I’ve been looking for the passage I know is in one of Charlotte Mason’s books about making sure children have one or two favorite nature-spots to visit on a regular basis: a park, a garden, a particular wood, a shore, that is visited over and over in all seasons, so that the children may grow familiar with the plants, birds, and beasts that live there, and see how things change throughout the course of a year.
I can’t find the quote, but I know it’s there somewhere: in Home Education, most likely. Miss Mason’s recommendation impressed itself strongly upon me as a young mother in New York, and I dutifully (a delightful duty it was) looked about for a suitable spot or two. I wound up with three, and with bitsy Jane and baby Rose I made pilgrimages to at least one of them every week for years, so that bitsy Jane became bigger Jane and baby Rose was bitsy, and Beanie became the baby.
One of our haunts was the beautiful garden you might have seen recently in the background of Alice’s Midsummer Night’s Dream pictures. And yes, on those outings Alice and her bonny clan were usually by our side—Alice, naturally, having been the person to introduce me to the garden in the first place. A weathered journal filled with Jane’s primitive sketches of flowers from that garden remains one of my most cherished mementos of those green-golden days.
This place was our other favorite spot: five minutes from home, with woods to tramp in and a long stretch of rocky, sandy shore on the Long Island Sound. Sands Point was our year-round nature spot, the place we went to crunch over snow through leafless woods, or to hunt for horseshoe crabs and bury our feet in wet sand.
In Virginia, we were so blessed as to have nature trails around the undeveloped perimeter of our neighborhood, the trailhead lying at the bottom of our very own street. On those leafy paths we learned "the green ways of growing." We met a woodchuck, several snakes, some woodpeckers, a bevy of chickadees, and, once, a terrifying dog. There was a fallen tree all the kids called a fort, and a creek for floating fairy-leaves down, and stones for skipping, and a long hike through a marshy meadow to a lake where the Canada geese congregated on October evenings. A bald eagle was rumored to live there, though we never saw him.
We also frequented Ivy Creek Natural Area, the site of Jane’s best butterfly encounters. It was there we became acquainted with the beech and the sassafras, the wingstem and the woolly aphid. I always meant to spend more time at Ivy Creek than just the once-a-month summer butterfly walks (and the annual native plant sale); but the years we lived there were dominated by Wonderboy’s medical adventures, and we didn’t make it out as often as I’d have liked.
Now here we are in San Diego. Our first six tumultuous months of settling in are behind us. We have only just begun to explore all that is new and delicious in this part of the country; before we arrived, a sweet friend sent us a two-inch-thick book of Fun Places to Go with Kids in Southern California, and though we’ve had a busy and adventure-packed six months, we’ve only made our way through the tiniest sliver of that book. (Blame the Zoo: we keep going back and back for more.) But I find myself drawing a breath and knowing it’s time to find "our spots"—a Sands Point, an Ivy Creek, a place or two we can be more than just acquainted with: a place or two to know intimately.
The quest itself is one of the great delights of moving someplace new. In New York, there was a third "our spot": a lovely garden tucked in the midst of suburbia, a quiet oasis of pond and flowered path. There, too, we often rendezvoused with Alice and her girls (we moved just weeks after Patrick’s birth), and Alice and I would sit in the shade while our little lasses counted turtles in the pond. You could drive right by this garden and have no idea it was there; I think I did drive by probably hundreds of times before I ever set foot through the gates into that little Eden.
Sometimes, as I drive around this western city, I wonder what Edens lie hidden beyond the highway.
I love knowing they’re there, waiting for us to discover them. Our places, our spots: they are waiting for us. What will they be? A ribbon of beach, where we’ll find tidepools and singing waves? A hidden garden, lush and tropical? A windy hilltop where lizards bejewel the warm stones? A place where we will learn the blue, the brown, the golden ways of growing?
