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Building a Firm Foundation for Classical Education

By Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #29, 1999.

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Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn


Some Classical Educators focus on the Classical method and others focus on the Classical subjects. Those who focus on the subjects (Latin, Logic, etc.) tend to want to get to the academics as early as possible. Those who focus on the method (the Trivium) tend to slow down and pay more attention to developmental principles. Classical Education is not just Latin and Logic. It is a way of life.

In this article we discuss what to do with a child before age ten. Around age ten, the brain becomes physically able to make more complex connections, which, among other things, makes the child more able to handle abstract concepts and helps the child with self-management and self-control. At age ten, the child is fully entering the grammar stage. Before this time, the child is mostly dependent upon his concrete sensory experiences for learning. He is really in a pre-grammar stage. He is still "booting up," to put it in computer lingo.

Hence, we suggest that academics are not necessarily the focus before age ten. Rather, this is the time to sow the seeds of honoring God and parents, developing the capacity for language and the appetite for learning, enriching the memory, and instilling a work and service ethic. This is the time to lay the foundation for the academics which will follow.

The following is a list of ten things we believe are important to teach your children before age ten.

1. Reading and Handwriting

Sometime before your child is ten, you should teach him to read using a good intensive phonics method. The age a child learns to read is no indicator of how smart he is or how well he will do in academics later on. Our children learned to read anywhere from age five to age nine. At the same time he learns to read he should learn to write his letters. Copywork is a good way to practice handwriting skills and to prepare him for creative writing when he is older. Cindy Rushton's book Language Arts... The Easy Way (1225 Christy Lane, Tuscumbia, AL 35674) outlines how to incorporate copywork into your curriculum.

2. Narration

Charlotte Mason developed the concept of narration in Britain at the close of the nineteenth century. The concept has been reintroduced to homeschooling families by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay in her book For the Children's Sake and by Karen Andreola through her articles in Practical Homeschooling.

Narration is very difficult to do. Narrate the sermon you heard last Sunday, without notes. Could you do it? Most of us would have trouble even remembering the text of the sermon. That's because our minds, as adults, have not been trained in the art of narration.

Narration is best started when the child is young (4 or 5), practiced on a daily basis, and continued on through high school.

If narration is a new concept to you, then it is best to start out small. Read to the child just one short paragraph from a simple story, then ask him to retell, in his own words, what you just read to him. In the beginning you may need to prompt the child with questions about the passage. As the child becomes more practiced in the art of narration, he will be able to narrate longer and longer passages.

Narration is an exercise which builds mental stamina. According to Karen Andreola, "Because narration takes the place of questionnaires and multiple choice tests, it enables the child to bring all the faculties of mind into play. The child learns to call on the vocabulary and descriptive power of good writers as he tells his own version of the story."

3. Memorization

Encourage the child to memorize things: the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, passages from the Bible, poetry, catechisms, excerpts from literature. Perhaps the child can then recite his memory work in front of the family or a larger group. This is an excellent way to prepare the child for competitions in oral interpretation and speech and debate when he is older. Memorization, along with narration, trains, sharpens, and strengthens the mind and prepares the child for more rigorous studies later on. And that's precisely what we want to do in the early years of a child's life. By contrast, television, videos, and even much of the so-called educational computer software works in the opposite direction.

4. Hearing and Listening

By reading aloud to your child, you teach him the sound of words and develop his vocabulary while enlarging his understanding of the world and developing his imagination. We suggest you read to each child at least two hours a day. Read from a wide variety of good literature: biographies and historical fiction. Include books on science, geography, art, music, and history.

Three "don'ts":

  • Don't be afraid to read long chapter books to young children. A five-year-old is capable of attending and understanding much of such books as Treasure Island or Journey to the Center of the Earth.

  • Don't waste your time reading "fast-food" type books, like the Babysitter Club books or Nancy Drew.

  • Don't require your children to sit perfectly still beside you on the couch while you read.

Many children listen much better if they are doing something with their hands. We allowed our children to play quietly with their toys or work on some cross-stitching or a drawing or similar project while we were reading aloud as long as they stayed in the room and were not distracting or interrupting.

You can develop your child's idea of the continuity of history by making a time line of the things you read. Tape a long piece of paper to the wall where he will see it every day and mark it off in centuries. When you read about the life of Bach, mark his birth and death on the time line. When you read about the invention of the printing press, mark that point on the time line. This will be your family's life-long time line.

5. Family Worship

Studies have shown that the family that prays together at church does not usually stay together unless it prays and studies the Bible together regularly as a family at home. The father should lead the family in prayer and Bible studies, morning and evening if possible. This will strengthen the father's role as the accountable head and moral guide of the family. Mothers are not to be the spiritual leaders of the family. The mother teaches her children the proper role of submission to their parents by her example of submission to their father.

