Charlotte Mason: education, atmosphere, habit and living ideas

Picture of Charlotte Mason - believed to be in the public domainCharlotte Mason: education, atmosphere, habit and living ideas. Aimee R. Natal examines the life and work of Charlotte Mason (1842-1923) – an extraordinary educator whose thinking looked to the significance of atmosphere, habit and living ideas.

Contents: life · key ideas · education is an atmosphere · the discipline of habit · the presentation of living ideas · references · links 

Charlotte Maria Shaw Mason was born in England on New Year’s Day, 1842, at Bangor, by the sea. Regarding her parents and childhood, she wrote:

“My mother was delicate and required sea air, so it happened I was born in Bangor and that my earliest recollections are associated with the sea. My father, J. H. Mason, was a Liverpool merchant, a ‘dry-salter’…a refined and simple man, very fond of books….I had no brothers and sisters, and both parents were also only children…My parents, who were glad of the occupation educated me (with some lessons from outside), my father taking some subjects, my mother others, at first through the medium of Butter’s Spelling Book, with its long lists and hard spellings, its Aesop’s Fables and Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son.” (Cholmondeley 1960: 1-2).

Charlotte’s mother died when Charlotte was 16. Her father never recovered from this loss and died the following year. Left alone in the world, Charlotte moved in with friends until, at age 18, she moved to London and entered the only teacher training college in England at the time, The Home and Colonial School Society.

The Home and Colonial School Society, established by Elizabeth Mayo and her brother Charles Mayo in 1836, was the first school in England devoted to advancing the methods of Swiss educational reformer Johann Pestalozzi. In 1860, Mason began her 3 year training there and in 1861, the school made a special arrangement and gave her a post as headmistress of one of the first infant schools in the country, The Davison School. After earning her teaching certificate and teaching 3 years in the infant school, Charlotte Mason pioneered a high school for girls at The Davison School, beginning when she was 22. (see photo of her at age 22 on her first visit to Ambleside) She remained there until she was 29, when illness required that she take a long rest.

After a period of travel, the 32 year old Charlotte Mason took a teaching position at Bishop Otter College in Chichester. As Mistress of Method, she lectured prospective women teachers in educational methods, hygeine and physiology. After 4 years in this position, “she had such a serious breakdown that she was obliged to give up teaching” (Cholmondeley 1960: 12). This led to another period of travel abroad, after which Mason began her serious walks in the shires (counties) of England, keeping notes. These notes later became the material for her popular series of geography books, the first being The Forty Shires: Their History, Scenery, Arts and Legends, published in 1880 when she was 38.

Due to its popularity, five more geography books followed, allowing Charlotte Mason to live off the profits and move to Bradford. She frequently visited London, where she had rooms in a ladies’ club and membership in the Philosophical Society, Browning Society and a poetry club where Shakespeare’s plays were read.

In 1885, her vicar asked the 43 year old Charlotte Mason for a donation towards the fund for a new parish room at St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Manningham. Instead of money, Mason offered to give a series of lectures on education. These lectures appeared the next year in a print volume titled Home Education. A year later, an attendee of these lectures, Mrs. Francis Steinthal, was instrumental in helping Mason form an educational society for parents in Bradford, the Parents’ Educational Union (PEU). Mason then sought the counsel of several educational leaders for advice in making the union known to a wider audience. This led to the eventual opening of many PEU branches.

In 1890, Charlotte Mason began a monthly periodical for the PEU, the Parents’ Review, and preparing to open her own training college for women. Two years later, at age 50, the House of Education did open at Springfield, Ambleside, with a class of 21 women students the next year (see photo). Attached to the training college was the Parents’ Union School, where young children (of parent subscribers to Mason’s monthly journal) could attend for free.

The House of Education moved in 1894 to Wordsworth’s niece’s Green Bank Estate in Ambleside, renamed Scale How, and Charlotte Mason continued her work there with the training college, practicing school, Parents’ Review journal, Parents’ National Education Union and home correspondence course until her death on January 16, 1923. She was 81.

