The Baby, Toddler, and Preschool Years
We think of reading as the fundamental educational skill, but it's not. Think of what you do as you read. You look at the page, decode what is written there, and turn the encoded sounds and numbers into words and images in your mind. So the fundamental educational skill is actually looking. That's what a small child has to learn first.
Luckily, this isn't something you have to teach. The first few years of life are all about learning how to use one's senses. You don't even have to set up sensory experiences. Check a good parenting book for an explanation of how well children are able to avoid and get themselves out of trouble at each age and stage, remove any hazards from their path, and just let them explore. But baby-proofing the house isn't everything. Charlotte Mason pointed out that having an indoor environment to explore is a relatively recent innovation; for most of human existence, we have only had an indoors big enough to sleep and store some stuff in, with cooking space where the climate required it, an area set aside for making things and, if we were lucky, some space to sit down and socialize. A young child's proper environment, she said, is outdoors--and not a well-groomed garden or park, but a space where a kid can run around, poke at things, and get muddy while exercising their senses. Of course, Mason lived in the mild, pest-free climate of the South of England and had an excellent light rail system to depend on. It may be harder for you to get out with your kids. Still, any outdoor messing-around time you can work into the day will be a good thing.
Babies prefer to stay close, of course, but toddlers have wider horizons. At first, a toddler's explorations are an ellipse with you at one pole and something interesting at the other. The ellipse will widen gradually, until at some point the child will take off, coming back occasionally to show you something interesting. This is when focused education can begin. Gently suggest to your children that they go to a particular place--a bush, or puddle, or what have you--and look at it for a while, then come back to tell you what they saw. You can do this once or twice per outing. Occasionally get up and wander over to the same place to point out something they missed. This is practice in retention, or being able to remember what one sees--which is the foundation of reading comprehension.
This memory game can continue into the preschool years. People talk a lot about the importance of early reading, but you have to remember that reading means looking very hard at small objects for a long time and making a lot of tiny movements of your eyes. This can lead to eyestrain, even impaired vision. So don't push actual reading.
I should note here that some preschoolers take to reading like ducks to water; they practically teach themselves. Precocious children should be allowed to read on their own for a limited time per day, preferably in large type, to save their eyes. For the rest, it's more important to be read to than to read. Read-aloud books should also be limited. Mason, remember, emphasized learning from real things in the real world. So keep read-alouds to one or two picture books or illustrated poems per day. Always pre-read a book that's new to you. Be prepared for a small child to fall in love with one or two particular books, and want to hear them over and over. Eventually they may "read" (recite) them to you!
The following is a partial list of free public domain picture books available for download. But first, some important notes.Modern Parents: Yes, They Used That Word
Public domain books are old enough that the meanings of some words have changed drastically. In particular, breast
were used to refer to anyone's chest, gay
used to mean cheerful or brightly colored, queer
meant odd or strange, a cock
was a male bird, and a pussy
was a kitty-cat. As for assorted slurs against people who were considered to be lesser beings, I have tried to stick to books that leave them out. Unfortunately I may have missed something. Keep this in mind every time you see a booklist at MNHK.Modern Parents: Yes, They Used That Picture
It was considered completely ordinary to illustrate children's books with nearly or completely naked people of both genders and all ages. Our modern culture regards a woman's breast as a sexual thing at all times and circulates horrified whispers about child molestation if somebody publishes a picture of a baby's bottom. Our ancestors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were prudish about other things, but not these.White Parents: American Public Domain Books Are Really Darn White!
This is how it worked in America, and still works:
*Systematically deny anybody who isn't white the ability to accumulate wealth and influence--although some people will always be lucky or stubborn enough to climb above the machinery.
*Write books that define America as white people doing things, with nonwhite people put in for comic relief or as enemies, long-ago vanished folks, or interesting objects--when they appear at all.
