Today’s classroom-oriented society tells us that the most important preschool skills are things like identifying ABCs and their related sounds, counting to 20, recognizing shapes and colors, taking turns, standing in line, and playing with others. But, I’d like to invite the parents of preschoolers to take it one step further.

Let’s dig deeper and ask ourselves, “What truly matters in the preschool years?”

How my family approaches this question

Throughout my family’s decade of home education, much of our fretting over early reading skills, math facts, and handwriting have fallen to the wayside. We’ve come to believe three things should be our primary focus in the preschool years. In The Liberal Arts Tradition, Ravi Jain defines education (in part) as “the transmission of values, culture, and the ordering of loves.” When our family considers education in this way, we reduce the emphasis on what we know and focus more on who we are becoming.

These three things—the transmission of values, the integration of culture, and the ordering of loves—create a foundation in home education (and in our family culture) that greatly impacts later learning . . . but more than learning, our children’s development as whole persons.

With this lofty goal of education in mind, we have to ask ourselves, “how can we achieve this goal?” As she often does, the Victorian-era home education philosopher Charlotte Mason has answers. In her book, Home Education, Miss Mason puts forth three instruments of education at our disposal:

  • The atmosphere around us,
  • The habits and disciplines that structure our lives, and
  • Consistent exposure to living ideas.

But how do these concepts apply to our children’s preschool years and fulfill our generous, person-centered goal of education? 


In Home Education, Miss Mason says,

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.

Instagram and Pinterest often present the notion that a truly educational atmosphere must be filled with wooden toys and child-size living environments. Miss Mason, however, argues that a child’s environment (especially the one in which they’re learning) should not be brought down to their level, but should inspire them toward an adult level.

Though Miss Mason has much more to say on the subject, my family has surmised that what is most important for us in the early years of home education is not having all of the “right things.” We want the environment and culture of our home to reflect that which is wisely valued by the adults in the home, encouraging our children toward maturity.

We want the atmosphere (and therefore culture) of our home to consistently speak to the character of God through shared testimonies and story, scripture memory and catechism, and enjoyable attachment-building activities (such as family s’more nights, traveling frequently together, or enjoying movies together). The atmosphere of home is much less about what we have and much more about the kind of living we do together and who we are becoming as individual persons and as a family unit. In the preschool years, an atmosphere of simplicity, order, engagement, connection, and love is paramount to shelves filled with child-centered “right things.” Why not fill our homes instead with beauty that inspires the hearts of everyone in them?

Habits and disciplines

“Education is a discipline—that is, the discipline of the good habits in which the child is trained” (Parents and Children, Charlotte Mason).

Who can learn if they cannot pay attention? The wiggles and brief attention spans we encounter in the preschool years are on par developmentally. However, when inattention goes unchecked, what is developmentally normal can turn into a long-term pattern. 

Habits like hygiene, good manners, self-control, obedience, and attention are all instrumental in education and in life. Requiring focused attention (for short, appropriate amounts of time) and consistently reminding our children to say “please” and “thank you” is a gift that your future self will deeply appreciate!

Exposure to living ideas

“Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas . . . but we must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain a body with food” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, Charlotte Mason).

Living ideas that engage the moral imagination of a child help to deeply form their character. How can we transmit values and culture to our children if character formation is not at the forefront of our educational endeavors? Those things that create character help our children understand what is right and wrong, help them see the world from a multitude of perspectives, and endow them with a love for others. When our minds and hearts are engaged with beauty, heroism, truth, and rightness, then we are properly ordering the affections to love what is lovely.

So what are living ideas in the preschool years? Stories, of course! As Charlotte Mason says, “A child gets moral notions from the fairy-tales he delights in . . .”

Furthermore, our primary task is ensuring that the living ideas shared with our children—through stories—are good, true, and beautiful—“thought breeds thought,” says Miss Mason. Story can take the form of amazing picture books, audiobooks, plays, theater, songs, poetry, nursery rhymes, and oral stories from generations past. Stories handed down through the generations of family connect our children to their past, helping to solidify their future and firmly attach them to their family culture.

There’s so much more to learning in the early years than just ABCs and 123s. I hope you feel inspired by this deeper look at how early education can help your child develop as a whole person. This approach can help you keep first things first as a parent. And consider keeping the following concepts in mind—ordering loves, building attachments, developing habits, and building family culture—to create a strong foundation for the many years of vibrant education that lie ahead for your little one!

Discover many more practical tips for preschool parents by visiting HSLDA’s blog here.