I remember learning about different educational methods early on in our homeschool journey and learning about classical education and memorization. Young children memorize tons of facts, not for now, but to act as “pegs” to hang future information on.
A better, more accurate description of this concept from a classical school:
Discussing and memorizing information about the key figures, ideas, and events of each historical marker, in turn, act as organizational memory “pegs” on which to “hang” other learning- such as the reading of Chaucer, a study of Michelangelo’s David, or the study of Newton’s laws. In this way, students develop a broad tapestry of knowledge held together by the thread of history, which spans the disciplines, thus deepening comprehension.
The idea intrigued me.
But I quickly realized raw facts aren’t my jam.
In history, it’s not the date, the name of the person, the names of specific battles, or locations that matter. What matters the most is that the child has a connection to the material that fosters an understanding of the historical context and the lasting impact of historical events.
How do we create that personal connection?
Living books are a huge part of the equation. Living books are books that offer a chance to form that personal connection through story. Either the author has first-hand experience with the topic or has a deep passion for the subject matter. When you read a living book, you feel like you’re transported back in time or to a different place on Earth.
For younger children, I believe there is something even better than living books.
How Young Children Learn
Babies begin learning while they are still in the womb. They learn to breathe and suck before they are even born. Once Earthside, learning is accelerated during those first few years of life. Babies and toddlers are taking in so much information about the world around them. They are learning to roll over, crawl, walk, and talk. They’re learning how to be social and read the social cues of others.
Their world begins in the safe, comfort of the womb and slowly expands to a mother’s arms, their crib, their home. Children are naturally curious, and as they grow they seek out experiences and knowledge in every way they can find.
Watch a two year old and you will see her touch, climb, taste, smell, squish, pull, stomp on, sit on, hit, throw, cover, dump, stir, pat, and talk to everything she can find. This is how a child expands their world.
This continues with our preschoolers and school-age children as well, but in our society, we have placed such a high value on book learning that it seems so many have disregarded a child’s innate desire and need to learn through hands-on, real life experiences.
Studies have shown that real-world experiences make a significant impact on the way young children assimilate information and translate it into true knowledge.
A study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology in 2019 found that real-world learning experiences can drive rapid, measurable changes in knowledge organization in children ages 4-9.
They compared a group of children who attended a week-long day camp at a zoo with a group of children in a traditional school setting.
They specifically looked at the way the children organized their knowledge of animals. There was no difference in the children’s knowledge before the day camp, but during the post-camp testing, there was a measurable and remarkable difference in the knowledge demonstrated by the children who attended the camp.
What is a living peg?
While students in the classical education model learn a vast amount of facts in order to build up their store of memory pegs, we’ve chosen a different route.
Living a rich and full life has become our version of creating these “living pegs.” A living peg is an experience where the child learns through first-hand, real-world experience.
A living peg might be…
- visiting an aquarium
- observing an ant hill
- making butter in a mason jar
- attending a living history presentation
- growing something from a seed
- having a pet
- making muffins
- putting a bird feeder in your yard
- taking a nature walk
- seeing the flow of a river after heavy rains
- playing with LEGO
- making candles
- observing a favorite nature spot through all four seasons
- mending clothes
- having a conversation with a stranger
- singing songs
- picking strawberries at a local farm
- watching water fall over a dam
I believe our young children need a vast collection of these living pegs before beginning formal lessons, and we have to work to keep creating new ones.
These living pegs lay the groundwork for book learning to make a meaningful impact in a child’s schooling. For us, it’s essential for our homeschool to be rooted in real life and reality instead of seeming like a distant, far off fairytale that we read about in books.
An example of living pegs in history
Last year, we studied Texas history. I hated history in school. It had zero relevance to my life. I don’t need my kids to love history, but I do want them to see the value of learning about our past and how the past impacts us still today.
Not to brag, but Texas is a pretty great state. I’m not sure if I’d spend a whole year on state history if we lived in Rhode Island or Minnesota (no offense!). But Texas? There’s a lot to cover!
My husband’s family has been in Texas for many generations. His maternal grandfather has a family genealogy book that goes back to when the first German settlers came to Texas in the 1800s. We visited some iconic German towns in Texas and walked through their museums to get to know some of those first settlers and the legacy they left behind.
We learned about the false promises many Germans were made before their journey to Texas. We know that they arrived to find that the land they promised belonged to someone else. We learned about the Native American tribes that called our area home for thousands of years before any European settlers arrived.
We visited the missions that are park of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and got to talk with a park ranger about the untold story of the missions. We saw the aqueduct and the fields where they grew corn. We saw the churches and learned about the forced conversion to Catholicism of the indigenous people.
We saw the graveyards and learned about the illnesses brought by the Spaniards that killed entire tribes. We drove through the neighborhood and saw the houses where descendants of the Spanish and indigenous tribes still live today, demonstrating the mix of cultures that continues to live on in our vibrant city.
We visited the San Jacinto Monument and walked on the battlefield where Sam Houston and the Texan army defeated Santa Anna and the Mexican forces for the final time.
Yes, we also read some wonderful living books about Texas. But the best learning happened when we prioritized getting out and learning about the people, places, and events in Texas’ history in the real world.
An example of living pegs in science
We have prioritized spending time in nature since my kids were babies. There is so much to learn outside! The wonderful thing about nature study is that it doesn’t require any special tools and doesn’t even require a lot of space. We actually started diving deeper into nature study when we lived in an apartment. My kids were 4 and 1, and I loved that even on a tiny patio, we could observe plants growing, birds coming and going, bugs, and so much more.