*Put these books into the hands of children--not just white children, who are thereby taught to dismiss everyone else, but nonwhite children too, who are thereby taught that they don't matter.
This system is breaking down, partly because it's easier to publish a book in the online age, partly because of decades of social struggle. Ask your librarian for a list of good books that present all of the American experience, not just the white part, so that your children will be able to see the whole. Check the covers of children's books at the thrift store for nonwhite faces. Just putting in pictures of nonwhite children existing in the same communities as white children, in other words, showing real life as it is,
can do a lot. The same goes for acknowledging the existence of people who don't form nuclear families made up of a man, a woman, and a small number of genetically related children.
When looking for public domain books that give a truer picture of the human panorama, you will unfortunately have to be wary of anything that is presented as being from another culture. It was considered perfectly all right for a white American or Englishman to assume a nonwhite name, write in a dialect they did not speak, and pretend to be from somewhere else--as if somebody else's entire life were just a kind of paper mask that could be borrowed and played with! White editors also felt free to call the nonwhite storytellers whose works they collected childish, simple, etc., when the truth was most likely that they had been seen through immediately and nobody would talk to them like adults. Also note the pervasive habit of blending stories from hundreds of entirely separate tribes into a bland mass called "Indian," and from thousands of chiefdoms and kingdoms as "African." So be warned, and preread if at all possible.All Parents: Stay Safe!
Anybody can scan anything and turn it into an ebook. That doesn't mean that they have benevolent motives. Remember, a clickable link might be anything. Don't go to sites that offer illegal downloads of copyrighted materials, and don't download public domain ebooks from sites with suspicious-looking URLs. A URL should clearly describe the site's purpose and the site itself should include a clear explanation of what is available and who made it available. Here is a list of sites that I have found to be safe.Special Note:
I have provided all URLs in the clear, so to speak, instead of making book titles and site names into clickable links. I have noticed that some browsers won't show you the URL behind a link if you hover your mouse pointer over it without clicking. That allows for all kinds of shenanigans. Always be sure that you know exactly what you are clicking on before you do!
The Online Books Page (onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu)
Not an archive, but a directory. It is organized like a library catalog using the Library of Congress system. It is incomplete, but includes a page of links to ebook archives of all kinds. Most of the archives listed below appear there. I picked out the ones that include the best textbooks and literature.
Google Book Search (https://books.google.com
Offers "free Google ebooks" (PDFs) of many different titles. However, using some advanced features requires giving Google your personal information. Also, the search results turn up absolutely everything that mentions your search words no matter how irrelevant, and just keep going after that, until you end up looking at phishing sites after the first few screens.
The Internet Archive (archive.org)
A mind-bogglingly huge site with any digital record you can imagine and probably some you can't, available in more languages than pretty much anywhere else. Unfortunately, it isn't very well organized; unless you have a lot of exact details about the item you are looking for, you probably won't find it. On the other hand, this side offers the most options for document type of any site I have found, and it also has some surprisingly recent titles. If you will be relying on PDFs, go here first.
Just Free Books (www.justfreebooks.info)
Not an archive, but a search engine that looks for--well, guess what. It lists the available formats right in the results. If you already know the title and author and need a different format, this site might be helpful.
A non-profit foundation based at Rice University, OpenStax provides free, up-to-date textbooks for high school and college courses, plus online courseware if your device and download limit can handle it. You can use the textbooks online, download them, or order them in print.
Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org)
The oldest and best organized archive of public domain books, with a broad range of subjects in many languages. Most of the Gutenberg titles I use are children's fiction and verse, but there is a lot more to choose from. How I Picked Titles
I stuck to books that can be downloaded as books--that is, in formats designed for ebook readers, or preferably as PDFs. If I couldn't see exact images of the original paper pages online, without blurring or washouts, I didn't select the book, although I relaxed this a bit for textbooks that had been converted to paragraphs of plain type. I also tried to avoid fiction that Charlotte Mason would have called twaddle, that is, books that make adults roll their eyes, sigh in boredom, or wince. (This holds true for books for all ages.)
