What I’ve Learned about ‘Curriculum’ and the Charlotte Mason Philosophy (and my thoughts on *gulp* Ambleside…)

When I first started trying to wrap my mind around Charlotte Mason’s philosophies of home education, I was incredibly overwhelmed.  There just seemed to be so much to take in, to understand, to work towards.

But more than 5 years in, and I now see more clearly – yes, Charlotte’s philosophies are profound – but her ways?  They are actually quite simple and incredibly gentle.

Charlotte’s methods were never meant to overwhelm Mothers.  Quite the opposite, in fact – in their truest form, they are a breath of fresh air.   So freeing and liberating to embrace!

I’ve really learned quite a bit about embracing a Charlotte Mason education.  I’ve made many, many mistakes (and continue to do so…) and I’ve watched many other Moms both succeed and struggle.

It’s a bit of a touchy subject, but I wanted to comment on something I feel is quite important.  Especially in the social media, web-based world we now live in…  

Many well-meaning Charlotte Mason home schooling Moms quickly recommend using  Ambleside Online to ‘do’ Charlotte Mason.  I felt the same way – like if I really wanted to embrace Charlotte’s ways and reap the benefits – I had to use Ambleside.  I have no idea why this idea prevails, but in many (MANY) circles, it does.

But it just isn’t true, my friends.  Stick with me here, I promise, I’m not throwing online tomatoes at Ambleside (I actually love the site for many reasons, which I’ll get to in a minute…)!  BUT –

It is very, very easy to get lost in a sea of massive book lists and strictly outlined ‘curriculum’.   It can (and just might) steal your joy and your child’s joy if the curriculum or booklists aren’t the right fit.  This is how I know…

Here’s how it went with me:

Visit Ambleside Online.

Stare blankly for way too long, trying to wrap my mind around what I’m even looking at.

Realize about an hour later how absolutely incredible this site is and what a RESOURCE!

Do a happy dance that now, my Charlotte Mason education is all figured out!  I just follow this recipe right here!

Spend two weeks consumed with printing out all the required readings and schedules for Year 1, 2 and 3 (which is where I thought my kids fit).

Spend even more time and money trying to acquire all the books.

Become obsessed with downloading free Kindle books onto the iPad.  (Don’t even get yourself started…)

Line everything up just perfectly and wait for the first day.

Then, the first week passes and…

Pretty much everything falls to pieces.

There are WAY too many readings for us to keep up with.

I am trying to cover three separate time periods with three very different children.  (I honestly have no idea how you Ambleside Mamas do this… it is CRAZY!)

My eldest dislikes almost all his books (and he’s a prolific reader).

My middle child has no natural interest in any (ANY) of the history topics, which form the spine of the program.

My youngest is in the clouds dreaming of Lego and how to achieve better blasting sound effects.

And I become incredibly discouraged.  

I think to myself, well…  I should really follow these specific outlines and read these books… (which in some cases, were way too hard for our children, irrelevant to our geographical area and interests, or just plain strange to me) because, well, this is what all those Charlotte Mason people recommend.

Ladies – I’m not sure how Ambleside Online became the go-to for Charlotte Mason educators, but it truly is only a potential resource.  (One of many, many potential resources out there!)

The wonderful ladies who put together Ambleside Online even state it themselves – the site is merely a resource and not a recipe for a successful Charlotte Mason education.

There are parts of Ambleside Online that really work for us.

A few parts.  Specific books truly clicked with our family,  grabbing suggestions for poet studies and picture studies, and looking through and using suggested titles is very helpful.

But, I’ll be honest, there is a whole lot that does’t work for our family.  And for a while, I really let that get to me.

And I’ve also watched so many Moms struggle in the same ways.  I’ve read numerous comments like this: ‘My child really didn’t like this book, but we trudged through anyways…’.  Or other comments like this: ‘I really don’t like to content of (insert book name), but we read it anyways, since it was on the schedule’.  And what about: ‘My son doesn’t like that author at all, but he knows he has to read it – its part of school, and that’s that.’

I’m not judging anyone, sweet friends… but when I read stuff like that, I just feel sad and confused.  And I just don’t understand – why are we pushing books that go against our own personal convictions or don’t work for our children?  

If a living book isn’t ‘living’ for your child, then what Charlotte wanted for us is lost.  That wonderful connection – that interest-based, self-induced, excited learning process… where does it go when we force a book (or several books!) on our kids just because they are on a list or in a curriculum?

But that’s the thing with ‘boxed’ curriculum.  Whether it is actually delivered to your front door in a physical box, or it is ‘boxed’ for us on a website, it is still, well, ‘boxed’.  (Meaning that someone has put it all together ahead of time and we are using that put-together curriculum with our children.)

