Education is an Atmosphere (Relationship with the World)

Education is an Atmosphere (Relationship with the World)

Episode #19 | Education is an Atmosphere (Relationship with the World)

“When we say that ‘education is an atmosphere,’ we do not mean 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.”

In this episode I continue discussing the big idea of “education is an atmosphere” — specifically how children form a relationship with the world around them and why hands-on, real life learning is far superior to the artificial environment of the classroom.

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A couple of years ago, I read a BBC article explaining that cardiology students were failing to understand how a heart worked because they had never used or constructed a basic pump. Around the same time, I read an article about the NASA engineers that worked on the first space missions in the 1960s. These engineers would soon retire and NASA wanted the best-of-the-best to replace them. They picked the highest scoring graduates from the most prestigious schools in the world, but these new engineers just weren’t living up to the high standards set by the previous engineers; problems were not solved and new ideas were not birthed. These engineers were the top of their class; they were geniuses. So, what why wasn’t NASA seeing the same innovations with these brilliant men and women? NASA began investigating the lives and of the original scientists and engineers – everything from which schools they went to, which subjects they studied, and how they spent their childhoods. 

What they found was so simple it surprised them. Their childhoods were different. Most of the retired engineers grew up on farms and helped repair broken equipment. Most were allowed to take apart appliances and electronics, and expected to put them back together. It was the act of putting them back together (problem solving, creative thinking) that nurtured their engineering mind. I shared this story on Instagram and a woman replied telling the story of her dad, who was an engineer for NASA. She said he drove his mother crazy creating all kinds of contraptions and inventions out of household items, and he loved taking appliances apart to see how they worked. 

Unfortunately, most children do not have that opportunity today. They are too busy memorizing formulas, completing worksheets, and following instructions for specially prepared activity kits. Video games, subscription boxes, and other prepared activities do not nurture the same problem solving skills and creativity as playing with things that have no solution or answer key. Real life problems–ones that have no clear solution, no instructions—are what nurture a creative and innovative mind. Those specially prepared science experiments and engineering projects where everything goes as planned may ignite your child’s curiosity, but attempting to figure out why an experiment did not go right will ignite their creativity and problem solving skills. 

Interestingly,  Americans, on average, are actually becoming more intelligent with each generation. The high-scoring college students are a testament of that fact. And while this should be cause for great celebration, it is not;prestigious universities and companies have a plethora of high-scoring, intelligent applicants to choose from, but these organizations are desperately looking for something more valuable to innovation that is becoming increasingly difficult to find: creativity.  

While intelligence scores are going up with each generation, creativity scores are going down. “Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary discovered this  after analyzing almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults. Kim found creativity scores had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward. ‘It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,’ Kim says. It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is ‘most serious.’” (source)

Too often parents, teachers, and school administrators are focused on what can be tested and measured, putting way too much emphasis on abstract concepts and skills. 

When your child takes apart an old clock and attempts to put it back together, that is engineering. When your three year old sorts his M&Ms by color, that is math. When your child wants to see what will happen when they leave out the baking powder in muffins, that is chemistry. Sure, you can tell them what will happen, or watch a video. But if a picture is worth a thousand words, then real experience is worth a million. So much more can be learned from experiencing it with all five senses. Real, concrete, tangible things are far superior to descriptions, pictures, or videos. And real life problems are much more educational than artificial ones. 

Is This Real-Life?

Artificial learning environments are not only dumbing our children down, they are draining the enjoyment out of education. Let’s just be honest: most American students are bored at school, especially boys. The creativity and effort they exert to get out of their lessons is  impressive. But, instead of pulling out bribes and coercion techniques, we should be asking ourselves why school is not maintaining their interest. Why are children so disinterested in their lessons? 

Just like adults, children’s questions and desire to learn originate from real-life experiences. Artificial learning environments and busywork are what is damaging our child’s desire to learn. They want to help solve real problems,  be engaged in meaningful work, and practice skills in real situations. Elaborate curriculum where everything is laid out for the child, all connections made, and all projects planned, is not real life. This is not teaching your child to be self-reliant. You are not teaching them to be life-long learners. It is not how humans naturally learn. 

Think about it: How do you learn as an adult? 

First, You encounter a problem that piques your interest and induces you to ask a question. 

Second; you read about it, you research it, and or experiment to find a solution or answer. 

Third, If you find a solution to a problem, you engage yourself in a project to improve or invent something new; you apply what you’ve learned and maybe share with others. 

