(on Charlotte Mason, sensory integration, and things seen at the dentist’s office…)
Recently, during our biannual exposure to children’s television at the pediatric dentist, I saw a commercial that’s stuck with me. As I recall, the commercial introduces us to four-year-old Antonio, who is running around playing happily. We then meet his mother, a former kindergarten teacher who laments how difficult it is to get her son to take any interest in learning. We see little Antonio slumped despondently over a stack of sight-word flashcards — but then, enter an online educational program, designed to make learning fun. The commercial ends with Antonio and his mother sitting together at the computer, smiling and engaged, clicking through a brightly animated lesson labelled “social studies.”
Well, it’s just a commercial, obviously, but it’s also a voice in a larger cultural conversation, indicative of the pressures placed on mothers and small children to pursue early academics. The fact that a four-year-old isn’t interested in flash cards is a Problem That Needs to Be Addressed. The assumption seems to be that the sooner children begin academic work, the better their academic future will be. But in fact, the active play Antonio was enjoying at the beginning of the commercial was probably the best thing he could have been doing for his academic skills.
To understand this, it’s helpful to dig in to the field of sensory integration and sensory processing dysfunction. Sensory integration is the brain’s ability to receive and process the information streaming in from our sensory systems. This is a large percentage of the brain’s work, as it must constantly monitor and evaluate which of the sensory signals it is receiving are useful and which can be muted.
The brain learns to do this by encountering a wide variety of sensory information beginning in infancy, and the more practice it gets, the more efficiently it works. For a child whose sensory processing ability is underdeveloped or impaired, physical reality can feel like a distracting, frustrating riddle. Since sensory integration enables a child to form the habit of attention, it’s especially important for Charlotte Mason educators to understand and honor its development.
We typically think of the five familiar senses of vision, hearing, taste, touch, and smell, but there are at least two more. One is the vestibular sense, located in the inner ear, which signals to the brain the position and movement of the head relative to the earth’s surface. When we are dizzy, our vestibular sense has become confused from conflicting input. We also have a proprioceptive sense, which conveys information from our muscles and joints. The proprioceptive sense enables us to gauge how much muscular effort and which movements of our joints will be required to pick up a cup of water.
The vestibular and proprioceptive senses are unconscious but foundational, affecting our ability to balance, sit upright and still, hold a pencil, climb stairs, and much more. These senses develop through active physical play, and the desire for such play indicates a need that should be met. But because we are less aware of the importance of the proprioceptive and vestibular senses, much of what gets called ‘sensory play’ is a bit misguided, not to mention unnecessarily elaborate. For most children, sitting at a table messing with brightly colored and scented rice isn’t as valuable a sensory experience as simply climbing up and jumping off a tree stump repeatedly, or digging in a sand pit. Unfortunately, that won’t get re-pinned on Pinterest, but any good occupational therapist knows that such gross motor skills are the real foundation of fine motor skills.
For most children, sensory integration develops more or less as it should. However, a child’s experiences can enhance or suppress it. In Growing an In-Sync Child, Carol Kranowitz explains
how maneuvering a stroller can prepare a child for handwriting, how splashing through a puddle can improve attention, and how walking across a tree trunk can enhance vision… Unfortunately, many parents and educators believe that the earlier a child learns to read and write, the better off he will be. To that end, they provide video and computer programs, paper and pencil games, and other sedentary tasks, hoping to develop the child’s academic skills. Parents and teachers may not understand that, for the young child, a walk along the river is a much more developmentally and academically appropriate use of the child’s time.
Though Charlotte Mason lived before these concepts became known, it’s clear she observed them at work. In School Education, she mentions that among the fields of knowledge with which a child should form relationships, there are also
what I may call dynamic relations to be established. He must stand and walk and run and jump with ease and grace. He must skate and swim and ride and drive, dance and row and sail a boat. He should be able to make free with his mother earth and to do whatever the principle of gravitation will allow. This is an elemental relationship for the lack of which nothing compensates. (pp. 79-80)
Or consider this passage from Home Education:
And this is the process the child should continue for the first few years of his life. Now is the storing time which should be spent in laying up images of things familiar… By-and-by he will be called upon to reflect, understand, reason; what material will he have, unless he has a magazine of facts to go upon? (pp. 65-66).
What Charlotte offers here is a layman’s description of the development of sensory integration. It is all common sense, in fact; perhaps the only surprise is that this process is at work not just for the first few months but for the first few years of a child’s life. Hence the importance of Charlotte’s “quiet growing time,” the “storing time,” with formal academic work waiting until age six, a practice validated by sensory integration specialists. As Kranowitz writes,
the end products of sensory integration are academic skills (including abstract thought and reasoning), complex motor skills, regulation of attention, organization of behavior, specialization of each side of the body and the brain, visualization, self-esteem, and self-control. (emphasis mine)
This developmental phase can’t be short-circuited or rushed. Pushing academic skills before their time may simply result in the development of “splinter skills” that provide scanty benefit to the child’s holistic development. Charlotte Mason educators often speak of “delaying formal academics” until a child is ready. Understanding sensory integration helps us understand the why behind this philosophy — and in fact, with this understanding, it seems less like “delaying academics” and more like providing children with the developmental foundation necessary for academics. This knowledge should bring us peace where our culture creates undue pressure.
Now, if only I could pass these thoughts along to Antonio’s conscientious mother so she could relax a little, confident that he is learning exactly what he needs without flashcards or computer programs. And yes, kind reader, it is possible that I’ve become a bit too invested in our fictional little friend, Antonio. May he be liberated, may he splash through many puddles, may he forget all about those flashcards.