Key ideas

In Charlotte Mason’s day in England, the thoughts and ideas of Kant and Descartes, Rousseau and Pestalozzi were all taking part in the sway amongst educators from traditional, formal, classical schooling primarily for boys, towards a universal and more informal education for all children in all classes of society. Also, the women’s liberation movement had begun and women were fighting for higher education for girls and the right to vote.

Miss Mason, being in the rather uncommon position of being independent at age 16 (due to being orphaned), was able to attend a new teacher training college for women, later pioneer her own high school for girls and eventually form her own training school (The House of Education), national educational organization (PNEU) and elementary schools. All of this, for a woman in her time, was especially extraordinary.

Charlotte read widely and was trained in the educational methods of Johann Pestalozzi . Pestalozzi (1712-1778), an ardent follower of Jean-Jaques Rousseau, wanted children to learn using their senses and “things,” not “mere words,” and is responsible for coining the term “object lesson.” From this and other influences, Mason formed her own philosophy of education, spelled out in her 20 articles of education (also known as her child’s Bill of Rights [Cholmondeley 1960: 227]) and in her 6 educational volumes, especially her last, An Essay towards a Philosophy of Education (Mason: 1923).

Her key ideas are as follows:

Education is an atmosphere

Charlotte Mason’s educational article #6 states:

“By the saying, EDUCATION IS AN ATMOPSHERE, it is not meant that a child should be isolated in what may be called a ‘child environment,’ especially adapted and prepared; but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the ‘child’s’ level” (Mason 1923: preface).

Charlotte Mason is referring to a practice that was becoming popular in her time, spearheaded by Friedrich Froebel and his Kindergartens and Maria Montessori and her Children’s Houses, that of making the young child’s school environment one that is scaled down to his size, including the furniture, equipment, and materials. Mason makes clear when she speaks of the atmosphere or environment, that this is not what she has in mind, but is speaking of the child’s home, both who and what is in it, and what effect this plays in the child’s education.

Mason believed a child’s natural home environment to be superior primarily because of the lack of freedom and the artificiality she felt existed in infant schools or kindergartens. Echoing Rousseau, Mason felt too much interference from either persons or things to be detrimental, trampling “spontaneity or personal initiation” on the child’s part (Mason 1886: 190). Rather, Mason believed a child, as much as possible, should be left to Nature, the great Educator. “ is the wisdom of parents to leave children as much as may be to Nature” (Mason 1886: 186). “There are few things sweeter and more precious to the child than playful prattle with her mother; but one thing is better– the communing with the larger Mother, in order to which the child…should be left to themselves” (Mason: 1886: 79). “…our part in the education of children should be thoughtfully subordinated to that played by Nature herself” (Mason 1896: 193).

Charlotte Mason spends a significant amount of her first volume, Home Education, in discussing what type of atmosphere is most conducive to the child’s natural development, thus, his early education. She believed outdoor life to be of utmost importance. “…a mother’s first duty to her children is to secure for them a quiet growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, the waking part of it spent for the most part out in the fresh air” (Mason 1886: 43). Time outdoors, with little to no intervention from an adult, provided what Mason felt were educational necessities: use of the child’s senses, play, learning from “things,” and the opportunity for keen observation of nature.

To sum up this first key idea, the importance of the child’s early “atmosphere of environment,” Mason wrote: object is to show that the chief function of the child- his business in the world during the first six or seven years of life- is to find out all he can, about whatever comes under his notice, by means of his five senses; that he has an insatiable appetite for knowledge got in his way; and that…the endeavor of his parents should be to put him in the way of making acquaintance freely with Nature and natural objects; that, in fact, the intellectual education of the young child should lie in the free exercise of perceptive power..and the wisdom of the educator is to follow the lead of Nature in the evolution of the complete human being (Mason 1886: 96-97).

The Discipline of Habit.

Mason’s article #7 is

“By EDUCATION IS A DISCIPLINE, is meant the discipline of habits formed definitely and thoughtfully, whether habits of mind or body. Physiologists tell us of the adaptation of brain structure to habitual lines of thought- i.e., to our habits” (Mason 1923: preface).

