Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Formidable List of Attainments for a Child of Six–For Five-Year-Olds or Six-Year-Olds?

[This post at the moment is something of a rough draft.  I welcome your comments as I revise it.]

"A Formidable List of Attainments for a Child of Six" is described as a reprint of a curriculum outline from a CM school in the 1890′s; it was printed in the Summer 1993 Parents Review published by Karen Andreola.  Here is the list:

"To recite, beautifully, six easy poems and hymns.

To recite, perfectly and beautifully, a parable and a psalm.

To add and subtract numbers up to ten, with dominoes or counters.

To read-what, and how much, will depend on what we are told of the child; children vary much in their power of reading.

To copy in print-hand from a book.

To know the points of the compass with relation to their own home, where the sun rises and sets, and the way the wind blows.

To describe the boundaries of their own home.

To describe any lake, river, pond, island within easy reach.

To tell quite accurately (however shortly) Three stories from Bible history, three from early English, and three from early Roman history.

To be able to describe three walks and three views.

To mount in a scrapbook a dozen common wildflowers, with leaves (one every week) ;to name these, describe them in their own words, and say where they found them.

To do the same with the leaves and flowers of six forest trees.

To know six birds, by song, color and shape.

To send in certain Kindergarten or other handiwork, as directed.

To tell three stories about their own "pets"-rabbit, dog, or cat.

To name twenty common objects in French and say a dozen little sentences.

To sing one hymn, one French song, and one English song.

To keep a caterpillar, and tell the life-story of a butterfly from his own observations.

A formidable list of attainments for a child of five or six, but it is nearly all play-work, and to be done out-of-doors. The "sit-still" work should not occupy more than an hour and a half daily, and the time-table will show how all can be done, little by little, by day-by-day efforts. Our aim is to gather up the fragments of the child’s desultory knowledge, so that nothing is lost. "

Because the original article is apparently not available online and I am unwilling to pay $20 to purchase the issue in which it appeared, this is all the information I have available about this list.  Many of us who are educating children below the age of six using Charlotte Mason’s principles have wrestled with exactly how and when this list should be applied. The six volumes Charlotte Mason wrote do not deal with the ages before six except in bits and pieces.  Even Volume 1 focuses primarily on children ages six to nine, although sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly what age child is being referred to.  

Although this list comes from a PNEU school, we should not assume that it represents the official recommendation from Charlotte Mason for what should be done with children below the age of six.  It’s important to note that the Formidable List of Attainments does not appear in any of Charlotte Mason’s volumes, although she has another similar list for older children at the end of Volume 3.  What does Charlotte Mason actually say about what children should be doing before the age of six?  

She considers the first six years to be vitally important.  On p. 2 and 3 of Volume 1:
"We are waking up to our duties and in proportion as mothers become more highly educated and efficient, they will doubtless feel the more strongly that the education of their children during the first six years of life is an undertaking hardly to be entrusted to any hands but their own. And they will take it up as their profession–that is, with the diligence, regularity, and punctuality which men bestow on their professional labours."

But what did she want during those first six years?  From p. 43 of Volume 1:
"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."

From p. 96-97:
"The consideration of out-of-door life, in developing a method of education, comes second in order; because my object is to show that the chief function of the child–his business in the world during the first six or seven years of his life–is to find out all he can, about whatever comes under his notice, by means of his five senses; that he has an insatiable appetite for knowledge got in this way; and that, therefore, the endeavour of his parents should be to put him in the way of making acquaintance freely with Nature and natural objects; that, in fact, the intellectual education of the young child should lie in the free exercise of perceptive power, because the first stages of mental effort are marked by the extreme activity of this power; and the wisdom of the educator is to follow the lead of Nature in the evolution of the complete human being."

From p. 179-180:
"But it is possible that the child’s marvellous power of obtaining knowledge by means of his senses may be undervalued; that the field may be too circumscribed; and that, during the first six or seven years in which he might have become intimately acquainted with the properties and history of every natural object within his reach, he has obtained, exact ideas, it is true–can distinguish a rhomboid from a pentagon, a primary from a secondary colour, has learned to see so truly that he can copy what he sees in folded paper or woven straw,–but this at the expense of much of that real knowledge of the external world which at no time of his life will he be so fitted to acquire. Therefore, while the exact nicely graduated training of the Kindergarten may be of value, the mother will endeavour to give it by the way, and will by no means let it stand for that wider training of the senses, to secure which for her children is a primary duty."