A couple of weeks ago, we met some young women who are running a nature studies camp for children this summer. I got to chatting with them, and before I knew it, I had booked one of them to come out to our neighborhood for a guided nature walk sometime soon. One must be on a first name basis with the trees and shrubs one sees every day! This young woman is just our sort of person; she’s into "urban foraging," aka "picking weeds to eat on your salad"—aka "Jane’s kind of person." (My Virginia friends are reading this and laughing, recalling how Jane taught their children to nibble chickweed for iron and violets for vitamin C. Playing in our yard generally meant going home with green teeth.)
After this nice urban forager introduces us to our leafy green neighbors, I’m going to have her take us farther afield, perhaps to Mission Trails Park, where Father Serra, our family’s new patron saint, once trod.
I still can’t find the Charlotte Mason quote I want. Here, though, is what she has to say about "Out-of-Door Life for the Children":
Meals out of Doors.––People who live in the country know the value of fresh air very well, and their children live out of doors, with intervals within for sleeping and eating. As to the latter, even country people do not make full use of their opportunities. On fine days when it is warm enough to sit out with wraps, why should not tea and breakfast, everything but a hot dinner, be served out of doors? For we are an overwrought generation, running to nerves as a cabbage runs to seed; and every hour spent in the open is a clear gain, tending to the increase of brain power and bodily vigour, and to the lengthening of life itself. They who know what it is to have fevered skin and throbbing brain deliciously soothed by the cool touch of the air are inclined to make a new rule of life, Never be within doors when you can rightly be without.
Besides, the gain of an hour or two in the open air, there is this to be considered: meals taken al fresco are usually joyous, and there is nothing like gladness for converting meat and drink into healthy blood and tissue. All the time, too, the children are storing up memories of a happy childhood. Fifty years hence they will see the shadows of the boughs making patterns on the white tablecloth; and sunshine, children’s laughter, hum of bees, and scent of flowers are being bottled up for after refreshment.
For Dwellers in Towns and Suburbs.––But it is only the people who live, so to speak, in their own gardens who can make a practice of giving their children tea out of doors. For the rest of us, and the most of us, who live in towns or the suburbs of towns, that is included in the larger question––How much time daily in the open air should the children have? And how is it possible to secure this for them? In this time of extraordinary pressure, educational and social, perhaps a mothers first duty to her children is to secure for them a quiet growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, the waking part of it spent for the most part out in the fresh air. And this, not for the gain in bodily health alone––body and soul, heart and mind, are nourished with food convenient for them when the children are let alone, let to live without friction and without stimulus amongst happy influences which incline them to be good.
Possibilities of a Day in the Open.––I make a point, says a judicious mother, of sending my children out, weather permitting, for an hour in the winter, and two hours a day in the summer months. That is well; but it is not enough. In the first place, do not send them; if it is anyway possible, take them; for, although the children should be left much to themselves, there is a great deal to be done and a great deal to be prevented during these long hours in the open air. And long hours they should be not two, but four, five, or six hours they should have on every tolerably fine day, from April till October. Impossible! Says an overwrought mother who sees her way to no more for her children than a daily hour or so on the pavements of the neighbouring London squares. Let me repeat, that I venture to suggest, not what is practicable in any household, but what seems to me absolutely best for the children; and that, in the faith that mothers work wonders once they are convinced that wonders are demanded of them. A journey of twenty minutes by rail or omnibus, and a luncheon basket, will make a day in the country possible to most town dwellers; and if one day, why not many, even every suitable day?
Oh, Charlotte, Charlotte, how I love you. You are, I suppose, assuming I have a cheery, red-cheeked housemaid to keep my home in order while I spend not two, but four, five, or six hours a day outside with my children…and of course in this particular book you are speaking of my youngest children only, the six-and-under crowd. What you do not realize, my dear, is that I’m a devotee of your later writings, and my days are therefore arranged so as to allow for lengthy reading sessions replete with narration. But, please, do go on.
