You don’t have to be around the Charlotte Mason Community for long before you hear the term “Spreading the Feast.” Often this term is used to describe the program, or the variety of subjects we provide our students through our curriculum choices. The term comes from Charlotte Mason herself, who said:
“We spread an abundant and delicate feast in the programmes and each small guest assimilates what he can. The child of genius and imagination gets greatly more than his duller comrade but all sit down to the same feast and each one gets according to his needs and powers.” (vol 6 pg 183)
Now if you recall from the last post, Charlotte Mason for a Twice-Exceptional Child, Principle #13, of Mason’s 20 Principles, talks about the syllabus for a child and the concept that ideas are food for the mind. In that principle Mason Says:
“(a) He requires much knowledge, for the mind needs sufficient food as much as does the body.
(b) The knowledge should be various, for sameness in mental diet does not create appetite (i.e., curiosity)
(c) Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language, because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form.”
Much has already been said regarding how to set up a curriculum for a “normal” child. Between Ms. Mason’s own words and that of the many bloggers who are out there explaining CM to the world, I really feel as though my voice is not needed in this regard. However, when it comes to a neurodivergent or differently wired child, that is a different case.
I know intellectually that when Ms. Mason uses the words “duller comrade” she is simply using the language of her time, and likewise I will use the language of my time. Advances in Neuroscience over the past 30 years have helped the modern us to have a better understanding of the various differences that reside in large portions of our population, neurologically speaking. These people are not “duller” they are simply different. Their brains work differently, they see the world differently, they process information differently. Different is not better, it is not worse, it is just another way of working.
Now, that said, Ms. Mason was not wrong. We should be Spreading a Feast of Ideas for all children. Each child will process what they can at appropriate levels for themselves. However, not all Children eat the same Feast. Even among the same family, different children will need different amounts of the items offered. Lets continue with that food analogy…
Some children have a high metabolism and need to eat more food more often.
Some children have allergies and cannot eat certain foods at all.
Some children have physical limitations which make the process of eating look more like drinking.
Some children have small appetites and need to eat smaller portions all day long.
Some children have nutritional deficiencies which mean that they need more of some foods in addition to the regular feast.
Do you see where this is going?
When it comes to the process of creating a school program for the differently wired the parents have to be aware of the “nutritional” needs of their child. This does not mean that you water down the message or pre-digest things for your differently wired child. Instead, the speed or medium with which you introduce an idea to a child can fundamentally change how your child approaches the materials. After all it is the idea that is the most important part! It is not the facts or the particulars that provide the substance of the feast, instead “the meat” comes from the wealth of ideas that are introduced and those ideas must stay intact.
Charlotte Mason also says,
“Education is a life; that life is sustained on ideas; ideas are of spiritual origin; and, ‘God has made us so’ that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another. The duty of parents is to sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as they sustain his body with food. The child is an eclectic; he may choose this or that; therefore, in the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thy hand, for thou knowest not which shall prosper, whether this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.
The child has affinities with evil as well as with good; therefore, hedge him about from any chance lodgment of evil ideas.
The initial idea begets subsequent ideas; therefore, take care that children get right primary ideas on the great relations and duties of life.
Every study, every line of thought, has its ‘guiding idea’; therefore, the study of a child makes for living education in proportion as it is quickened by the guiding idea ‘which stands at the head.'” (vol 2 pg 39)
The amazing thing about a Charlotte Mason Education is that it works for any kind of child, neurotypically wired or not. Spreading the Feast does not mean that we must use the same books, the same pictures, or the same stories but rather that we should be offering up ideas in various ways and from various sources. The child is the one that will decide what to eat, it is simply the parents job to “sustain” them with as much as they need, meeting all of their “nutritional” requirements along the way.