She wants us to train the children in habits of the will, of the mind, of the body.  She wants us to let the children alone as much as we can, while still watching over them.  She wants us to give them as much outdoor time as possible and to guide them toward developing powerful habits of attention during that outdoor time.

She definitely implies in some places and states in others that *some* academic work is going on in the first six years–learning to write (because on p.54 she mentions a child of five or six possibly making notes in his own nature journal), learning the alphabet and at least some pre-reading and possibly even full-blown reading (see section IV of Volume 1 Part V), learning to paint (again mentioned on p.54), learning to keep himself clean (p.127). But she says that this work should be the choice of the child at this age (pp. 193-194):
"A child will have taught himself to paint, paste, cut paper, knit, weave, hammer and saw, make lovely things in clay and sand, build castles with his bricks; possibly, too, will have taught himself to read, write, and do sums, besides acquiring no end of knowledge and notions about the world he lives in, by the time he is six or seven. What I contend for is that he shall do these things because he chooses (provided that the standard of perfection in his small works be kept before him)."

On page 11 of the preface to Volume 1 she says:
"This period of a child’s life between his sixth and his ninth year should be used to lay the basis of a liberal education, and of the habit of reading for instruction."
She doesn’t say that we should start laying the basis for that liberal education at age five or four or earlier but at age six.  On p.12 of the preface, she specifically states that the material in Part V of Volume 1 applies to children between the ages of six and nine.  In regards to memorizing, she did not recommend we begin until at least age six.  In Volume 1 on p. 226:
"Let the child lie fallow till he is six, and then, in this matter of memorising, as in others, attempt only a little, and let the poems the child learns be simple and within the range of his own thought and imagination."
Also, on p.231 (and again on p.232) of Volume 1 she specifically mentions that a child should not be asked to narrate until age six, which means that the items on the list that ask for the child to tell accurately about a story would be inappropriate at this age (although the child could certainly hear the stories at an earlier age).  And on p. 253 she says that Bible memory work should begin at age six or seven, which means that the parable and psalm should not be begun before then if we are following her recommendations.  She suggests in that same volume that art instruction and drawing lessons begin at age six.  In Volume 5 (beginning on p. 215), she says that children under the age of six don’t need to be read to but should just be told a dozen or so really great stories over and over.

Formal lessons would not begin before age six according to Volume 1, where on p.193 (and in other places) she says formal lessons should begin at age six or seven:
"At six or seven, definite lessons should begin, and these need not be watered down or served with jam for the acute intelligences that will in this way be brought to bear on them."

Also, all the parts of Volume 1 that talk about formal lessons (or at least the ones I’ve looked at as I searched through just now) speak of beginning at age six or seven or of undertaking the lessons during the ages from six to nine.  In a couple of places age five is mentioned, but that’s not the usual pattern.

If you are familiar with the passages in Volume 1 that deal with kindergarten, there’s a strong tone of caution about too much structured activity before formal lessons begin at age six or seven.  (That age is the one specified by CM on p.193:
"At six or seven, definite lessons should begin, and these need not be watered down or served with jam for the acute intelligences that will in this way be brought to bear on them.")  In fact, the whole concept of kindergarten and the necessity for it is questioned by CM in those sections. She talks at length about the kindergarten and why it isn’t necessarily a positive (even though the kindergarten she was describing was a beautiful experience).  (I should add that she find some positives in that kindergarten experience, but in the end she emphasizes that the benefits of masterly inactivity–which is what the mother does, not the child–and the outdoors experiences children get by spending hours outside every day far surpass the results of the organized academic work they get in even the best kindergarten situation.  *Note: that’s my very quick summary of her notes on kindergarten.  Please feel free to disagree with them and present quotes to clarify her actual points.)

