My grandmother had a very green thumb. As my grandfather toiled away at getting alfalfa fields to grow and cows to give milk in a high desert climate, she turned their front yard into an explosion of color and scent. There were bright California poppies, delicate bleeding heart bushes, a huge swath of daisies, roses that were fuller and brighter than anything at the store, fascinating four o’clocks, little purple pansies (which she loved to sing about), and my favorites: the lilac and snowball bushes.
Being in Grandma’s garden was amazing. In her constant dress-plus-apron uniform, surrounded by sagebrush and dust, she made a blooming oasis. It obviously took a lot of work, and that is why we knew as children that you absolutely had to ask Grandma first before cutting flowers in her garden.
It was a heady privilege to walk through Grandma’s garden, scissors in hand, trusted to go out on your own to create a bouquet from her treasure trove. I loved it! I would cut my favorite blooms and slip them into a mason jar full of water, ready to present to my mom or a favorite teacher.
As I wandered through Grandma’s garden, I couldn’t help but notice the juxtaposition of tiny buds next to gigantic blooms. Childhood curiosity usually got the better of me, and I almost always plucked one or two (or three or four….) buds to gently peel, layer by layer, trying to force open the flower.
The results of this experiment were always the same. One withered, wrinkly, and severely damaged flower after another. Grandma eventually noticed my habit, and pointed out that the buds I forced open would never become the blooms they were destined to become. I had interrupted them in their season of growth, and stopped them from doing what they were meant to do, in the season they were meant to do it.
It was a lesson in flowers as a child, but as you can probably guess, it means much more to me now.
It’s interesting to me that Friedrich Froebel landed on the term “kindergarten” or literally, “child’s garden”, as the name for his vision of early education. If we imagine the early learning period in the context of a garden metaphor, some key understandings become very apparent.
Just as Grandma’s flowers grew in a predictable order (roots, stems, leaves, buds, blooms), so too children’s development and learning happens in a predictable pattern. The bloom of reading is preceded by phonological awareness, language development, print awareness, and many other important pre-reading skills. The bloom of independent toileting skill is preceeded by self-awareness, motor skills, autonomy, and procedural understanding. Every major skill is preceded by the development of smaller, foundational skills.
But just because there is a predictable pattern to growth, and a predictable season for blooming, doesn’t mean that every flower on the plant will bloom on the same day. Each flower opens at its own rate within the growing season. For a flower, the season for blooming may be a matter of weeks or months. In child development, some seasons may even last a few years.
Reading, for example, has a natural blooming season between approximately 4 years old and seven years old. Like a long-blooming plant, some children bloom slightly earlier and some slightly later and many at every point in between. As perplexing as it might be to some, this multi-year span is very much normal.
But imagine forcing every bud open on the exact same date because of a somewhat arbitrary decision that all flowers should bloom exactly then. We’re left with more harm than help. It’s the defeated child equivalent of a withered, wrinkly, forced bloom. We interrupted them in their season of growth, and stopped them from doing what they were meant to do, when they were meant to do it. Anxiety, comparison, and competition encouraged us to force open the bloom rather than nourish the roots and stems, building the critical, foundational skills when they were needed.
Children need to be allowed to bloom in season, just as flowers are. This doesn’t mean we do nothing however. There’s a big difference between feeding the plant and forcing the bloom.
Just as my grandmother carved out a piece of the desert landscape and filled it with rich soil, adequate water, and favorable nutrients, we must give children supportive “nutrient-dense” environments where they can flourish as well. Environments rich in print, conversation, experience, play, nature, healthy relationships, and opportunities for connection help children thrive and bloom in season.
If a plant is given the right environment, and shows progression adequate to the season, there’s no need for the anxiety that plagues the stewards of young children. Certainly, there are times for extra care: additional nourishment, shelter from an early frost, staking for support. Likewise, children may need specialized support and attention while building skills, but we must always be aware of the appropriate order and season and not force or cut back beyond where they are supported.
It can be hard to trust in these long windows of normal development, to not get caught up in the rush and the pressure that is prevalent today. But when we trust the growing season, and nourish the process, the blooms are magnificent, even in–no, especially in– all their variety.
I’ve seen it for myself, very much close to home.
I watched, surprised, as one of my sons begin reading rather spontaneously at about 4 years of age. He went into kindergarten as a fluent reader. I hadn’t “done” anything, I insisted to friends. He was just a product of his genes and his environment. His brother, however, with the same pool of genes and (for the most part) the same environment, became fluent closer to 7, pushing 8.
I’d be lying if I said I never worried. It was so different from our first experience. Thankfully, he was never labeled as slow or behind and was showing all the appropriate signs of progressing through the skills in order and in season (roots-solid, stems-check, leaves-good, buds-visible). And so I held on to what I knew to be true about development and just kept giving the same nutrient-dense environment.
When the switch flipped for him, it flipped hard. This little guy went from labored reading to voracious reading. I have literally caught him with his reading lamp on at 3am, tearing through the irresistible chapters of his latest book. I’ve listened to my husband on the other end of the phone while I’m away on a speaking assignment say, “Come talk to your mom. Put down your book for a second. Just for a second. Come talk to your Mom. PUT DOWN YOUR BOOK AND COME TALK TO YOUR MOTHER!” And while I could perhaps feel slighted by the fact that Origami Yoda is more appealing than his own mom, I can’t help but be thrilled that he’s completely engrossed in reading.
These two readers now pass chapter books back and forth, both very bright, very good readers. Each having bloomed in his own season. Their younger brother has now bumped our tally up to three, blooming in season in his own way, right between the two outliers.
We have to pester them about picking up the books in their rooms. Some nights we beg them to put down the books and turn out the lights. And a few of our biggest melt-downs have erupted when it was announced that the late bedtime did not leave enough time for my husband to read aloud from Harry Potter.
I hate to think about what their attitudes toward reading might have been in a different growing environment. One where blooms were forced open. Where comparison caused them to wither. Where meaningful literacy experiences were traded for arbitrary drills and high-pressure benchmarks. Where normal progress was deemed insufficient because of an artificially shortened growing season.
I am so grateful for teachers and parents who carefully tend their “Child’s Garden”, and allow each of our children to bloom in season.