With regular family worship, the mind is developed along spiritual and moral lines in a way which cannot be accomplished by Bible workbooks or private devotions.

A method of Bible study we suggest that is biblical and profitable is to have someone read a passage of Scripture, then have everyone in the family, perhaps in turn, ask the father at least one question about the passage. Before age ten, you may expect a child to ask mostly grammar-level questions of fact. By age 13 he will ask more logic level questions of theory, and by age 16 he will ask more rhetoric-level questions of practice.

6. Arts and Crafts

Young children learn more through their senses. They need more hands-on manipulatives before age ten. Give them plenty of time to experiment with art and crafts. In the main room of your house, or wherever it is you spend the most time, keep a low shelf stocked with good-quality colored pencils, paints, clay, paper, scissors, glue, wallpaper sample books, fabric sample books, different kinds of crayons, sewing supplies, etc. along with a small table with chairs.

Children can easily work on their projects while you read to them. Younger children can do crafts while the older ones are being helped with math or science.

Art and craft projects can be sent to relatives, made into gifts, given to residents at the nursing home, entered into contests, taken to show at the county fair, or simply displayed in the home. In our home we have framed many of the children's works, and the walls are covered with the results.

7. Field Trips

Take lots of field trips. Early on, get into the habit of visiting the library on a weekly basis. At a young age the child will become familiar with where the different kinds of books are found and how to ask the librarian for help. Later you will teach the child to use the computer catalog and the reference section of the library.

Around age 13 (which is the beginning of the logic stage) take the child to a good college library and help him become familiar with doing research using the Library of Congress system. At age 15 (the beginning of the rhetoric stage) take him to a big university library. By the time a child is 18, he should know how to do research in any library.

When the child is four or five, begin attending your local Science and Engineering Fair. Observe all of the different kinds of projects and experiments. Encourage the child to think of what kind of experiment he could enter when he's 13 (in the logic stage).

Take time to attend concerts and plays, museums and exhibits. Visit workplaces. Give him experiences from which to build his understanding of the world; experiences he will draw upon and perhaps revisit when he is older.

8. Work and Service

Help your child develop a love for work and service. From the time a child is able to walk and talk, he should be given regular chores to perform. We're not talking about just feeding the dog or making his bed. A five-year-old is quite capable of putting the dishes and laundry away. A ten-year-old can prepare simple meals from start to finish. Children of all ages can straighten a house. The mother should never pick up anything off the floor. Your goal should be that by the time a child is in his teens he will be able to take over the running of the household.

Along with work, children should be taught to serve. One way we helped our children learn to serve was by visiting nursing home residents on a regular basis.

It's easy to forget the importance of service, since this "s" word never made it onto the list of the "3R's." While academics such as Reading, Riting, and 'Rithmetic are important, the social skills and character traits children learn while serving others are actually more important for their eventual success.

Academic skills without a servant heart lead to feelings of superiority, which in turn cause other people to distrust and dislike you: the classic "nerd" syndrome. Its cure: combine academic smarts with genuine care and concern for others. As Jesus said, "He who would be greatest among you must be servant of all" (our emphasis).

9. Discipline

Children need parents to discipline them, or they will never learn self-discipline. If the child does not develop self-discipline, he will fail in many things including the academics you are preparing him for.

Ask yourself, "Am I satisfied with the obedience of my children? Do I enjoy being around my children? Do my children honor and respect me?"

If your answer is, "No," to any of these questions, perhaps you should re-evaluate your priorities.

A book we highly recommend is The Mother At Home by John S. C. Abbott (originally published in 1833). You can obtain this book from GRACE & TRUTH BOOKS, 3406 Summit Boulevard, Sand Springs, OK 74063.

10. Play

Give the child plenty of time to explore and play. Don't buy "toy store" toys (they're expensive and are usually forgotten after the newness wears off). Invest in real things. Garage sales and auctions are an unending source for things like sewing machines, small tools for working in the garden, hammers, nails, and things for building, and maybe some wooden blocks and dress-up clothes. Buy tools for exploring (a good microscope, telescope, binoculars, dissecting equipment, basic chemistry equipment, etc.), not toys for adoring. Teach your children how to use them responsibly (safe, neat, and orderly - clean up when you're done), and make them readily available for when your children want to use them.

What! Is that all we recommend for children before age ten? What about math? What about school? Where are the workbooks and textbooks and such? Next time we will discuss ten things to do with children at age ten.


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