In thinking about Charlotte Mason and unit studies, I’ve been considering my love of hands-on projects. And I have some insights I want to share.
On the one hand, CM loved living learning — actual exploration and direct observation. She constantly encourages us to get our children outside in nature to see it first hand rather than read about it in a book. Her math instructions include the use of manipulatives to make the abstract concrete. So I feel confident that she would approve of doing science experiments to visually see scientific principles being played out.
But what about making paper Civil War soldiers or a playdough volcano diorama? Are those types of projects part of what CM encouraged?
But for highly visual children, seeing a model can create an image that words from a book sometimes cannot. So I wouldn’t say that making dioramas is totally without value. But if a mom dislikes those kinds of crafts, she shouldn’t feel somehow that she’s an inferior teacher for not doing them. The learning can happen without them.
This is the way I look at hands-on activities.
There is hands-on learning, and there is themed play. I do see a distinct difference between the two. They both have their place, but one is deliberately academic and the other is not.
When a hands-on activity is
- AND contributes to understanding and retention,
then that activity is gets the academic okay. I call it hands-on learning.
For example, putting together the paper model of the Hindenburg did not really add to Sprite’s understanding of hydrogen. That was themed play. There was an actual connection between the Hindenburg and hydrogen, but assembling the papercraft didn’t teach her anything about history or science.
On the other hand, assembling the Platonic solids did teach her quite a bit. In fact, without handling the actual 3D objects, I hardly think I could say that she understood what the five shapes are. In that case, the activity was very much tied to the learning.
So here I am admitting that we do non-academic activities. Why do we use themed play at all?
Firstly, Sprite and I are fairly crafty people, so we truly enjoy themed play. If we didn’t do these things in conjunction with school, we would probably do them as pastimes anyway.
Also, we don’t have a lot of activities such as church, scouts, homeschool co-op, and so on. So we have more time to fill. We choose to do arts and crafts with that time. Doing themed play does help to at least remind Sprite of our homeschool topics.
Lastly, I mix up themed play with hands-on learning in our homeschool time to add variety and boost motivation. But I know that themed play is no substitute for real learning. There is a place for both, and as the teacher, I must be clear about the purpose for each activity. I could fill up our homeschool days with trivial hands-on projects that look impressive but don’t truly teach big concepts. Instead, I choose to sprinkle a few into our otherwise academically rich learning schedule.
Because I can see the distinction between themed play and hands-on learning, it doesn’t bother me to skip projects that are scheduled in our Winter Promise curriculum. Sprite can always do those project on her own time for fun (as themed play). As long as she’s learning the concepts from the books we read, the other activities are not crucial.