Charlotte Mason did not intend for children under the age of six to be free to play all day with no parental direction or instruction.  She gives us definite guidelines for the type of gentle instruction we should weave into our children’s days.  She strongly urges us toward diligent formation of habits, both habits of character and habits of mind and body–those habits will provide excellent preparation for formal academics.  However, the entire Formidable List of Attainments, as written, cannot be achieved before the age of six while still adhering to CM’s recommendations.  It may be that this list was in fact an outline of goals for a PNEU kindergarten.  That does not mean that it is in line with CM’s recommendations.  In 1903, after the Formidable List of Attainments was published, Charlotte Mason wrote "A P.N.E.U. Manifesto", and in it she specified:
"Children may not enter under six. We think the first six years of life are wanted for physical growth and the self-education children carry on with little ordered aid."


  1. This was great. Thanks for all the detail, & linking to CM works. It was very informative. This is my first year homeschooling my 6yo son who has Autism/SPD. I'm using a mix of Montessori, CM, & unschooling to best handle his special needs. I'm your newest follower now.

    Believing Unbeliever

  2. That you. Excellent research. I have posted about this list myself and I loved your deeper investigations.

    This list is tacked up and I glance at it daily on the board. I feel it can surely be "attained" in keeping with Charlotte's method; yet not as a check off list, but a gentle and wonderful guide as to where to begin. We moms seem to cry out for such lists. We want guidance. I personally love to share this listing and contrast it with a quite different one of today's modern school.

    For example, when they tell us about the walk to the pond, or when they are able to sing the hymn that we sang together many times, or talk about their pet...they are doing a natural form of narration. Poems we say to them at bedtime "attempting only a little"(226), French words we mention to them on a nature walk, or through hearing a storybook in English and French on audio...these are simplistic lessons tucked within their days of free growing time. They "become intimately acquainted with the properties and history of every natural object within his reach." (179) This is not formal learning, yet it is certainly not watered down. We lay these lovely things out before them; and they begin to teach themselves "to paint, paste, cut paper, knit, weave, hammer and saw, make lovely things in clay and sand, build castles with his bricks; possibly, too, will have taught himself to read, write, and do sums, besides acquiring no end of knowledge and notions about the world he lives in" and "he does these things because he chooses"(193-94). We notice that "some academic work in going on"(54),but the academics are not in textbook form; for that would usurp the method, I think.

  3. Kathy, Thank you for the time you spent on this. I have this list up in my home too. I have a daughter aged 5 and a half. I get stuck sometimes wondering about it, and this really brings it all together beautifully. My dd will turn 6 this summer, and I actually expect that by the end of next school year we will have met the attainments. Because our modern day world rushes people towards everything... Especially girls, I am ever so grateful to give her another year of exploration, play, and gentle guidance & natural world instruction. She will be fully 7 before we leap into year 1, and that feels right and good to me.
    thanks again!

  4. Danae, I hope you'll look into what a rigorous application of CM's principles might do for your son. Have you seen Tammy Glaser's blog? Do go visit there.

  5. Thank you for the post, Kathy. I've had two go through Year 0 now. The first I lined out a schedule to follow fitting in the Formidable list of Attainments. The seond I have not tried to accomplish the list on purpose. But we've probably gotten to most of the list naturally. I very much like the natural way better! :-). Your post gives a good idea of what to do with the younger years. I appreciate your investigation.

  6. Pam's thoughts mirror my own on the subject! Kathy, I think you are right in that we don't have formal lessons with children under six... this point needs emphasizing. :) But I do think that while applying CM principles this list provides an EXCELLENT guide or framework to begin working toward by the proposed age of six... they are doing all these things all along in a natural/perhaps mostly unstructured sort of way (as Pam mentioned) and at age 6 then, the checklist gives an example of what they will already be "able" to do. :)

    amy in peru

  7. I think in some areas you are right, Amy, but in at least one area (memorization) CM explicitly said that even gentle, almost unconscious work must be avoided strenuously until at least age 6. "But, let me again say, every effort of the kind, however unconscious, means wear and tear of brain substance. Let the child lie fallow till he is six, and then, in this matter of memorising, as in others, attempt only a little, and let the poems the child learns be simple and within the range of his own thought and imagination." Vol. 1 p. 226

