As a mother embarks on her journey to provide an education for her children that is much like a large feast, by means of the Charlotte Mason method, it becomes quickly apparent that morning lessons, as described by Mason, accomplish much. What is nearly as clear, I believe, is how much the long stretches of time provided in a free afternoon accomplishes. Even less clear is how to accomplish and maintain these long stretches of free time, and what exactly should be happening within them. All too often, morning lessons are completed with fervor and enthusiasm, but then afternoons are packed full of errands and activities. We, as a Charlotte Mason community, can also be guilty of doing as Mason warned against, and letting our morning lessons extend into the evening, by not holding to a schedule. The large room which Mason described us setting the feet of our children in, as the purpose and goal of his education, is built both in morning lessons and in afternoons, and to build such a large room which gives a full life, we must pursue both diligent mornings and also leisurely afternoons.
Mason insisted that as wide a feast of occupations and pursuits should be occurring outside of school hours, as the feast of ideas that children are given in their morning lessons. She stated that along with at least three hours of free outdoor play, that children should also have anywhere from 1-3 hours for what she dubbed “occupations”. On top of this, they were to have leisure time. Add to this the activities of daily life, and the fact that many pursuits and hobbies can require driving to and from lessons or meetings, and we quickly have what feels to be a full, and possibly overwhelming day. Even still, I wholeheartedly believe that these leisurely and lovely afternoons are quite possible, if we hold them in as much importance as we do our morning lessons. In order to do so, I believe we must know what afternoons are for, and what exactly they accomplish for our children, and for the education that we are so diligently working at providing.
What do Afternoons accomplish?
Afternoons are for Digestion.
Imagine what would happen if the human body consumed an ideal diet full of a balance of nutrients, brimming with vitamins and minerals, and capable of providing perfect health. Now, imagine what value that diet would have if the body did not digest it. In much the same way, providing a feast for our children to partake in during our lessons will provide a full diet of ideas, capable of providing a full life of the mind. However, those ideas must be digested. During narration, knowledge is reproduced and therefore taken as the child’s possession. This is the beginning of the process of digestion, aided by the wide array of ideas being consumed by spreading our educational feast wide (lessons of all kinds). This process stops short, however, if the child isn’t given ample time to explore the world around him, work with his hands, and think on what he has learned. Digestion is completed when the child is climbing a tree, building a blanket fort, working on her embroidery, or practicing his most recent piece on the piano. Afternoons are essential for digestion, and I dare say that without this time, morning lessons are done in vain.
Afternoons are for Connections
As the process of digestion carries on during free and leisurely afternoon hours, connections are formed. The more that a person is free to think and to ponder the ideas they have consumed, the more they will connect those ideas to other ideas, to the world around them, and to themselves. It is in the afternoons that a child realizes that their math lesson can be applied to the building of their bird house. It is in the afternoons when a child realizes that the reenactment of the war that they read about is much more dramatic and enjoyable when it includes words from a large vocabulary. It is in afternoons that a child spots the bird that his nature lore brought to his mind, and realizes that it looks much like another frequent visitor to his backyard. It is in afternoons when a child realizes that a lever can make quite a catapult. It is in afternoons that the mind turns over and over an idea, and applies it to other ideas that can not be contrived in our morning schedules. When a child returns to her morning lessons, she is now armed with connections which will enrich the new ideas she encounters and fuel even further connections in the afternoon that follows. This cycle of morning lessons and leisurely afternoons is the science of relation both at work, and in perfect balance.
Afternoons are for Exploration
The best ideas of the world are only encountered from another’s mind, and the best ideas from the best minds are in books. Mason makes this clear to us, sending us on our pursuit for the very best books and the perfect lesson schedule with which to read and consume all of the good, beautiful and true ideas that we can get our hands on. However, Mason makes equally (arguably more so) clear that the most important knowledge is the knowledge of the world around a child. We make a habit of condensing this knowledge to our natural history lessons and our scheduled, directed nature walks. This is a mistake, and it doesn’t provide the self education that Mason was describing or imploring us to facilitate. Much of the knowledge of the world around a child must be gained through exploration. During games and imaginative play, a child gains knowledge of human relations through their relationships with their siblings, and they also gain knowledge of how to imagine, plan, enact, and adapt schemes and plans. During outdoor exploration, unguided and unsupervised, a child learns what his nearest environment looks like and contains, and he also learns to assess risk and execute a plan to explore that environment. This is a vital component of self education that is all too often looked over, and even squelched, by well intentioned parents. A child who wants to reach the uppermost branch in a tree and must make a plan to do so, assess the risk of his plan, carry out his plan, test his limits as he climbs higher and higher, determine the safety of the next branch by putting one foot on it to test its strength, alter his plan as he reaches an unexpected obstacle, and muster the courage to continue when he is suddenly much higher than he realized that he would be…this child has learned and been gifted with lessons that we simply can not teach and that no book will ever provide. This child will then be given the opportunity to celebrate the reaching of his goal, to feel the disappointment of failing at his plan, to recover from the pain of falling, or to learn what it is like to have to come up with an alternative plan. All of these lessons are not only valuable, but are necessary in order to truly be the well rounded and wholly educated person that we are seeking to guide our children to be.
As a mother puts Mason’s timetable and principles into action in her morning hours, filling the first half of her child’s day with a feast full of ideas, she begins to see her child “come alive”, and to love the pursuit of, and acquisition of, knowledge and ideas. As she further puts into place Mason’s principles and wisdom, freeing up her afternoons for her children to leisurely pursue the out of door life that Mason is so famous for imploring us to have, and also to make progress in handicrafts and other skills, she begins to see her child educate himself, make connections between ideas, connect ideas to himself, explore his world, and gain a foothold in conquering his fears and testing his limits. This combination of diligent labor over lessons, and freely lovely afternoons puts the science of relations and the fullness of life that Mason introduces us to into action and into balance. As we spread out a feast, it behooves us to also allow time for that feast to be digested. As we seek out and acquire the best ideas in the best books, it is vital to the lives and hearts of our children that we also place into their hands the hours in which to explore and to know the world around them, and to build the various skills needed for living a full life. We do this by preparing a morning schedule that we can hold to, lessons that are full of truth and goodness and beauty, and afternoons that are blissfully free for the digestion, connections, and exploration desperately needed by the children that are, indeed, born persons.
This ideal day, and full life, is beautifully simple, but isn’t easy. The hustle and bustle of our burgeoning calendars and our many obligations threatens the peace and simplicity of the days I have described. Far too often, we sacrifice these types of days in the name of accomplishing and being involved in many things. This sacrifice brings with it the expense of digesting ideas, forming connections between them, and becoming an explorer of God’s incredible world. Although not easy, and requiring a paradigm shift, both in thinking and in action, these types of days are more than worth the effort. They are not only worth it, but they are possible to achieve. As we set about learning to achieve them, I bring to our minds the confidence that Mason had in mothers, and her brave request that we do not what is practical (and easiest), but what is best for our children.
“I venture to suggest, not what is practicable in any household,