Early Science Lessons the Charlotte Mason Way

Charlotte Mason Education in the younger years.

Most people who have heard anything about Charlotte Mason and science know that nature study is largely the focus in the early years- and this is definitely true.  Much has been written about this.

But just as narration, while inherently a part of a Charlotte Mason Education,  is not the only way to use books, there is more to the early science studies than birds, bugs, and flowers (although let me stress again that these are absolutely vital to a CM education, indeed, to any well rounded education).  But there is also something more.

In Charlotte Mason’s Home Education, the book she wrote for educating children 9 and under, she presents the work of a village schoolteacher named Mr. Dawes as a good example for science teaching in the younger grades. I’ll quote from that in a moment.

The Right Reverend Dawes was a bit more than a local school schoolmaster. Later he would serve as Dean of Hereford until his death.  His work as a ‘village schoolmaster’ occurred when he served as Rector at King’s Somborne, Hampshire, where he established and taught in the first and only school in the parish.  He developed many educational ideas not commonly  found in schools at the time, and he put into practice his somewhat radical (for the time) views on education and the poor (such as charging his students on a sliding scale, and permitting parents to exempt their children from teaching on the catechism if their own consciences forbade it).

One Mr. Moseley in the minutes of the Committee of Council on Education 1847 described the parish at Kings Somborne as:

 “parish thoroughly demoralized by the operation of the old Poor Law… I have reason to believe that there was no parish in the surrounding district which stood in respect to the character of its inhabitants so low. The wages of a labourer vary from 65 to 9s a week. There is no person resident in the place above the condition of the farmer except the rector.” 

Reverend Dawes’ work at the school gained renown, as he accomplished things with his rural students in a backwards area that nobody expected of them.

In the field of sciences, his goal was to teach:

“…what may be called the philosophy of common things of everyday life. They were shown how much there is that is interesting, and which it is advantageous for them to know, in connection with the natural objects with which they are familiar; they had explained to them, and were made acquainted with, the principles of a variety of natural phenomena, as well as the principles and construction of various instruments of a useful
kind. A practical turn was given to everything the uses and fruits of the knowledge they were acquiring were never lost sight of.”

“Some of the properties of air, explaining how its pressure enables them to pump up water, to amuse themselves with squirts and popguns, to suck up water through a straw; explaining also the principles and construction of a barometer, the common pump, the diving-bell, a pair of bellows. That air expands by heat, shown by placing a half-blown bladder near the fire, when the wrinkles disappear. Why the chimney-smoke sometimes rises easily in the air, sometimes not; why there is a draught up the chimney, and under the door, and towards the fire. Air as a vehicle of sound, and why the flash of a distant gun fired is seen before the report is heard; how to calculate the distance of a thunderstorm; the difference in the speeds at which different materials conduct sound. Water and its properties, its solid, fluid, and vaporous state; why water-pipes are burst by frost; why ice forms and floats on the surface of ponds, and not at the bottom; why the kettle-lid jumps up when the water is boiling on the fire; the uses to which the power of steam is applied; the gradual evolution of the steam-engine, shown by models and diagrams; how their clothes are dried, and why they feel cold sitting in damp clothes; why a damp bed is so dangerous; why one body floats in water, and another sinks; the different densities of sea and fresh water; why, on going into the school on a cold morning, they sometimes see a quantity of water on the glass, and why on the inside and not on the outside; why, on a frosty day, their breath is visible as vapour; the substances water holds in solution, and how their drinking water is affected by the kind of soil through which it has passed. Dew, its value, and the conditions necessary for its formation; placing equal portions of dry wool on gravel, glass, and the grass, and weighing them the next morning. Heat and its properties; how it is that the blacksmith can fit iron hoops so firmly on the wheels of carts and barrows; what precautions have to be taken in laying the iron rails of railways and in building iron bridges, etc.; what materials are good, and what bad, conductors of heat; why at the same temperature some feel colder to our touch than others; why a glass sometimes breaks when hot water is poured into it, and whether thick or thin glass would be more liable to crack; why water can be made to boil in a paper kettle or an eggshell without its being burned. The metals, their sources, properties, and uses; mode of separating from the ores. Light and its properties, illustrated by prisms, etc; adaptation of the eye; causes of long and short-sightedness. The mechanical principles of the tools more commonly used, the spade, the plough, the axe, the lever, etc.”