Creating an atmosphere of learning in your hom e involves you being an active, self-reliant learner. It involves you creating a scaffold for your children to grow within (weekly schedule, or time table), allowing them the freedom to follow their interests, pick their books, and organize their own projects based on real-life problems. 

Genuine learning is not something that is done to us or is extensively planned out and scheduled for a certain time of day; it is something we are constantly doing every moment of our lives. The most important change you can make in the atmosphere of your home is to be an example of life-long learning and inviting your children to be a part of the real world.

Real education, like conversion to the  gospel of Jesus Christ, isn’t simply learning about something, but becoming someone. We don’t want our kids to just memorize historical facts or scientific formulas; we want them to become historians and scientists. As Charlotte Mason said 

“Our aim in Education is to give a Full Life.––We begin to see what we want. Children make large demands upon us. We owe it to them to initiate an immense number of interests. Thou hast set my feet in a large room; should be the glad cry of every intelligent soul. Life should be all living, and not merely a tedious passing of time; not all doing or all feeling or all thinking––the strain would be too great––but, all living; that is to say, we should be in touch wherever we go, whatever we hear, whatever we see, with some manner of vital interest. We cannot give the children these interests; we prefer that they should never say they have learned botany or conchology, geology or astronomy. The question is not,––how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education––but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?”

-Charlotte Mason, (Vol. 3, p. 170-171)

“In the long-run, the people who succeed are the ones who want to live the lifestyle that precedes the results. Stop asking, “What results do I want to have?” Start asking, “What lifestyle do I want to live?” It’s common to want results. It’s rare to want the lifestyle.” (James Clear)

  1. Be curious and ask questions.
  2. Seek answers from books, people, and your own experiments.
  3. Narrate and record what you learn.
  4. Finally, apply what you’ve learned to real-life situations. 


“We older people, partly because of our mature intellect, partly because of our defective education, get most of our knowledge through the medium of words. We set the child to learn in the same way, and find him dull and slow. Why? Because it is only with a few words in common use that he associates a definite meaning; all the rest are no more to him than the vocables of a foreign tongue. But set him face to face with a thing, and he is twenty times as quick as you are in knowing all about it; knowledge of things flies to the mind of a child as steel filings to magnet. And, pari passu with his knowledge of things, his vocabulary grows; for it is a law of the mind that what we know, we struggle to express. This fact accounts for many of the apparently aimless questions of children; they are in quest, not of knowledge, but of words to express the knowledge they have.” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 67-68)

The human brain learns abstract concepts by first becoming familiar with a concept concretely. This requires the use of things–a very specific and scientific term 😏. By things, Mason meant anything that can be experienced by the five senses. For example, a child must count objects and physically divide them (concrete) before they can understand how division works on paper (abstract). They must be exposed to words concretely, through copywork and word study, before they can compose their own essays. They must be familiar with dropping things from high places, constructing pumps, and cooking food before they will understand the formulas in physics, mechanics, and chemistry. 

For example: virtual puzzles on the iPad are a popular “learning” activity for young children. But what are children really learning from this activity? When they attempt to fit two pieces together that don’t fit, a beep sounds and the pieces fly back to the corner. The child learns that one piece cannot go there, but doesn’t understand why. On the other hand, if the child is working with a real puzzle they may try to force two pieces together but their hands will feel the incompatibility. If the child can force the two to fit, he will continue fitting pieces together until he realizes that it doesn’t look right. The colors and patterns don’t look like the picture on the box. So he must take it apart and figure out where he went wrong. This is the benefit of working with real things versus abstract or virtual “things.” 

The greatest engineers and inventors of all time did not have perfectly prepared STEM lessons and subscription boxes. They learned from living real life,  fixing real problems, and working with real things. 

 “This all sounds good in theory, but does working with real things really make a difference?” Well, let’s look at the research:

A meta-analysis of 15 years of research on the advantages of hands-on learning, including 57 studies of 13,000 students in 1,000 classrooms, demonstrated that students in activity-based programs (programs that use “things”)  performed up to 20% higher than groups using traditional or textbook approaches. The greatest gains occurred in creativity, attitude, perception, and logic (Bredderman, 1982). The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) also known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” revealed that teachers who conduct hands-on learning activities on a weekly basis out-perform their peers by more than 70% of a grade level in math and 40% of a grade level in science (U.S. Department of Education, 1999). (Source)

Children can learn mathematics and sciences effectively even before being exposed to formal school curriculum if basic math and science concepts are communicated to them early using hands-on, concrete methods of teaching. Math and science are practical and object-oriented and can best be learnt through inquiry (Okebukola in Mandor, 2002) and through intelligent manipulation of “things”  (Ekwueme, 2007). (Source)

How can we ensure our home has a rich atmosphere of learning? It can actually seem very difficult for us moderns, living consumer-driven world that says we need to buy toys and activities and follow a specially prepared curriculum for our children to become successful. But truly think about it: the greatest inventors, scientists, and thinkers throughout all of history learned from real life experiences, not from anything special that their parents purchased. 