As a good Victorian would, Charlotte Mason believed that while much value lay in the child’s communing with Nature, his own human nature musn’t be left unbridled but tightly reigned in by good habits. Heavily interested in the science of the times, Mason utilized the physiological theory that repeated thoughts leave an impression, or “rut,” upon the physical substance of the brain. She believed undesirable behaviors could be eradicated by replacing the thoughts with those that lead to desirable behaviors, repeated and reinforced until good behavior was habitual.

Evolutionary theory was first introduced during Mason’s lifetime and caused a revolution in thought, especially among the Church. It was common for Anglicans (of which Mason was one) to espouse this theory, which led to a re-evaluation of the Bible, ending in it being deemed errant, fallible and part myth.

Thus the very nature of man was at stake, with the traditional Church teaching of original sin, or the innate sinfulness of man, being challenged and rejected outright. Rather than viewing the child as born into sin, the opposite was propounded, that of the innocence of man at birth. All of this was supported by the belief in evolution as determining the origins of man.

Mason’s #2 article states: “[Children] are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and evil.” Founded upon this belief is Mason’s emphasis on the importance of the formation of good habits, beginning in infancy. Rejecting the doctrine of heredity, she believed that by nature, the children of the working class need not necessarily inherit vicious tendencies, nor those of the educated class virtue, but that “education is stronger than nature” (Mason 1896: 159), and that habit is as ten natures (Mason 1886: 105, and many other places- should I cite them all Mark?).

Accordingly, Charlotte Mason begins with infant discipline in the nursery, giving much direction regarding cleanliness, fresh air, daily bath, orderly playroom, regular bed times, regular meal times, and daily exercise. Once the child walks and talks, he must then be trained in certain manners and behaviors until these become habits. Though never a mother herself, Mason was optimistic about human evolution, the progression of humanity, and believed this notion of discipline of habit to be not only one of the keys to the character of each man, but to our progress as a race.

Presentation of Living Ideas.

Charlotte Mason’s article #8 is:

“In the saying that EDUCATION IS A LIFE, the need of intellectual and moral as well as of physical sustenance is implied. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum” (Mason 1923: preface).

And article #17:

“Therefore children should be taught, as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rests on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of initial ideas. To help them in this choice we should give them principles of conduct and a wide range of the knowledge fitted for them” (Mason 1923: preface).

Borrowing from Plato, whom she acknowledges numerous times, Charlotte Mason believed the proper nourishment for the child’s mind is ideas; not so much knowledge, but knowledge as it relates to ideas. She believed children to be naturally “equipped to deal with ideas” with “a natural appetite for knowledge which is informed with thought” (Mason 1923: 10).

She called this “Desire of Knowledge,” or curiosity, the chief instrument of education. Thus, she found “explanations, questionings, simplifications” and the teacher’s “power of vivid presentation, apt illustration, able summing up and subtle questioning” to be interferences, hindrances, and unnecessary to the child’s education.

Combined with the desire for knowledge, Mason believed children come endowed with an unlimited “perfect power of attention” and that these two things alone are enough to motivate a child to learn. She believed incentives or external motivators such as “marks, prizes, places, rewards, punishments, praise [and] blame” to be detrimental and found no place for them in her schools.

How, then, did she believe living ideas ought to be presented to children? Mason said “the only vital method of education appears to be that children should read worthy books, many worthy books” (Mason 1923: 12). Mason advocated the use of first-hand sources, “living books,” on topics spanning the wide and varied liberal arts curriculum. She believed children should be in direct contact with real books, and read passages or chapters only once and then recount, or narrate, what they have read, either in oral or written form. Narrations were the evaluation tool for the teacher, making worksheets, quizzes and the “custom of giving homework…to be greatly deprecated” (Mason 1886: 147). She also called the “sing-song, talky-talky” of the teacher, and watered down “children’s books,” twaddle, and much favored the child reading and narrating good books for himself, instead.

In conclusion

Charlotte Mason sums up her key ideas in her first volume (pp.177-178) as such:

That the knowledge most valuable to the child is that which he gets with his own eyes and ears and fingers (under direction) in the open air.

