Our family has used the Ambleside Online homeschool curriculum now for two years so I wanted to do a more in-depth curriculum review of why we chose Ambleside Online and how it varies from similar Charlotte Mason curricula.
If you're just getting started or are curious about Ambleside Online, check out this post: Getting Started with Ambleside Online.
Why We Chose Ambleside Online
First, I love that it is free. There is nothing more discouraging than paying tons of money for a curriculum and then finding out it isn't a fit! You still need to buy all of the books but you're not paying for the "curriculum part of it (like the schedule, book selection, teachers guide, etc). Many of the books you need to purchase are easy to find secondhand so it is very affordable. Many of them you can even find in a digital format for free!
Second, it isn't a consumable curriculum. Since Ambleside Online is a Charlotte Mason literature based curriculum, nearly everything I buy for one student I can reuse for my other students. I like the tangible feeling of looking at our book stack and notebooks at the end of the year and seeing all that we've done, vs. a bound workbook that will just get thrown away.
Third, it is tried and true. AO has been around for over 20 years at this point, so there are many parents who have graduated students using AO. There are also many helpful voices for suggests and avoiding some of the pitfalls in the curriculum (which, I believe, there are in every curriculum).
And lastly, AO is meant to be used as a menu, not a formula. All of the tools you need for a Charlotte Mason education you are given, but you can move things around or substitute books to make it really work for your family. Read about some of the changes we made when we did Year 1 here!
Ambleside Online VS. Other Charlotte Mason Curriculum Choices
Many alternatives to AO have a community resource that you're essentially paying for when you purchase the curriculum. The communities include video teachings, forums, informational blogs and similar things for support with the curriculum and with Charlotte Mason's teachings. I've already done a lot of this work, so that isn't something I find as valuable as other families might.
Much of the "work" of Ambleside Online- digging through their forum or facebook group or mining their website- would be alleviated if they had this for AO. All of the information is there, but it's not offered in a succinct way and does take time and effort to research. But, if they had a community like these other curricula do, then they likely could not offer AO as a free curriculum.
Many of the other Charlotte Mason curriculum options out there seem to be built on the backs of Ambleside Online. Many of the writers have used AO before writing their curriculum and/or have structured their choice of subjects, books or format eerily similarly to AO. If they’re all close enough to one another I would rather begin using the free one and shape it into something that fits us best.
Obviously, if one of the biggest reasons we chose AO was because of the cost, you already know I really struggle with the idea of paying for curriculum. I don't like paying for something I am just going to make changes to anyway, and I never was one to follow things exactly, so already a paid curriculum is a hurdle for me.
Now, these are all my own personal opinions, and these are all wonderful curriculum choices, but here’s why we did not choose a different Charlotte Mason curriculum.
The Alveary: I know many families who use the Alveary and I really respect and admire the people who put this curriculum together! I like that the Alveary is more modern and uses more modern books than AO. They have a lot of resources to help families get started with Charlotte Mason and their community is super helpful.
What I don't love about the Alveary is that the curriculum includes subjects like Physical Education and Life Skills. I don't love adding things like folk dancing and paper folding to my schedule. It feels unnecessary and like one more thing to check off of our schedule, when our children are already getting physical education through nature hikes and similar things (like sports and our gym class in co-op) and we are teaching life skills in our home in other ways. Overall their subject list isn't a fit for our Charlotte Mason education. Without personally using the curriculum, I find the idea of having science, nature lore and natural history as separate subjects to be redundant and therefore a bit time consuming.
CMEC: CMEC (The Charlotte Mason Educational Center) is a newer curriculum that has gained a lot of buzz lately. Similar to Alveary, CMEC has a community aspect to their curriculum where you will find support in learning and implementing a Charlotte Mason education (which is great for beginners). I personally feel deep conviction and conflict about CMEC keeping all of their information behind a pay wall. I don't like that you have to register at a certain time of the year and then registration closes for the year. Your entire fee is due at registration before you see the curriculum and is non-refundable. (Your application also has to be "approved" which makes me feel uncomfortable). I think there is an exclusiveness and allusiveness to CMEC that makes me personally reject the curriculum as ever being a fit for us.