In the case of an ADHD child this could mean that your timetables, or schedules look a little different. Do not be afraid to look different. Whether this means morning lessons and afternoon occupations or morning occupations and afternoon lessons based on when your child naturally focuses best. Where some children may be ready to read their lessons independently at 10 while in year 3 or year 4, a child with ADHD may still need the guiding hand of a parent to help keep them focused.
In the case of a child with Dyslexia, there may be a need to continue working with Phonics and Reading Lessons when others in their year have moved on to Grammar. A child may be ready to tackle the ideas of their year even if their abilities to do so independently are not at the same level. Do not feel bad about where they are, but continue spreading out that which the child needs, whether that means that lesson is read aloud by you, the parent, or by an audiobook.
For example, I have a daughter with severe Dyslexia and another with mild Dyslexia. One may be able to read small parts of her lesson books for a short period at a time, while the other is nowhere near ready to even attempt this. Both students have interest levels beyond their abilities and require adaptations to help them pursue the feast before them.
If the child has motor delays, weak hand strength or Dysgraphia that makes Copywork, writing, Painting, Drawing or Handicrafts difficult, then work with your child at their speed. Pushing a child who is not ready to complete a task, because you think they should be ready to complete that task based on the abstract concept of “normal,” will not help your child become ready. Remember it is the Idea and not the product that is important. If a child has these kinds of delays, find alternatives. Typing, multi-sensory approaches and even strength training exercises that help them to become physically ready can be substituted. Or, continue to slowly make progress and point out to your child the growth they’ve made over time. This is also part of Spreading the Feast.
If Handicrafts mean sewing, crocheting or knitting to you, but your child is not ready for that due to motor skills issues, then work on something that they are ready for. Gardening, Canning, Baking, and Pottery are all options that end with a result that is both useful and helps build motor skills that can be useful later in the previously mentioned areas of interest.
The same can be said regarding Nature Journals: the point of these journals are to record observations, not to create beautiful pictures. That is a byproduct. A child who is differently wired may not be able to initially sit and draw what they see, but working with the child to help them recognize the aspects of what they see helps them to understand themselves.
For example, If I’m sitting with my son and asking him to draw something he sees, then most likely I will get a picture of a branch. Two years ago that branch would have been a straight line, regardless of the directionality of the original branch. Last year, It would at least be the same shape. This year, I get leaves. Throughout that same time frame his ability to sit long enough to see the actual branch has also grown. Now he can sit and watch a tree for five to eight minutes, and that is a great growth for us… but we had to build ourselves up to this point. I had to start where he was and work myself to the point where he understood the idea behind the Nature Journal and didn’t just hide the book in frustration.
When it comes to the process of Spreading the Feast, the role of the parent is to put the child in front of the many options while creating an atmosphere for learning and keeping the discipline that will last a lifetime.
For a child who is wired differently putting them in the way of many options may mean that they need more books, or more audio, or more field trips; it may even mean that the books you choose will approach the same ideas but come from another source. A gifted child may jump directly into the original Shakespeare. They may enjoy the retellings but then also demand the real thing. A child with Auditory processing issues may not be able to keep up with or understand Shakespeare if it is read aloud to them, but if they read a living graphic novel that has all of the original language then the story may come alive for them. A student with Autism may not be ok with going to a Shakespeare in the Park event, but may be at home in a theater at a live production; or perhaps would like to watch a well done movie version at home instead. Similarly, a differently wired child may not be able to connect with a history book until after they’ve gone to a reenactment, a historical place, or a museum and once a part of that history has been shown to them, only then will they be able to dive into the world of the lesson book or biography.
Surely, all of these options would work for a neurotypical child as well, which is why this is still Spreading the Feast. All children will greatly benefit from going to a historical place, seeing a live play, or slowly working your way up to seeing the world more accurately for a nature notebook. A well-rounded education for all children comes from using a multi-sensory approach and following the needs of the child you are working with. This is true of every child. The difference, however, is that for a differently wired student other options are already not working or causing great frustration to the point of extreme behavioral issues within the home and/or school. A neurotypical child at a feast whose needs are not being met may begin to say that they hate school or become withdrawn, but an Neurodiverse child will have meltdowns. Their body will physically reject that which is causing the problem and the Atmosphere and Habits you have been working on will cease to be applicable.
