Part 1 in A Series on Classical Education: The Preschool Years

2016-05-13 08.39.10

Today I’m publishing Part 1 in a series on the parts of a Classical Education. But first, let’s review why you want a philosophy at all.

Importance of a Philosophy

I mentioned in my first blog post that our homeschool is classical because we focus on teaching truth, goodness, and beauty through the seven liberal arts. The classical model is the foundation of our education philosophy, so we base our activities on how they build upon it. Knowing your education philosophy is important because there are a lot of activities you could choose to do in your homeschool. A foundation grounds you as an educator and weeds out some of your choices, which helps busy parent-teachers juggling lots of students, a part-time job, a child with special needs, or low-energy mom trying to stay focused.

Let me also interject that the Charlotte Mason style of education falls under the classical model, although she used different words to describe it in her writings. More on that next week. This week, I want to lay out the parts of a classical model of education and discuss the first three that are covered in the preschool years.

The Parts are Sequential

Maybe the classical education philosophy is a new idea for you, so here are all the parts laid out for your benefit. According to authors Ravi Jain and Kevin Clark who wrote The Liberal Arts Tradition, there are six curricular categories of the Classical model (that include the seven liberal arts as sub categories). These six categories act as stair steps by building upon one another for a lifetime of scholarship.

The Six Curricular Categories of Classical Education

  1. Piety
  2. Gymnastic
  3. Music
  4. Seven Liberal Arts
    1. The Trivium
      1. Grammar
      2. Dialectic
      3. Rhetoric
    2. The Quadrivium
      1. Arithmetic
      2. Geometry
      3. Astronomy
      4. Music
  5. Philosophy
  6. Theology

You may be wondering who coined these terms. That would be a joint effort of the ancient Greeks (toga! toga!) and medieval Christians. Jain and Clark have created a handy mnemonic device – PGMAPT – to help us remember Piety, Gymnastic, Music, Liberal Arts, Philosophy, and Theology. Today I’m only going to cover PGM. These are the categories that make up a “preschool” education.

Classically Preschooling – Maybe You Already Are

There’s a lot of categorizing to this whole classical thing, but don’t let it overwhelm you. These are just labels for what most parents are already doing this with their preschoolers, but I think there is value in knowing what you’re doing, why it’s working, and doing it intentionally. Like I said before, knowing your foundation helps you set limits on all the possibilities of activities that can eat up your time and energy in a day. And, since you don’t get a lot of feedback from preschoolers, it’s vital to have something to hang your hat on. Philosophy (and support from seasoned moms) to the rescue!

Step 1: Piety

Going step by step through PGM, the first three categories of curricula, remember that one builds upon the other. The first step, Piety, has to do with shaping our loves – what Charlotte Mason called “ordering our affections” – and includes the love of God and respect for life. This is a concept that most parents teach their preschoolers when they take them to church, tell them to share, instruct them not to hit people, and help them marvel at creation. A Charlotte Mason style of education does a fantastic job emphasizing this first step. Even into the early “elementary” school years (Mason calls this “Form 1”), CM students are instructed to study nature and learn that every person submits to an authority (oh, what a humbling thought!).

Mason’s 20th Principle perhaps summarizes her understanding of piety best (I am using L. Laurio’s paraphrase):

We teach children that all truths are God’s truths, and that secular subjects are just as divine as religious ones. Children don’t go back and forth between two worlds when they focus on God and then their school subjects; there is unity among both because both are of God and, whatever children study or do, God is always with them.

In some cases, I think we help order the affections of our children even before birth. For example, our kids were born St. Louis Cardinals fans. Unless our children just love to rebel some day, there is no reason for them to ever wear a Chicago Cubs jersey. I think we also help children order their affections when we show them by example how to order their days. This gets into habits, which Mason stresses in her 7th Principle. Our kids need to see us turn off the TV, put down the phone, pick up a book, appreciate nature, love our neighbors.