Most curriculum is created by Moms just like you and I.

Moms who found something that really worked for their children and wanted to share their success in hopes of encouraging and helping other families.  (Which is great!)  But we can’t forget that what works for one family won’t always work for another.  What books appeal to one child might not appeal at all to another child, after all, as Charlotte said:

Children are born persons.

Yep, they are their own little person (or big person!).  Us Moms know that better than anyone!

I’m convinced the way to find immeasurable success with Charlotte Mason’s philosophy is this –  embrace the very heart of the method, rather than getting stuck on any particular book list or curriculum.

(Which, again, is what the ladies at Ambleside Online preach!)

Now, as a very important side-note, I want to openly state that many (MANY!) families have enjoyed success using book lists and curriculum like the stuff found on Ambleside and various other book-based curriculums (Sonlight, Heart of Dakota, etc.).  We are among those families (we have used Simple Charlotte Mason, Sonlight, Heart of Dakota, Five in a Row… and had tremendous success!).

I have seen the benefits of these lists and suggested studies over and over.

Sometimes, the books and rhythms click with the children and there is a great connection, a spark – that living education is found through a certain ‘curriculum’.

But – I’ve also talked to so many Moms who get incredibly discouraged when a booklist and time-lined curriculum just isn’t working in their home.  They figure, because the suggested curriculum for ‘Charlotte Mason’ isn’t working, then it’s the philosophy that’s the problem.

The philosophy itself is not the problem.  Rather, it is the understanding of and the application of the philosophy that can be flawed.

So what does Charlotte Mason say about learning through Living Literature and Whole Books?

One of the key fundamentals of the Charlotte Mason philosophy is the use of Living Books in the home.  These are books that are written by a single author who shares his or her passion for a given topic with the reader.  This can be done through non-fiction or fiction (especially in the area of history).  These books inspire children to think, dream, learn, and explore.  They are captivating, well-written pieces of literature where the learning goes right from page to heart.

Some examples of beautiful living books we’ve read this year are: The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White, Backyard Birds by Robert Bateman, A Secret Garden by Frances Burnett, and The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Here’s a quote from Charlotte:

“Therefore… we endeavour that he shall have relations of pleasure and intimacy established with as many as possible of the interests proper to him; not learning a slight or incomplete smattering about this or that subject, but plunging into vital knowledge, with a great field before him which in all his life he will not be able to explore…”

Did you catch it?

We are to encourage and inspire our children to have relations of pleasure and intimacy with as many interests as possible (the feast of ideas) but it ought to be proper to him.  Yes, proper to that particular child at that particular time.

This means learning alongside our children in the areas where God has gifted them and given them an interest.  It doesn’t mean there won’t be topics our children don’t enjoy as much as others – but there is certainly a benefit to focusing on that which he or she DOES enjoy!
The whole idea of Charlotte’s philosophy on living books is we use books that inspire our children to grow in character, knowledge and passions.  So, what books we use is up to us as parents!  There are literally millions of fantastic living books available today.  We get many of our books from the library and have collected several shelves worth of beautiful classics and whole books for our family to read any time we choose.  Many of these books are found on Charlotte Mason booklists, because the booklists are in many ways fantastic!

But, here’s the catch – I’ve learned to use sites like Ambleside and sites that include Charlotte Mason booklists as a tool.  I don’t get discouraged or stuck on them if a book isn’t working for us.  

Any resource available is just that, an additional resource.  It is a tool in your homeschooling tool belt.  But it is not the belt itself.

When we get stuck on book lists and curriculums, especially for Charlotte Mason, we stifle much of the freedom of this beautiful philosophy.  We can lose sight of the very point of reading wonderful books – because we are stuck on reading the specific books listed on a given list for a given grade level.
So, this post is to encourage you – embrace the books and timelines that work for your family and your children.  Don’t get too lost in the sea of Charlotte Mason Curriculum for specific age categories and seasons if they aren’t working for you.  Your child is unique and your family will travel a unique road.
Sure, if you want to – log onto Ambleside Online and similar sites and enjoy the wonderful lists of living books for suggested reading.  Glean from them some great suggestions for books to read, but don’t be discouraged if some of the books don’t work for your children or don’t fit your needs or personal philosophies!

Even choose to invest in wonderful boxed curriculums that you believe will work for your kids and let’s pray they do!  (Again, for living book-centered, Charlotte Mason-friendly curriculum, I have really loved Five in a Row, Sonlight, Heart of Dakota).


Leave room for the Spirit of God to move in your home and lead you to the right topics, the right books, and the right areas of study for your specific children.  The Lord has given them gifts and talents all their own!

