The Garden of the Mind
“We seek to sow life in the child rather than theories, to help him in his growth, mental and emotional as well as physical, and for that we must offer grand and lofty ideas to the human mind, which we find ever ready to receive them, demanding more and more.”
- To Educate the Human Potential
The idea of the child’s mind as a fertile soil is not new. It’s a lovely image, really, to imagine planting seeds of knowledge in the child with the same care and nurture that a gardener may show to their garden. Play with that image for a moment. The careful gardener prepares the soil long before they plant a seed. They form their precise rows, measure the acidity of the soil, mix in the nutrients, plot the path of the sun. In the same way, the Montessori adult prepares the garden before they plant the seed.
If we think of the first plane of development, that window from birth through age six, as the preparation of the soil and the design of the garden bed, then the second plane is when we plant the seeds. And, if we were to take this metaphor further, we might think that we can use the same care and precision to somehow determine what we will harvest from the fertile soil of the child’s mind. Inch by inch. Row by row.
But that’s where the comparison ends. Because while it may be helpful to think of the child’s mind as fertile field, from which beautiful things can emerge if given the right conditions and care, that metaphor is sometimes used to simply to suggest that the child’s mind is static or inanimate. But there are things we cannot see in the soil: tiny influences that change what can grow there, microorganisms, mineral particles, organic matter that is living, organic matter that is not. And while we can study and observe and measure and assess that field, we can no more quantify every influencer than we could chart the inner life of the child.
This is a hard lesson for us, as adults, as parents, as teachers. We want to believe we can control the input and therefore control the output, that if we just work a little harder to do it “right,” then we can guarantee that our children will know what we want them to know, or achieve what we want them to achieve, or become who we want them to become. This is what we’re doing, isn’t it, when we standardize education, when we claim, with all the boldness and arrogance of adulthood, to know not only what children should know but how they would best learn it? When we institute commercial curricula that were designed thousands of miles from the children in our care, on some predetermined scheduled aligned to the needs of adult work schedules and room availability rather than the interest and curiosity of the child?
Now, more than ever, we feel pressured to get it right. The child yearns for the universe, and instead we give them worksheets to fill in and facts to memorize. The child is hungry for the profound, and we stuff them full of reproducibles.
The mind of the child is not fungible, and we are more fieldhands than gardeners. The child is the gardener of their own mind. We are there to support their work, to provide the supplies they need and to offer our sweat and labor. But just like the difference between large-scale produce factories and local blueberries, we may be able to teach more but we’ll do so at the expense of the soil. We’ll do so at the expense of the fruit. We’ll do so at the expense of the child.
Montessori reminds us to sow life, grand and lofty ideas, to offer those insatiable minds the tools they’ll need to imagine more wondrous questions, and the time and space to answer them on their own. We are endowed with intellect not to regurgitate some predetermined and fixed set of facts, but to imagine solutions to the biggest problems and worlds beyond our own.
Think about the garden of your child’s mind. What can you do today to hold a little less tightly to your need to control the harvest there? How might you “sow life,” in the children in your care today? Remember: our desire to get it right comes from a place of great love for the child. Because we love them, we want to protect them, to prepare them for the world and to provide for them the foundation they’ll need to thrive here. But that preparation can only come through the nurture of their own curiosity, the protection of their own wonder, and the preservation of their own ability to imagine what might be. We are not merely sowing seeds for harvest; we are guiding a new generation of gardeners to grow in ways that, as adults, we are unable to imagine. If they are to surpass us, it won’t be by adhering to the limits we’ve set for them, but by learning to tend their own gardens.