shelves above I have included a couple of library books. Again, when we go to the library, I usually try to strike a balance when choosing what to borrow (and of course Frida has an opinion too!)

We have also recently started listening to some audio books together, mostly Mog books (by Judith Kerr) and Alfie stories by Shirley Hughes. I would love your recommendations for pre-school age audio books.

Toddler art activities: modelling clay 

We have recently introduced Frida to modelling clay! I have such fond memories of using modelling clay (I think we called it plasticine?) as a child, and so was really looking forward to getting some out to use with Frida. 

Although I could have made a batch of playdough and mixed up all different colours, I thought it would be simpler and nicer (and actually a bit cheaper than buying loads of food colouring!) to buy some ready-made modelling clay. 

I went for this stuff by Okonorm as it’s non-toxic and gorgeously bright soft clay that doesn’t dry out at all, despite being stored in open air. 

Although the primary benefit to modelling is that it’s fun, playing with materials like clay, dough and bees wax is so good for young children – the pinching, patting, kneading and rolling all help to build up the muscles and fine motor coordination they will need for holding a pencil and writing. 

I also find it’s a calming activity that we can do together as a family. There’s something so soothing about using modelling clay to create simple figures, even as adults. A few days ago the three of us sat down and modelled and chatted for a while before supper, and it was so lovely to create and play together in that way. And of course, modelling encourages imagination and creativity. 

Frida is still too young to be able to make anything realistic, so what I’ve found she really enjoys is if I make a simple figure or two (say, a cat and a mouse), and then she can make them “food” and “blankets” and so on. This stops her getting frustrated at her own technical limitations whilst allowing her to create purposeful things to use in her play. We have also made simple flowers together, and Frida is getting better at “fixing” models when they break, for example sticking an errant ear back onto a dog! 

This is obviously an approach tailored to Frida’s personality – other toddlers may prefer parents to leave them to it, but Frida definitely prefers us to be involved. 

Do you use modelling clay with your toddler? What’s your favourite way to use it? 

Toddler music study: Peter and the Wolf 

Over the last week, Frida and I have been listening to Peter and the Wolf. This is the first time that I have been intentional about introducing Frida to a piece of music, with discussion, repeated listening, and supporting activities. I think Frida has enjoyed it – I have certainly found it really enjoyable to explore this piece of music with her.

Peter and the Wolf is the perfect piece to kick off music exploration. Written especially for children by Sergei Prokofiev, it tells a (narrated) story, and has very clearly defined instrument sounds. Peter is played by the violin, the bird is played by the flute, the duck is played by the oboe, the cat is played by the clarinet, the Grandfather is played by the bassoon, the Wolf is played by the french horn, and the Hunters are played by the timpani. This makes it an ideal piece to introduce these instruments to young children.

I am a big fan of providing Frida with the materials to act out and play around stories we have been reading together, so I thought that an enjoyable, concrete way to bring the story alive for her would be to provide her with a Peter and the Wolf story set.

This is made up of Holztiger animals and tree, and a Grimms boy doll. Frida already had most of these items, but I ordered a boy and a howling wolf (these are used in everyday play, as well as in telling this particular story, so I don’t feel these are poor value for money – I certainly wouldn’t have bought them if Frida wasn’t already heavily into imaginative play, and we were already planning on getting her a boy to go with her girl). I also made a DIY duck pond with some kite paper and the tray from Frida’s Grimms rainbow friends in cups, which she no longer uses.

Frida has also been exploring some of the instruments present in the piece using figures from a Safari Toob. Although nowhere near as good as seeing or handling real instruments, I hope these help her in being able to recognise the individual instruments and spot them when watching the piece of music.

I also really like the simple instrument videos from the London Philharmonic Orchestra (here is a link to “trumpet”). They are short, clear videos explaining how each instrument works and demonstrating a range of sounds the instrument can make. Perfect for toddlers with an interest and older children.

We have been watching and listening to this version of Peter and the Wolf, played by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra: https://youtu.be/MfM7Y9Pcdzw. When we first listened to it together I wasn’t convinced it would hold her attention, at nearly 30 minutes, but it captivated her.

Although we aren’t huge fans of screentime for young children (Frida has started having a very small amount – a blog post for another day!) I think there is a huge value in watching instruments being played, and being able to link the sounds to the actions of the musicians.

Obviously YouTube pales in comparison to watching real instruments though! Over the next few months I’m going to be taking Frida to some local Bach to Baby concerts (if you’re in the UK check them out, great short concerts for babies and young children). We haven’t been for a while, and I’m hoping it will be a great way for her to learn more about music whilst enjoying herself.

Learning about bees 

If you’re in the UK, I hope you’re enjoying the gorgeous weather we’ve been having! We’ve been spending a lot of time outdoors, and Frida has been learning about bees at the moment. Although I didn’t plan it, I have had a couple of opportunities to facilitate some hands-on learning experiences for her.

There are so many of these amazing creatures around at the moment, it is easy to observe them flying, resting, or collecting pollen from the flowers which are in bloom. We are very lucky to have a garden, which makes this observation easy! It also means that occasionally bees fly into our home, and sadly, sometimes perish, or are unwell.

Recently we found a dead bee, so I thought I would set up a simple piece of observation work for Frida. I put the bee in a bug viewer, provided her with a magnifying glass, and that was that.

Frida was interested in this, although it didn’t hold her attention for as long as I thought it would. I think she still struggles with holding the magnifying glass at an optimal distance, and as she is quite hands on she likes to be doing something. She declined to touch the bee, though watched me as I gently handled it, pointing out the parts of its body.

We also were able to have an impromptu lesson in the care of animals through finding a poorly bee in our home. I showed Frida to mix sugar and water, then give some to the bee for energy. We took it outside, and eventually moved it onto a plant (with a few drops of sugar to speed it on its way).

I’m not confident it survived long, but it was a good opportunity for Frida to experience caring for a living creature, as well as a great chance to observe the bee drinking with its tongue.

We’ve been reading about bees too (and bugs in general – there are so many to look at around this time of year).

We especially like Insect Emporium, a gorgeous book which I would recommend to any family, and Bee: Nature’s tiny miracle (Britta Teckentrup) which is a beautifully illustrated tale of bees collecting pollen, with peek-through cut-outs which are so appealing to small children. For older children, I really recommend Nature Anatomy (Julia Rothman) which has a section on bees and is great for nature study and journal inspiration.

Sadly our bee theme took an unexpected turn for the worse when Frida somehow managed to step on a bee which had found its way into our dining room, getting a sting on the sole of her foot in the process. She was fine, though upset at the time, and it gave us a whole-family, unplanned lesson in bee stings, how to deal with them, and why they happen.

It made me feel quite relieved that we had done our bee study before the sting, as I’m not sure how keen she will be to talk about them or be near them for a little while (I haven’t removed the bee observation work from her shelf but may do so, following her lead). I hope this experience won’t leave her afraid of insects, and we were careful to explain that the sting had only occurred due to the bee being trodden on.

I hope all your children avoid stings, but if they do, here’s the NHS advice on treating them and what to look out for.