Creating an atmosphere of learning is actually very simple:

First, Simplify Your Schedule. Make Time For Play and Projects. 

Children’s playtime is becoming extinct due to many factors, but the biggest culprits may surprise you–between 1981 and 1997 time spent on homework increased 145% and time spent shopping with parents increased 168%! And since then screen time has increased even more with cell phones and tablets. Screens, increasing academics and consumerism are the biggest culprits of leeching away playtime. 

Screen Time

I know, it’s getting old— the persistent narrative that screen time is the source of all childhood problems and, consequently,  mom guilt trips. But, in reality, watching television has been a normal activity for American families since the 1950s. It wasn’t until the 1990s that screen time dramatically increased, partly due to the invention of the internet and more gaming options. The amount of time children spend glued to a screen has risen dramatically in the last 20 years; from a daily 3 hours in 1995 to an average of 6 1/2 hours today, according to the market research firm Childwise. (source

In one study, researchers found that for school-age children 1-2 hours of screen time per day was a good balance. Any less actually put children at a disadvantage growing up in a predominantly digital world, while more than 7 hours a week was detrimental to development and well-being (source). According to Harvard Medical School,  an increase in screen time is linked to a variety of negative effects, including a decrease in creativity (source). 


Screen time is not the only activity sucking away children’s time; homework has also increased since the 1980’s. Many national studies show kids are doing more homework than ever before, mostly in the elementary school age range. Research at the University of Michigan shows the amount has more than doubled. In 1981, students ages six to eight did about 52 minutes of homework a week. That increased to almost 180 minutes in 2014 (source; source)

Second, Allow Access to Open-ended Materials

As a mom living in the digital age I feel the immense pressure to buy the newest STEM activities and toys. But the truth is that children have been learning for thousands of years with simple materials, like rocks, sticks, and string. In fact, I’d say that children learn more important skills  from simple open-ended materials than from prepared toys and activities. 

Stock your project space with popsicle sticks, paper, glue, tape, string, clean recycled items, and salvaged household items (like appliances and electronics). 

 “Too many schools adopt curriculum or instructional approaches that are incompatible with current knowledge about how children learn and develop. Specifically, schools often emphasize rote Learning of academic skills rather than active, experiential learning in a meaningful context. As a result, many children are being taught basic academic skills, but they are not learning how to apply those skills to problems in real situations. They are not developing complex thinking skills, such as conceptualizing and problem-solving.” National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Opt for curriculums that encourage children to act on knowledge they’ve received versus being acted upon. Children should be asked to tell back what they learned instead of being given a multiple choice test. Children should be encouraged to ask questions instead of simply answering the adults’ questions. And lesson time should be short to allow children ample time to engage in real life projects. Offer open-ended materials, like string, paper, glue, and wood,  for them to create. Invite them to help you fix household appliances, or give them broken ones to take apart. 

And third, most important, is to let go of your expectations.

Let go of your need for perfection and cleanliness. The creative process is messy and unpredictable. It can be har

I’ve found a common theme among mothers of successful men and women as I’ve read biographies over the years. These mothers prioritized creativity, curiosity, and innovation over a clean and orderly house. For example, Stephen Speilburg loved making movies since childhood, and his mother was supportive of this passion even when it was probably  inconvenient for her. One time he wanted to make a special effect of blood and guts splattering the ceiling. She suggested putting cherry pie filling in a pressure cooker. They then hid behind a turned over table to record the ensuing explosion. Now to be realistic, as mothers we don’t always have the time, patience, or resources to follow our child’s passions whenever they want. Especially if we have multiple children. However, we can all sacrifice a part of the house, garage, or yard for messy, creative play. We can prioritize imagination over a perfectly clean house, and we can choose to see the beautiful process of creativity and innovation over the inconvenience of their newest contraption. 

An atmosphere of learning is more than just the things we have in our house and how clean it is, it’s the attitudes and beliefs that our children breathe in constantly. An atmosphere of learning encourages inquiry,  invites problem solving, and emphasizes creativity. 

“Joy in learning… must mature to joy in doing, or it will be short-lived.” 

(Robert Backman, “Education: Molding Character”)

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