“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?