The art is generally realistic or at least not cutesy or deliberately childish.Some Picture Books
Project Gutenberg has a list of downloadable picture books here: http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Children%27s_Picture_Books_(Bookshelf
) If you aren't sure what to read, try the Volland Mother Goose
, A Child's Garden of Verses
by Robert Louis Stevenson, and pretty much anything by Beatrix Potter.
Here's a collection from the Internet Archive.Nursery Rhymes and Other Very Short Works for Little Folks
(From China--no words at all; let your child tell you
the story) Le Xiaoying's Cartoons for Children: https://archive.org/details/LeXiaoyingsCartoonsForChildren
A Mother Goose
book by David Whitney: https://archive.org/details/WorldFamousNurseryRhymesVolume2
"Hey Diddle Diddle" and "Baby Bunting" by Randolph Caldecott: https://archive.org/details/Heydiddlediddle00Cald
"This Little Pig" by Walter Crane: https://archive.org/details/thislittlepighi00cran
"1, 2, Buckle My Shoe" by Walter Crane: https://archive.org/details/12bucklemyshoe00Cran
"Old Mother Hubbard," also by Walter Crane: https://archive.org/details/OldMotherHubbar00Mart
(From China) Scarecrow Guarding Melons
by Li Songying: https://archive.org/details/ScarecrowGuardingMelons
(Also from China--an interesting look into life in another part of the world) Four Seasons of the Year
by Tang Lufeng and Chen Huilian: https://archive.org/details/FourSeasonsOfTheYear
(Another one from China) Baby Animals and Their Mothers
by Jiang Yiming: https://archive.org/details/BabyAnimalsAndTheirMothersMore Complicated Picture Books for Slightly Longer Attention SpansShihan and the Snail
, a fairy tale retold by Jiang Zhenli: https://archive.org/details/ShinahAndTheSnailMy Dog Is Lost
by Ezra Jack Keats: https://archive.org/details/MyDogIsLost
(And one from India!) Grandma's Glasses
by Noni and Tanaya Vas: https://archive.org/details/GrandmasGlassesAmeliaranne and the Green Umbrella
by Constance Heward: https://archive.org/details/ameliarannegreen00hewa_0The Poky Little Puppy
by Janette Sebring Lowrey: https://archive.org/details/PokyLittlePuppy_201607The Rocket Book
by Peter Newell: https://archive.org/details/rocketbook00newe
(Good for slightly older children who like to ask what words mean and hear the answers. A penny-liner is a writer.)Little Red Riding Hood
by Walter Crane: https://archive.org/details/LittleRedRiding00Cran
(He created a lot of fairy tale picture books, but most of them are too wordy for a little kid.)The Pied Piper of Hamelin
by Robert Browning, illustrated by Kate Greenaway: https://archive.org/details/piedpiperofhamelbrown
(This is long, but the story and the poetry hold a child's attention.)
The next step for non-precocious kids is letter recognition. Start with big letters that your child encounters as you go about your daily lives. Just note what the letters are and pass on; they'll pick it up. One of my children happily chanted "S-T-O-P!" at every stop sign. In the same way, you can teach E-X-I-T and O-P-E-N. Encourage your child to pick out letters they already know in signs they haven't memorized, such as the O in CLOSED. A set of alphabet blocks, especially the type that are carved, or refrigerator letters (if everybody in the house is past the age of swallowing magnets!) will help them really get the knowledge into their fingers.
Sing your ABCs if you need to time something short, like soaping and rinsing hands. Make or find an alphabet poster and put it up where your child can see it easily. Every few days, when the child looks interested, sing the song together while you point to the letters. (If you can't sing, chant or rap it.) Small steps will sooner or later lead to memorizing the entire alphabet.
For a summary of reading readiness advice from Charlotte Mason, see Part 2.