Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Notes on Physical Nourishment

One of Charlotte Mason's principles appears to have been that "grace builds upon nature and does not destroy it" This is a traditional Thomistic formula. It is not enough for a child to be just a "fine animal" as they used to say in the 19th century, that is clear. Yet being in good physical condition is still important in laying the groundwork for natural virtues and for good habits.

Divine Grace works on the Lines of Human Effort.––In looking for a solution of this problem, I do not undervalue the Divine grace––far otherwise; but we do not always make enough of the fact that Divine grace is exerted on the lines of enlightened human effort; that the parent, for instance, who takes the trouble to understand what he is about in educating his child, deserves, and assuredly gets, support from above....

She believed that the mind and body are closely connected. There is of course much contemporary research confirming the connection, which was always intuitionally understood -- that emotional problems can affect physical health, for instance.

She mentions various practices considered healthy for children of her day. Some sound quaint -- children should have cocoa but avoid cheese and fruit preserves with the leathery rinds; they should wear wool instead of cotton; etc. However, the principles seem sound.

1. Principle of rest and nourishment and variety for the brain and body.

Since the brain uses a lot of energy, it is important to replenish it by proper physical food, and by intervals of rest.

the more educable powers of the child––his intelligence, his will, his moral feelings––have their seat in his brain; that is to say, as the eye is the organ of sight, so is the brain, or some part of it, the organ of thought and will, of love and worship. Authorities differ as to how far it is possible to localise the functions of the brain; but this at least seems pretty clear––that none of the functions of mind are performed without real activity in the mass of grey and white nervous matter named 'the brain.'
Strenuous mental activity should not take place right after a solid meal. And a child should be fed after he has studied seriously. Here's a general sketch of a possible schedule based on these ideas:

It follows that the hours for lessons should be carefully chosen, after periods of mental rest––sleep or play, for instance––and when there is no excessive activity in any other part of the system. Thus, the morning, after breakfast (the digestion of which lighter meal is not a severe task), is much the best time for lessons and every sort of mental work; if the whole afternoon cannot be spared for out-of-door recreation, that is the time for mechanical tasks such as needlework, drawing, practising; the children's wits are bright enough in the evening, but the drawback to evening work is, that the brain, once excited, is inclined to carry on its labours beyond bed-time, and dreams, wakefulness, and uneasy sleep attend the poor child who has been at work until the last minute. If the elder children must work in the evening, they should have at least one or two pleasant social hours before they go to bed; but, indeed, we owe it to the children to abolish evening 'preparation.'
The same goes for changes of pace in the school day itself, because the mind does best with a rhythm that emphasize different roles at different times:

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; but the secret of weariness children often show in the home school room is, that no such judicious change of lessons is contrived.
She goes on to talk about the proportion of bodily circulation given over to the brain -- that a child uses a large part of his nourishment to support the function of his growing brain. This is still considered to be true, from what I find.... the adult brain uses up to 20% of the body's resting metabolism. A newborn's brain may use up to 50% of the BMR. The energy comes, as she said, from food (basically glucose) and from oxygen. The brain cannot store energy but it can co-op whatever energy is available from the body -- it takes top priority in energy allocation.

2. Good food to eat and good air to breathe are important nutrition for the body and brain.

Regular, good food plus fresh outdoor air are key features in promoting conditions of healthy brain activity.

the quality of the blood is affected by three or four causes.

In the first place, the blood is elaborated from the food; the more nutritious and easy of digestion the food, the more vital will be the properties of the blood.

The food must be varied, too, a mixed diet, because various ingredients are required to make up for the various waste in the tissues.

But it is not the food which is eaten, but the food which is digested, that nourishes body and brain.

The quality of the blood depends almost as much on the air we breathe as on the food we eat.

3. Mealtimes should be joyful -- the emotional and spiritual aspects of eating are as important as the physical aspects:

If the child dislike his dinner, he swallows it, but the digestion of that distasteful meal is a laborious, much-impeded process: if the meal be eaten in silence, unrelieved by pleasant chat, the child loses much of the 'good' of his dinner. Hence it is not a matter of pampering them at all, but a matter of health, of due nutrition, that the children should enjoy their food, and that their meals should be eaten in gladness; though, by the way, joyful excitement is as mischievous as its opposite in destroying that even, cheerful tenor of mind favourable to the processes of digestion. No pains should be spared to make the hours of meeting round the family table the brightest hours of the day.

... Here is the parents' opportunity to train them in manners and morals, to cement family love, and to accustom the children to habits, such as that of thorough mastication, for instance, as important on the score of health as on that of propriety.

Of course, modern studies have affirmed the importance of these things:

I didn't do more than mention the "oxygenated air" requirements for the brain because it comes up in more detail later on, in "Habit of Outdoor Life" and "Nursery Habits".

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