The importance of Habits and Atmosphere deserve their own blog posts and I will not go into that here, however, how we spread the feast for our children affects the Atmosphere and backs up the habit training. In a differently wired child the habit training aspect may even be part of the feast because the needs are so great. There have been several years where the habit of attention was the main focus of our lessons, even more so than the ideas I was trying to offer up. The same goes for the habit of perseverance, for some of my children doing the hard work anyway, even after their same age peers had moved on, was excruciating. The idea of that lesson had long ago been accepted theoretically, but the lesson still needed to be included in the feast because of weaknesses in certain areas. However, even if that is the case the Feast as a whole is so important.
It is important because it helps the parent of a child with weaknesses to not focus too long on the weaknesses themselves. Spreading the feast allows differently wired children to show that they are so much more than a diagnosis. They are poets, they are architects, they are artists, they are comedians, they are naturalists… they are whole persons.
It is so easy as a parent to try to focus on helping your child overcome that which is hard for them, or where they are “behind,” or to feel so overwhelmed by the differences between your child and what you read or see regarding where a child of the same age or grade might be, that it becomes hard to see the whole child in front of you. Spreading the feast allows the parent and the child to shift the paradigm. To change the focus to the relationships and not academics. The academics are the byproducts of raising people who have healthy relationships.
Rather than focus on getting caught up, or not getting behind, or not getting too far ahead, instead, focus on how your relationship with that child is developing, and the relationship the child has with the world around them, with the people they know, with the books they love and characters who become friends or the places that inspire them. Allow the child to make the acquisition of knowledge a part of the process of building relationships, at their speed.
It is ok if it takes all year to get through “Paddle to the Sea” instead of one term. Go to a real body of water, even if you cannot make it to the one mentioned in the book, allow your child to make their own relations between the place and the book. Put your child in the way of the possibility, and if the possibility passes, it was still a meaningful trip for them and you. Pick up embroidery, hand sewing or woodworking for a handicraft, and if your child is hyper focused and chooses to craft her own boat then let them but please do not link the handicraft and book for them. (Ms. Mason is very clear about not using unit studies.) Practice Mapmaking using the maps in the book or by learning about the Great Lakes System and if your child’s attention or skills do not hold for both readings and mapmaking then alternate them. Alternatively if “Paddle to the Sea” took less than one term and the child is asking for more information, then by all means, continue the study and go to the library to find more books about whichever aspect of the story sparked that interest. Similarly, if for some reason you are finding that regardless of how often “Paddle to the Sea” is recommended, your child just cannot get into it or the language is still too difficult… then find an alternative completely. The idea behind the book is one of a particular geography taught through a narrative adventure, another option can be found.
Regarding the outdoors, it is no secret that Mason suggested hours upon hours of outdoor time. However, it is alright if your child can only be outside for short periods, or only in certain weather. Starting somewhere is better than never trying at all.
If you need to switch out a book that is being read for Literature because your year 4 isn’t quite there yet in that subject or already read it for fun, then switch it out; there are hundreds of amazing, quality literature options that are living books, you do not need to do the same ones specified on a curriculum list. Do not feel limited by the recommendations that are out there in the CM community that you see recommended for your child’s age over and over again. Sometimes they fit and sometimes they do not.
So the next time you are perusing a curriculum website and you see the lists of books or the timetables that they use to read those books, remember, it is not the book or the timeframe in which it is read that makes the feast… it is the idea that comes from introducing something new that will foster a new relationship between your child and some aspect of our world.
Foster the ideas.
And if you are creating your own curriculum based on CM’s original plans… remember have fun with it! After all, extraordinary children require extraordinary feasts.