My childhood was full of beans.
When I was seven years old I found some white navy beans on the street–probably dribbled by a torn shopping bag belonging to one of my neighbors. I wouldn’t do this now, but then I picked them up!–right off the “dirty” street. I put them in my pocket and I took them home. Later that afternoon, I decided to put them on a plate, wrapped in a wet paper towel. Why did I do this? I knew nothing about sprouting seeds or planting beans. It just seemed like the right thing to do. I kept the paper towel very wet over the next couple of days, and I noticed the outer skin of the beans start to swell and change shape. The beans became wrinkled, like my skin when I had been in the bathtub too long.
Soon, I saw little tiny green points sticking out of some of the beans. My goodness, they were growing! I thought they were just dead beans, I didn’t know supermarket beans could be seeds! (But, again, why did I keep them wet for a few days? I swear I didn’t know, and to this day don’t know, why I did this).
Then, the little points got longer and longer, and, after another few days, a tiny “ear” appeared on one. This was a leaf or a sprout or something–I didn’t know what. But at that point, it didn’t seem like a good idea to keep the beans in a wet paper towel for much longer.
I found an old plastic pot under the sink. I think it had contained a flowering plant that had been given to my mother–a plant that had long since withered away. I took the pot into the back yard, and–this is interesting–I filled it half full of crumbled leaves. For some reason, I did not use garden soil, although there was an abundance of it available. I gathered dead leaves from the apple and peach trees, and the rhododendron bush, and crushed them into the pot. I then carefully put in the bean sprouts, keeping them as far apart from each other as possible, and put another layer of leaves on top.
I took it back inside and plunked the pot on the same plate I had been using with the paper towels, and thoroughly watered it.
I had to wait several days this time, but I always kept the leaves, now rapidly turning into mulch, moist, and soon, the little “ears” began to emerge from the soil! I was elated. By the way, I had not told anyone I was doing this. Not my parents, not anyone. I had my own room, and I’d put the pot on my nightstand which was near a window, and just made sure to keep the mulch moist, but not soggy.
I finally showed my pot of strong green bean plants to my mother, and she was amazed I’d grown these from seed all by myself. I took my pot to school for “show and tell”, and all were duly impressed. Soon the bean plants were tall and strong, and needed to be replanted. They lived in the sunny school window for a long time.
So, why am I telling you this story? The memory came up for me recently when I was discussing childhood with a friend. A teacher I respect believes the best thing to do is leave children alone, most of the time. By that, I don’t mean to ignore them, but to let them explore and learn as they will. When the situation warrants, give them a new book or learning aid, or help them design and complete a project–but only if they are experiencing fun and joy. “Don’t ‘try to get them to do stuff'” my teacher says. We do that in the home, and particularly in the schools, way too much. “Experts” design curricula, which are then foisted upon the unsuspecting child. Is it any wonder so many children dislike school? There are learning theories which allow education to be self-directed by the child, almost from day one. Critics of these often say that such experiences will result in a child not choosing to learn a particular skill, like science, or math, or pre-Victorian architecture. Critics of those critics say “So what!” The items which are considered essential in a child’s education are determined by “authorities” based on what they imagine is “well-rounded” or “useful” to society. I think this approach stifles creativity.
I did a little research to find theories that support mine. While there are plenty of papers, most give instructions on “how to encourage curiosity in your child” — or some such thing. To me, this is still trying to get the child to do something. Children are naturally curious; all they need is an environment rich with things to be curious about! This article is pretty good. I also turn to a book I read a long time ago. It’s quite dated, now, but Summerhill is a fascinating saga of an alternative school where the students, along with the teachers, determine the curriculum. Summerhill School still exists today in the UK.
Clip art licensed from the Clip Art Gallery on DiscoverySchool.com