With babies and toddlers, it is enough to just be outside. Once they start asking questions, it’s a great time to start using short object lessons to bring their attention and focus to one specific part of nature.
“Oh cool, look at that purple flower! What is it?” a child might ask.
Here’s where we come to the fork in the road.
I could answer the question: It’s a Texas sage bush. And then we’d keep walking.
I could embrace the question and the child’s curiosity. Let’s investigate and find out more about it. We’d look at the bush closely- at the leaves, the stems, notice its shape, take notes on whether it prefers sun or shade.
We might even discover a friend hanging out on a leaf munching through a leaf. We know him! It’s a calleta silkmoth caterpillar. And it’s huge!
What’s the host plant of a calleta silkmoth caterpillar? Leucophyllum frutescens, a plant native to Texas also known as Texas Sage, Rain Sage, Barometer Bush, Purple Sage, Texas Ranger, and Cenizo.
Barometer Bush? I’ve got some questions about that name…
Living pegs inspire curiosity. A curious child might not know the answer to every question, but they will have the desire and will to find out more about anything they want to know.
An example of living pegs in math
How do you get kids to love math? Take the focus off of worksheets and make it real!
Creating living pegs in math starts with sharing the joy of math with our little ones. We can count plates when we set the table. We can count cookies during poetry teatime. We count how many benches are along the way of our favorite walk at the park. We count fingers, toes, blueberries, washcloths, forks, windows, flower petals…whatever you can see and feel in real life!
Kitchen math is a favorite around here. Math is in measuring, scooping, pouring, mixing. And there is no better reward for math than something delicious to eat! We also love setting up pretend play shops- we’ve done lemonade stands, flower shops, a farmer’s market where you’ll find so many opportunities for counting, adding, and subtracting.
For a practical guide to creative hands-on math experiences, we adore Wild Math, which uses real objects in nature to teach and practice math concepts.
The value of living pegs
Charlotte Mason tells us that education is the science of relations.
As my oldest grows and begins to dive deeper into books, I can see the value of having a bank of living pegs to serve as a grounding point for new knowledge. We’re currently studying British History now, and it’s amazing to hear her relate the Norman conquest to the Spanish conquistadors.
Living pegs are the way we put out children in touch with elements of the world that will increase their scope of knowledge and therefore increase how much information that can form relations with.
What can your homeschool look like when you prioritize living pegs over book learning?
It looks like going strawberry picking and canning jam and making all the things with your harvest.
It looks like making sushi from scratch.
It looks like baking and decorate a cake for your aunt’s birthday.
It looks like watching YouTube to learn how to kit and creating your very own knit bunny.
It looks like visiting an alpaca farm.
And getting to hold hand-dyed alpaca wool yarn in your hands.
It looks like getting three day old baby chicks and caring for them for months until they are full grown.
It looks like experimenting with natural dyes to see what colors you get when dyeing eggs.
It looks like playing in the rain and splashing in puddles.
It looks like planting and tending a garden.
It looks like getting in the kitchen for three meals a day.
It looks like visiting a wildflower farm and learning about harvesting flower seeds.
It looks like watching millions of bats exit an underground tunnel.
It looks like making homemade pasta.
It looks like shoveling dirt.
It looks like picking wildflowers and arranging them for a centerpiece.
It looks like baking bread.
It looks like harvesting honey from a beehive frame.
These are just a few of the ways we have created living pegs in our homeschool. If you’re thinking that you don’t have time or energy to add more of these kinds of experiences, I have good news for you. This IS homeschool. Learning for young children doesn’t require bookwork AND hands-on experiences. This is more than enough.
In our homeschool, we don’t turn every experience into a unit study or manufacture learning opportunities from every new idea we encounter. I am counting on the fact that these experiences live on in my children’s hearts and minds for years to come. When the time comes to form a relationship with an adjacent idea, this living peg will be there waiting for them to access it.
I hope this is freedom and permission to keep things simple. We can observe a caterpillar turning into a butterfly without the printable life cycle cards. We can grow flowers in a garden without knowing the proper names of the parts of a flower. We can watch moss grow in a shady, moist part of the yard without diving into a full-blown unit study.
Of course, there will be topics your children will want to learn more about. Follow those rabbit trails! But save your energy for supporting them in their quest for information instead of endless Pinterest-perfect activities that serve no other purpose than meeting your needs as the teacher.
The Next Steps
My oldest daughter is 10 and has definitely turned the corner on seeking out more information about ideas she encounters in the world. What’s amazing about a 10 year old is that she now has a decade of living pegs to draw on, and I see her making connections every single day.
Years ago, she made a homemade barometer out of a cardboard tube, a balloon, and a straw. It really works!
Just recently, a hot summer thunderstorm rolled in, and she thought about that old barometer. She pulled it out and started keeping notes about the air pressure for the next few weeks. She noticed that any time it rained, the air pressure was lower.
Then she wanted to know why. So we checked out some library books about air pressure and predicting weather, and now she has 1000 other questions.
I’m so thankful for that living peg of the barometer that is inspiring real learning even years later. Watching my oldest is motivation to continue prioritizing creating living pegs with my younger kids. It might not be what the world tells us “school” should look like, but for us, it’s so much better.
Do you prioritize real-life experiences and hands-on learning? I’d love to hear how!