Supposing we have got them, what is to be done with these golden hours, so that every one shall be delightful? They must be spent with some method, or the mother will be taxed and the children bored. There is a great deal to be accomplished in this large fraction of the children’s day. They must be kept in a joyous temper all the time, or they will miss some of the strengthening and refreshing held in charge for them by the blessed air. They must be let alone, left to themselves a great deal, to take in what they can of the beauty of earth and heavens; for of the evils of modern education few are worse than this––that the perpetual cackle of his elders leaves the poor child not a moment of time, nor an inch of space, wherein to wonder––and grow. At the same time, here is the mother’s opportunity to train the seeing eye, the hearing ear, and to drop seeds of truth into the open soul of the child, which shall germinate, blossom, and bear fruit, without further help or knowledge of hers. Then, there is much to be got by perching in a tree or nestling in heather, but muscular development comes of more active ways, and an hour or two should be spent in vigorous play; and last, and truly least, a lesson or two must be got in.
No Story-Books.––Let us suppose mother and children arrived at some breezy open wherein it seemeth always afternoon. In the first place, it is not her business to entertain the little people: there should be no story-books, no telling of tales, as little talk as possible, and that to some purpose. Who thinks to amuse children with tale or talk at a circus or pantomime? And here, is there not infinitely more displayed for their delectation? Our wise mother, arrived, first sends the children to let off their spirits in a wild scamper, with cry, hallo, and hullaballo, and any extravagance that comes into their young heads. There is no distinction between big and little; the latter love to follow in the wake of their elders, and, in lessons or play, to pick up and do according to their little might. As for the baby, he is in bliss: divested of his garments, he kicks and crawls, and clutches the grass, laughs soft baby laughter, and takes in his little knowledge of shapes and properties in his own wonderful fashion––clothed in a woollen gown, long and loose, which is none the worse for the worst usage it may get.
By-and-by the others come back to their mother, and, while wits are fresh and eyes are keen, she sends them off on an exploring expedition––Who can see the most, and tell the most, about yonder hillock or brook, hedge, or copse. This is an exercise that delights children, and may be endlessly varied, carried on in the spirit of a game, and yet with the exactness and carefulness of a lesson.
How to See.––Find out all you can about that cottage at the foot of the hill; but do not pry about too much. Soon they are back, and there is a crowd of excited faces, and a hubbub of tongues, and random observations are shot breathlessly into the mother’s ear. ‘There are bee-hives.’ ‘We saw a lot of bees going into one.’ ‘There is a long garden.’ ‘Yes, and there are sunflowers in it.’ ‘And hen-and-chicken daisies and pansies.’ ‘And there’s a great deal of pretty blue flowers with rough leaves, mother; what do you suppose it is?’ ‘Borage for the bees, most likely; they are very fond of it.’ ‘Oh, and there are apple and pear and plum trees on one side; there’s a little path up the middle, you know.’ ‘On which hand side are the fruit trees?’ ‘The right––no, the left; let me see, which is my thimble-hand? Yes, it is the right-hand side.’ ‘And there are potatoes and cabbages, and mint and things on the other side.’ ‘Where are the flowers, then?’ ‘Oh, they are just the borders, running down each side of the path.’ ‘But we have not told mother about the wonderful apple tree; I should think there are a million apples on it, all ripe and rosy!’ ‘A million, Fanny?’ ‘Well, a great many, mother; I don’t know how many.’ And so on, indefinitely; the mother getting by degrees a complete description of the cottage and its garden.
Educational Uses of Sight-Seeing.––This is all play to the children, but the mother is doing invaluable work; she is training their powers of observation and expression, increasing their vocabulary and their range of ideas by giving them the name and the uses of an object at the right moment,––when they ask, ‘What is it?’ and ‘What is it for?’ And she is training her children in truthful habits, by making them careful to see the fact and to state it exactly, without omission or exaggeration. The child who describes, ‘A tall tree, going up into a point, with rather roundish leaves; not a pleasant tree for shade, because the branches all go up,’ deserves to learn the name of the tree, and anything her mother has to tell her about it. But the little bungler, who fails to make it clear whether he is describing an elm or a beech, should get no encouragement; not a foot should his mother move to see his tree, no coaxing should draw her into talk about it, until, in despair, he goes off, and comes back with some more certain note––rough or smooth bark, rough or smooth leaves,––then the mother considers, pronounces, and, full of glee, he carries her off to see for himself.
