Today’s topic is not something that Charlotte Mason and Comenius share exclusively, but is rather one of those things they hold in common with some of the most ancient educators. The physical health and well-being of a person play a role in preparing a person to think, learn, and behave well. The ancient Greeks gave gymnastics a prominent role in their educational process, to prepare their pupils in every way for future heroic deeds, should they be called for. Charlotte Mason appreciated the point, and folded that idea into her educational methods.
The object of athletics and gymnastics should be kept steadily to the front; enjoyment is good by the way, but is not the end; the end is the preparation of a body, available from crown to toe, for whatever behest ‘the gods’ may lay upon us. It is a curious thing that we, in the full light of Revelation, have a less idea of vocation and of preparation for that vocation than had nations of the Old World with their ‘few, faint and feeble’ rays of illumination as to the meaning and purpose of life. (School Education, p. 102)
Truly, for many years, the physical well-being of the learner was not much considered, but after the Renaissance, thoughtful educators made a point of including it in their ideas. Comenius, too:
This same body is not only intended to be the dwelling-place of the reasoning soul, but also to be its instrument, without which it could hear nothing, see nothing, say nothing, conduct no business, and could not even think. (The Great Didactic, p. 258)
Both proper food and exercise were not too mundane to be a part of his admonitions.
In order that good health may be preserved, it is necessary that nourishment be not only moderate in quantity, but also simply in quality.…Parents should therefore take care not to spoil their boys, particularly those who study or ought to study, by giving them dainties. (The Great Didactic, p. 259-60)
Charlotte Mason goes into even greater detail about the proper (and improper) diet for children.
Everybody knows that children should not eat pastry, or pork, or fried meats, or cheese, or rich, highly-flavoured food of any description; that pepper, mustard, and vinegar, sauces and spices, should be forbidden, with new bread, rich cakes and jams, like plum or gooseberry, in which the leathery coat of the fruit is preserved. (Home Education, p. 26)
One of the practical points that arises from considering the well-being of the body, even during the hours devoted to learning, is a balanced schedule. A teacher who is trying to make sure children have the best chance to learn will make sure that their bodies and brains are rested and exercised between lessons. It was Comenius’s recommendation:
It is…useful to intersperse the labours of the day with recreation, amusements, games, merriment, music, and such-like diversions, and thus to refresh the inner and the outer senses. (The Great Didactic, p. 260)
We see then that a large portion of the good organization of schools consists of the proper division of work and of rest, and depends on the disposition of studies, intervals to relieve the strain, and recreation. (The Great Didactic, p. 261)
Modern science as Charlotte Mason knew it confirmed these basic ideas, and gave her additional confidence to recommend much the same thing:
Just as important is it that the brain should have due rest; that is, should rest and work alternately. (Home Education, p. 22)
This much is certain, and is very important to the educator: the brain, or some portion of the brain, becomes exhausted when any given function has been exercised too long. The child has been doing sums for some time, and is getting unaccountably stupid: take away his slate and let him read history, and you find his wits fresh again. Imagination, which has had no part in the sums, is called into play by the history lesson, and the child brings a lively unexhausted power to his new work. School time-tables are usually drawn up with a view to give the brain of the child variety of work. (Home Education, p.24)
One of the interesting points for us today is that even the newest research confirms that learning is optimal only under certain physical conditions. At the AmblesideOnline conference earlier this year, Lynn Bruce spoke on this topic, among other things, and delighted us by showing us how many of the riches included in a Charlotte Mason education, such as art and composer studies and nature walks, reduce cortisol (stress hormone) levels and restore a healthier physical condition for learning.
These educators of long ago might not have had access to all the latest research we do, but their own observations and experiences set them on the healthiest path just the same. It is interesting to see how the basic principle “a healthy body is the best tool for learning” resulted in similar practical applications at different times.
Add some physical activity to your day, and take care to alternate the type of lessons/activities you do, so that your students have a chance to refresh their minds and bodies. It seems more like common sense than a lofty educational ideal, but I think the smartest and most effective teachers remember that these little things add to the atmosphere of the learning environment and the well-being of their pupils, and that makes them important enough to include in educational discussions.