A Gentle Feast: If we were to choose something other than Ambleside, it would most likely be A Gentle Feast. I think it is quite similar to AO in their book choices and layout, but everything is planned for you. I would consider AGF to be the most "open-and-go" Charlotte Mason curriculum on the market. I think it's so pretty and I love that the materials are editable if you want to make changes. I love the community and resource aspect (which is similar to the other two and is a huge missing piece in the Ambleside curriculum). I love that you can purchase the whole curriculum or just parts of it and that you can sample two weeks for free. The hard part is that with so much crossover with AO that to jump into AGF would be a lot of substituting books that we've read in previous years.
If you're looking for a Charlotte Mason homeschool curriculum, you can't go wrong with any of these, but Ambleside Online has really been the best fit for us!
Thanks for the comment Amanda! To respond to some of your thoughts: if you look at all three of these, big picture, you’ll see different echos of AO in each one. I personally believe with there being so many options for how one expresses the CM method (even staying true to the PNEU) and how many resources and books there are available in our modern world, that there COULD be a lot less overlap than there is.
As far as the CMEC, I understand all of their reasoning, I just don’t agree with it.
I hold convictions that no one should have to apply to be approved to use a curriculum. This, in conjunction with their choice in requiring members to not share information with others, their lack of transparency and paywall, their rushed enrollment period and some of their general community practices are things that don’t sit right with my spirit and therefore it isn’t something I would ever use or recommend. I’m sure the curriculum is fantastic but it’s not the curriculum I have a problem with, it’s their business practices and the conscious choices they made when creating their membership model. I am happy to go into more detail if you want to email me or DM me on Instagram.
I’m so glad you love what you’re using too! I’ve always said I feel unbelievably lucky to be homeschooling in this generation!
This was really helpful thanks!
Thanks for sharing! I realize it’s hard to communicate about what is right for your family, and why, without stepping on the toes of those who find something else right for THEIR family! I personally love that there are so many options available for us. Just imagine, when I was being homeschooled in the 90’s and 2000’s, my mom only had access to whatever was in the homeschool catalog her friends happened to be passing around.
I did want to touch on the point you made about CM curriculums being similar- if they truly follow CM principles, it seems like they SHOULD have these similarities! Alveary and CMEC are pretty vocal about how they are researching PNEU schedules and books to base their programs off of, and we are all standing in the shoulders of the giants who have come before (praise God!). AO being a free, online resource, it makes sense that anyone building something would at least peruse the riches there.
But as someone who has been part of the CMEC and the Alveary, the philosophy, methods, and subjects covered are where the similarities end. The actual resources used are completely different (for one, only AO has grade-leveled history. Other programs have the whole school- or homeschool – studying the same time period).
I am currently a member of Alveary, for many reasons, but I wanted to step in and say that the CMEC has always been very forthright if asked about which books or resources are used when I’ve emailed, and that is a big part of where their time is being spent and therefore, what members are paying for. Though, members often share their whole booklists on social media (or YouTube videos) anyway. The complete lack of perceived diversity makes me uncomfortable, but they seem more “high-minded” in ideals than in actual practice (from my year with them, and I’ve purchased the three audio conference recordings and greatly appreciated them!). Because the CMEC has meetings and Mother’s and Teacher’s Education Courses scheduled through the year, having members join mid-year would change the culture that they are trying to create. And lastly, it does say the application has to be “approved,” but I think that means they could “unapprove” someone if something was off, because it approves you as soon as the payment goes through. It makes me wonder if they’ve had issues with members joining and then causing trouble.
Have you checked out Stories of Color? I love their “history bundles” options to hold off of for free-reads!!
Anyway, I’m so glad you’ve found your stride in this wonderful homeschool world!!
Great article! We are on our third year of using Ambleside and I completely agree that with it being free it gives me the flexibility to replace or substitute without guilt. I didn’t look extensively at any of the other curriculums you mentioned, I was just so drawn to Ambleside. That the moms cared enough to do the work to compile and create it for free it was a wonderful concept for me!
Thanks so much for this! I am planning on using AO next year after finding over the past 3 years homeschooling that many curriculum do not fit or I modify too much! Hoping AO gives me freedom next year to choose what is important for my family!