“It may surprise some who read carefully the above list that such subjects should have been taught to the children of a rural elementary school. But it is an undeniable fact that they were taught in Kings Somborne School, and so successfully that the children were both interested and benefited by the teaching. Mr. Dawes, in answer to the objection that such subjects are above the comprehension of the young, said:––

‘The distinguishing mark of Nature’s laws is their extreme simplicity. It may doubtless require intellect of a high order to make the discovery of these laws; yet, once evolved, they are within the capacity of a child,––in short, the principles of natural philosophy are the principles of common sense, and if taught in a simple and common-sense way, they will be speedily understood and eagerly attended to by children; and it will be found that with pupils of even from ten to twelve years of age much may be done towards forming habits of observation and inquiry.’ Such a fact, I think, suggests some valuable practical lessons for those who have the responsibility of deciding what subjects to include in an educational system for children.”

Charlotte Mason acknowledged that in reading about the late Dean Dawes, a parent’s first impression would be an urgent desire to hire somebody just like him to tutor our own children, and of course, that is beyond most of us.  Public schools are sometimes fortunate enough to find such a person to teach their science courses, but just as often fail.

If we can’t hire (or be) like Richard Dawes, she encourages us to recognize that there is value first in being aware of the sorts of things they should know.  The list above is helpful as a starting hint, but not so much as a list of things to teach our own kiddies.  The *why* here is important- common things, familiar things, things in every day life, things it useful for them to know.  Some of the things listed above are still applicable, but many of them are no longer common or part of every day life- not many of our children have an open fire in the middle of their homes as the only source for fuel, for heat, for cooking.  There is little call for or opportunity to observe iron hoops on carts or barrows.

Miss Mason had a couple of recommendations- both out of print (one was out of print when she suggested it) and now out of date as well.  However, she does give us another big of guidance which still applies today:

“…nothing should be done without its due experiment. “

While there are many fun little books, websites, and television shows which may explain the sorts of everyday things and how they work, the children need to work things out themselves, in the round, so to speak.  A Charlotte Mason education is largely literature based, but it’s not only literature based.

I found a little biography of Dean Dawes online, and I think this paragraph describing his aims is very useful (the picture at the top of this post is taken from this statement):

More advanced pupils were initiated in the elementary truths of the physical sciences, especially in such as bore directly on the practical business of life… all illustrated as far as was practicable by simple and impressive experiments. In short, it was the grand object of Mr Dawes to rouse into activity the slumbering faculties of children, to teach them to observe for themselves the objects of common daily life, and to inspire them with an intelligent and thoughtful curiosity.

When my children were younger, this is what we used in the early years to accomplish the same goal:

how things work kit How things work kit friction 1 how things work kit friction 2 how things work kit friction 3


It was a box of cards, 34 of them, with a few items that you might need to complete some of the activities.  It’s called How Things Work, part of a Adventures in Science collection by Educational Insights.

They do have new versions (I’ve had mine for at least 20 years), but in looking at the catalog, I don’t know that I like them as well. Part of that is a crotchety old “I dislike change” attitude.  But partly that is because some of those changes aren’t an improvement- there seems to be less emphasis on doing and more on reading and writing.  The reading and writing is appropriate in the later years, but for early years, children should be spending a lot of time actually doing things, not just reading about them, or, anathema, watching somebody else do things on an electronic screen.

The thing that impressed me with these simple little cards with their cartoon sketches in black and white is that the focus was on the doing, not the pictures, not the telling. The children thought about them, and later applied what they had done to their free play.

Learning is a powerful thing, and sometimes a little dangerous- it was during the weeks we were going through the cards on force and motion (pendulums, pulleys, levers, block and tackle) that our sixth child convinced our seventh to allow her to hoist him up into a tree using a rope and a branch as an improvised pulley to see it if it really was easier for her to lift him that way.

It was.


More in this series at The Common Room Blog

Air Pressure, and Charlotte Mason Science in the early years

Air Pressure: Lawn Mowers and Straws

Air Pressure, suction cups, juice cans, and water glasses upside down

Air pressure: eye droppers, canning jars, sea of air, more

syringes, squirt guns, turkey basters

Show that an empty bottle is not truly empty



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