Discriminating Observation.––By degrees the children will learn discriminatingly every feature of the landscapes with which they are familiar; and think what a delightful possession for old age and middle life is a series of pictures imaged, feature by feature, in the sunny glow of the child’s mind! The miserable thing about the childish recollections of most persons is that they are blurred, distorted, incomplete, no more pleasant to look upon than a fractured cup or a torn garment; and the reason is, not that the old scenes are forgotten, but that they were never fully seen. At the time, there was no more than a hazy impression that such and such objects were present, and naturally, after a lapse of years those features can rarely be recalled of which the child was not cognisant when he saw them before him.
Method of.––So exceedingly delightful is this faculty of taking mental photographs, exact images, of the beauties of Nature we go about the world for the refreshment of seeing, that it is worth while to exercise children in another way towards this end, bearing in mind, however, that they see the near and the minute, but can only be made with an effort to look at the wide and the distant. Get the children to look well at some patch of landscape, and then to shut their eyes and call up the picture before them, if any bit of it is blurred, they had better look again. When they have a perfect image before their eyes, let them say what they see. Thus: ‘I see a pond; it is shallow on this side, but deep on the other; trees come to the waters edge on that side, and you can see their green leaves and branches so plainly in the water that you would think there was a wood underneath. Almost touching the trees in the water is a bit of blue sky with a soft white cloud; and when you look up you see that same little cloud, but with a great deal of sky instead of a patch, because there are no trees up there. There are lovely little water-lilies round the far edge of the pond, and two or three of the big round leaves are turned up like sails. Near where I am standing three cows have come to drink, and one has got far into the water, nearly up to her neck,’ etc.
Strain on the Attention.––This, too, is an exercise children delight in, but, as it involves some strain on the attention, it is fatiguing, and should only be employed now and then. It is, however, well worth while to give children the habit of getting a bit of landscape by heart in this way, because it is the effort of recalling and reproducing that is fatiguing; while the altogether pleasurable act of seeing, fully and in detail, is likely to be repeated unconsciously until it becomes a habit by the child who is required now and then to reproduce what he sees.
Seeing Fully and in Detail.––At first the children will want a little help in the art of seeing. The mother will say, ‘Look at the reflection of the trees! There might be a wood under the water. What do those standing up leaves remind you of?’ And so on, until the children have noticed the salient points of the scene. She will even herself learn off two or three scenes, and describe them with closed eyes for the children’s amusement; and such little mimics are they, and at the same time so sympathetic, that any graceful fanciful touch which she throws into her descriptions will be reproduced with variations in theirs.
The children will delight in this game of picture-painting all the more if the mother introduce it by describing some great picture gallery she has seen––pictures of mountains, of moors, of stormy seas, of ploughed fields, of little children at play, of an old woman knitting,––and goes on to say, that though she does not paint her pictures on canvas and have them put in frames, she carries about with her just such a picture gallery; for whenever she sees anything lovely or interesting, she looks at it until she has the picture in her mind’s eye; and then she carries it away with her, her own for ever, a picture on view just when she wants it.
It’s good to revisit the books that formed you as a young mother. Eight years ago, Charlotte Mason was my Dr. Spock, and I carried out her recommendations as faithfully as our circumstances allowed. Now my little people are beginning to be bigger people, and it would be quite easy to forget this vision of what life can be like for little ones. I can’t promise four to six hours a day, of course! But one long afternoon a week? That I can aim for, and we’ll all be the better for it.
Now to find our "breezy opens"!
Images courtesy of AntiqueClipart.com.