That the claims of the schoolroom should not be allowed to encroach on the child’s right to long hours daily for exercise and investigation.

That the child should be taken daily, if possible, to scenes- moor and meadow, park, common, or shore- where he may find new things to examine, and so observation should be directed to flower or boulder, bird or tree; that, in fact, he should be employed in gathering the common information which is the basis for scientific knowledge

That play, vigorous healthful play is, in its turn, fully as important as lessons, as regards both bodily health and brain-power.

That the child, though under supervision, should be left much to himself- both that he may go to work in his own way on the ideas he receives, and also that he may be the more open to natural influences.

That the happiness of the child is the condition of his progress; that his lessons should be joyous, and that occasions of friction in the schoolroom are generally to be deprecated.

And at the end of Charlotte Mason’s life, written in her last volume the year before her death (pp. 18-19):

A child is a person with the spiritual requirements and capabilities of a person.

Knowledge ‘nourishes’ the mind as food nourishes the body.

A child requires knowledge as much as he requires food.

He is furnished with the desire for Knowledge, i.e., Curiosity;

  • with the power to apprehend Knowledge, that is, attention;
  • with powers of mind to deal with Knowledge without aid from without- such as imagination, reflection, judgment;
  • with innate interest in all Knowledge that he needs as a human being;
  • with power to retain and communicate such Knowledge; and to assimilate all that is necessary to him.

He requires that in most cases Knowledge be communicated to him in literary form; and reproduces such Knowledge touched by his own personality; thus his reproduction becomes original.

The natural provision for the appropriation and assimilation of Knowledge is adequate and no stimulus is required; but some moral control is necessary to secure the act of attention;

a child receives this in the certainty that he will be required to recount what he has read.

Children have a right to the best we possess; therefore their lesson books should be, as far as possible, our best books.

They weary of talk, and questions bore them, so that they should be allowed to use their books for themselves; they will ask for such help as they wish for.

They require a great variety of knowledge, – about religion, the humanities, science, art;

Therefore, they should have a wide curriculum, with a definite amount of reading set for each short period of study.

The teacher affords direction, sympathy in studies, a vivifying word here and there, help in making of experiments, etc., as well as the usual teaching in languages, experimental science and mathematics.

Pursued under these conditions, “Studies serve for delight,” and the consciousness of daily progress is exhilarating to both teacher and children.


On Charlotte Mason:

Essex Cholmondeley (1960) The Story of Charlotte Mason 1842 – 1923, London: Dent.

Susan Schaeffer Macauley (1984) For the Children’s Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School, Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books.

Marion Ney (1999) Charlotte Mason, Nottingham: Education Heretics Press. 100 pages.

By Charlotte Mason:
The Original Home Schooling Series: The Classic Reference by the Founder of the Home Schooling Movement (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989) (These volumes were also published by The Scrivener Press, Oxford 1955):

Mason, Charlotte. (1886) Volume 1: Home Education. The education and training of children under nine.

Mason, Charlotte. (1896) Volume 2: Parents and Children. A practical study of educational principles.

Mason, Charlotte. (1904) Volume 3: Home and School Education. The training of education of children over nine.

Mason, Charlotte. (1904) Volume 4: Ourselves, Our Souls and Bodies. Book 1: Self knowledge. Book 2: Self direction.

Mason, Charlotte. (1905)Volume 5: Some Studies in the Formation of Character.

Mason also wrote five volumes of The Ambleside Geography Books (1880-92); six volumes of The Saviour of the World (1908-14) – a study of of the life and teaching of Jesus in verse; and:

Mason, Charlotte. (1923) An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education. (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989) (Also published by The Scrivener Press, Oxford 1955)


St Martin’s College – The House of Education was renamed Charlotte Mason College and later became part of St Martin’s, Lancaster. This page gives some of the history.

Armitt Collection and Library: national centre for Charlotte Mason archives.

Aimee Ruth Natal lives in a western suburb of Chicago with her husband and 2 young children. Her B. A. degree is in education and she is currently working on a graduate degree through Fuller Theological Seminary. She enjoys studying the history of education and researching educational philosophies.

Prepared by Aimee Natal © 2000.