Step 2: Gymnastic

Moving on, let’s talk about Gymnastic, another foundation that is laid during the preschool years. This refers to the training of the body, which doesn’t necessarily mean organized sports, but does include them. The gymnastic category stresses the need for children to run and play and soak up the sun as well as develop the virtue of an athlete (i.e. sportsmanship). Ever notice that young kids love to make up games with elaborate rules? “You have to jump over the lava! This tree is base! I am Luke Skywalker and you are Vader!” This is the beginning of sportsmanship.

Instead of seeing physical education as a separate need, classical education says physical exercise and games actually help the mind develop. Charlotte Mason says the object of athletics and gymnastics is to have a “serviceable body” – one that is prepared to fulfill God’s calling. So, obviously, though this begins at a young age, it extends through our whole lives. Right now my kids are outside swinging on the swingset. I’m tracking my diet on an app and plan to run on my elliptical trainer later today. Tomorrow is a family hike. We’re all keeping our bodies in shape to fulfill our calling – the boys are growing strong and I’m trying to stop falling asleep at 8pm.

A great resource to help get kids moving and playing “recess” games is a book by Dr. David Oatman: Old Favorites, New Fun: PE Activities for Children. It has hundreds of gymnastic, game-like ideas that help with issues like hand-eye coordination, core strength, and team building. I recently attended a conference where Dr. Oatman discussed the benefit of juggling and cup stacking on reading and hand-eye coordination. He’s a wealth of knowledge as well as a homeschool dad.

Step 3: Music

The next category, Music, refers to appreciation of the arts (all of the subjects inspired by The Muses of Greek mythology, such as music, drama, visual art, astronomy, poetry, etc.). Many parents cover this category when they play classical music for their babies or sing them lullabies. We also do this when we take our preschoolers to see The Nutcracker or to visit an art museum. By exposing preschool age children to the arts, we are laying a foundation for imitation (i.e. Music performance) later in life. The key word in this category is appreciation. We’re not asking them to begin violin lessons at age 3 (though I know some kids who have and loved it). We just want our kids to be aware that violins exist and sound beautiful.

In Mason’s Volume 4 titled “Ourselves,” she describes a fictional Country of Mansoul, which is an allegory for a rich and full life. The land is prosperous (fertile soil, full mines, ever-burning hearth), but perhaps more telling are all the opportunities for art appreciation:

… galleries of precious and beautiful pictures painted by the great artists of all countries, statues of the heroes that are had in reverence there, halls with organs of noble tone which can roar like the thunder and babble like a child, and all manner of musical instruments. To these halls great musicians come and play wonderful things that they have made; the people of Mansoul listen, and great thoughts swell in them, and everyone feels as if he could get up and go and be a hero.

This is what we want for our children and ourselves! We want that foundation of art appreciation so that it extends through our entire lives. There is so much ugly to see in this world if we choose to focus on it. I’m not saying we turn a blind eye to those in need, but I think valuing truth, goodness, and beauty is contagious. I’ll just borrow a favorite little quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., to really drive home this idea: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

These first three categories, PGM, are all foundations for classical education that are laid in the preschool years. I know sometimes as a mother of a preschooler, it’s hard to see that all of this is going somewhere. I had three babies in five years – what I lovingly referred to as “baby jail.” There were days I wasn’t sure if we’d ever move on past toilet training and The Wiggles. But, now that two of my kids have arrived to the school age, I see the value of laying that foundation, and all those days of “baby jail” have accumulated into children ready and willing to learn. Next week I’ll discuss the Seven Liberal Arts and beyond.

Until we meet again next Friday, be well.

I’m still reading these:


Moderately challenging books:

Stiff books:

And, many of A8’s Y3 books are showing up in the mail (Thank you, Amazon!) and from my favorite local used bookstore, so pretty soon the pre-reading will begin! Right now I have four different Marco Polo books from the library sitting on my desk. Have to choose one to buy for next year.



4 thoughts on “Part 1 in A Series on Classical Education: The Preschool Years

  1. Castles in the air! Castles in the air! The hard part is building the foundation. Referring to one of my favorite quotes by Thoreau: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

    In other words, thank you so much for your kind reply. I hope to follow through with all this information. 🙂 Sounds like you have, and I tip my hat to you.


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