    1. Hi Kathy,

      In regards to memorization then - we recite memory work and a couple little poems from Robert Louis Stevenson or A.A. Milne as well as simple prayers (along the same lines - 3 or 4 lines a piece) as part of our morning circle time. Basically I read each of our memory selections interspersed between our Bible Reading, catechism etc. There is no demand that the children recite them (although I don't move on to a new one until they can)but inevitably they want to recite with me. Are you saying that even this is too much for my 3 & 5 year olds? How would I avoid it strenuously while still providing a gentle way of memorizing for my 6, 9 & 11 year olds?

    2. What CM is saying is that little brains, before approximately the age of 6 (and current neuroscience supports this), have important work to do. When we give those little brains extra work to do, we get in the way of the more important, God-designed work they are supposed to be doing.

      I doubt that your circle time is seriously interfering with the brain development of your little ones, but I wouldn't require them to learn the passages before moving on until they are old enough for formal school. That's just me, though.

      Are your older ones learning age-appropriate poems and passages at other times of the day?

    3. Well, they are exposed to age-appropriate poems and passages as they read their poetry for the AO week each day and they read a chapter of the Bible themselves for their devotion time in the morning (I have an assigned reading list for devotions at this point), but I am not requiring them to memorize any poems or passages at this point. We also sing hymns and folk songs together during circle time.

      For our circle time I alternate songs & readings with memory work and the readings I try to alternate between older and younger appropriateness (if that makes sense :) We are just starting to memorize from "Our World Belongs to God" which I received when I was taking catechism classes in middle school and I do think that is age appropriate for them. I find it hard to balance everyone :)

      Thanks for your input Kathy!


  8. kathy, can you help me understand what to do? my four year old son is very intelligent...if we worked for two weeks on the formidable list of 6 year olds, he'd be able to do the entire list. i've been thinking about starting him (homeschool) in either kindergarten or first grade (he is currently learning to read). i just discovered the CM method tonight. in your article here, you are agreeing with CM that children under age 6 should have no 'education' by school should all be out-doors and your opinion, does this apply to ALL children...i'm just wondering if i would be hindering my son from learning at his level if i did Not start him till age 6. what do you think?

  9. Also, why shouldn't we read books to our young ones? I understand that being out doors is the best way to gain knowledge...but my children LOVE to be read to...what is the damage?

  10. Melodie, you are not hindering your son by working with him on the types of activities CM recommended for the under-six years. A gifted child can learn tremendous amounts by those out of door guided explorations as well as play with letters (which will move into gentle reading lessons as soon as he is ready, naturally) and play with number concepts, etc.

    I highly recommend you read the book "Endangered Minds," which is not a CM-affiliated book but happens to explain the neurological research that supports CM's recommendations. Children at that young age really do need the types of exploratory learning that she recommended rather than the structured learning we push so heavily in our culture. It's still learning, but a different type of learning that fits their neurological stage.

    Reading books is fine, but telling stories stimulates the brain in a completely different way that has beneficial neurological effects. We have replaced telling stories with reading books, and we have lost significant benefits. Telling the same story over and over, with the inevitable changes each time, is good for developing minds. Also, telling stories forms a bond between listener and teller that reading stories does not. Again, "Endangered Minds" explains the neuroscience supporting this (even though the book has nothing to do with Charlotte Mason).

    It is true that some very advanced youngsters need to have some structured learning at an earlier age, but these kids are much rarer than most of us like to think. :-) Generally, you'll know because they will push you for the structure, hard and persistently.

    I'd recommend you visit the AO forum, specifically the area for Year 0 (preschool and K) to see what all you *should* be doing (it's more than we think when we say "out-doors and etc") and then request membership to the private Gifted area to explore how you might need to stimulate your ds in additional ways. Lots of moms in those areas are or have been in your shoes and can offer wise advice!
    (The forum is down right now, probably because of heavy traffic, but hopefully will be up by morning.)

    1. Thank you SO much for your info and tips! As a new-to-homeschooling mom, I greatly appreciate your time in answering my questions!