Recognizing a Living Book –

Here is an interesting thought from Karen Andreola, which she writes in her book, A Charlotte Mason Companion.
“The One-Page Test:

Here is another way to recognize a living book.  First examine the book to see if it promotes noble thoughts rather than a jaded or misleading outlook on life.  If the book captures your interest it very well may capture that of your children’s.  Once you have determined its general suitability, simply give the book – whether fiction or non-fiction – the one-page test.  Start reading it aloud to your children and look for signs that it is opening the doors of their minds.  Stop at the end of the first or second page.  You will know you have found a living book if you hear them plead, ‘Read me more!'”

I truly hope this is helpful!


  • E

    I've found that I didn't like 'boxed' curriculum either. We tried one for our first 9 months of homeschool (we've just begun year 2), and I kept feeling like I *had* to do the work that was listed for each day. Eventually I got to the point where I felt confident enough to say,'let's skip this', but I still didn't feel confident (as a new homeschooler, that felt that we'd miss something if we didn't do what they covered) to just skip a lesson that wasn't engaging at all. I still find it hard to decide whether to push on through with a topic that I think the kids should know about vs letting it drop if they just have no interest. I've sort of begun just doing a super-short lesson on it, just so they've HEARD of the topic, rather than skip it entirely. Anyway, now I make up my own plans, and we adjust based on interest. Of course, math and grammar, we push through, I don't want to miss any concepts, but everything else, is fluid and changeable. I get a lot of living book options from the library and some work with my son, some do not, so I don't require him to finish them.

    • Cassandra

      I agree completely with you. The whole concept of this "FEAST of IDEAS" that Charlotte Mason gives us is applicable. We want to present our kids with as many interesting topics as possible, but we will not study every one of them in depth. For example, we have been studying birds as great length for nearly a year now and our children are incredibly knowledgable about birds of all kinds (especially chickens!) and yet, there are hundreds of other topics in "science" that we haven't touched. But, how much do the care about birds? A WHOLE LOT! They are passionate! So, I think that's a motivation too… let's make our kids passionate about what they DO know… not just complacent about a multitude of topics… πŸ™‚ Love this!

  • Anonymous

    Wow! Great post, thank you! My children are still little (5 and 2) but I am mentally compiling a book list to work from in the future. We have listened to a bunch of great books in the car (The Secret Garden, Matilda) but I am always looking for other titles. I love that you say to think of the book list as a tool. I have to remember that it's okay if we don't get to read *everything*.

    • Cassandra

      Thank you for your comment. It's so great that your children are young and you're planning. I felt like I didn't really get into the idea of really researching my own book ideas and such until the kids were older. We love audio books too!!! We absolutely LOVED the Little House series on audio book as well as the Ramona series read by Stockard Channing. Fabulous!

  • Unknown

    Hi Cassandra. Carla here. πŸ™‚ I agree with everything you've said. I do use Ambleside and I do truly love it. It's a framework for me, like a map. I need that or I would be stressed out! I'm not tied to it though. I mix things up and do different things for each child as God leads. And I'm always so amazed at the connections we come across through our school readings and just other things in life. Also, my kids do like it. They do enjoy the history, maybe because I do as well. And that is the beauty of being individuals and homeschoolers. πŸ™‚

  • Unknown

    Hi Cassandra. Carla here. πŸ™‚ I think you know that we use Ambleside, and I do truly love it. It's a framework for me, a map. If I didn't have that to go by I would be stressed out! But I'm not tied to it. I switch it up and do different things for each child as God leads. I'm always amazed by connections in things we've read to other things we come across in our life. It works for us. And my kids do like the history, I do as well. And that is the beauty of being individuals and homeschooling. πŸ™‚

    • Cassandra

      Hi Carla! πŸ™‚ I know families who use and love Ambleside (hence why I was careful in writing this post!!) But I think you hit it right on when you said, "it's a map… I'm not tied to it". That's exactly what I'm meaning here. For me, I got tied. And I've heard of so many other Moms who can feel trapped by reading lists and get REALLY discouraged when they don't work for their kids, as if something is wrong with their children or their ability to teach. My heart is just to express that these lists are just suggestions given by other Moms… so they can surely be used as a springboard, a starting place, an inspiration, or a map, as you suggested – but if that map starts to lead us astray or into frustration, then it is okay to change things up and do your own thing and still stay within the idea of Charlotte's philosophies… make sense? πŸ˜€ I totally understand, and I do use Ambleside for suggestions on certain books and art/music ideas, etc… and have recommended it in the past lots of times!! Blessings!!! πŸ˜€

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