Monday, December 04, 2023

The Beet Eaters

Early on in our gardening experiment on the Woodland Park playground, we planted a crop of beets. We must have chosen the soil and the season properly, we must have watered sufficiently, because it wasn't long before we had some 40 tiny plants growing in straight rows.

One day, while gently watering our beets, a boy told me, "I hate beets."

I replied, "Some people don't like beets. Some people do. I like beets."

Another boy asked, "When do they turn into beets?"

"They're already beets," I answered, "but every day they'll get bigger and bigger until they're big enough for us to eat."

"They just look like leaves."

"You can eat the leaves, but most people want to eat the purple part. Those are the roots. They're growing underground."

"How will we know when they're ready?"

"The seed package said they take six to eight weeks."

The following day, I found the two boys squatting beside the beets, picking off the tender baby leaves and sampling them. This is the kind of behavior we expect in our playground garden: testing, tasting, and generally exploring plants. Still, they had already eaten the leaves from a dozen plants. I explained that if they eat the leaves, the plants won't grow. 

The boys remained interested in the beets, stopping by every day to water and discuss the changes they noticed. There were instances of overwatering. A few plants were damaged by errant feet and clumsy hands, but after almost a month, 20 of the original 40 were thriving.

I then was away traveling for a week. When I returned, the beet bed was empty. When I asked what had happened, I learned that one day these two boys pulled up and ate, raw, the entire beet crop. We only knew what had happened when their parents panicked over the color of their urine.

Naturally, I felt the loss that all gardeners feel when a crop is lost, be it to pests, disease, or curiosity, but at the same time, this was a playground garden at a school where children have permission to pursue their curiosity. In other words, I didn't scold the boys because there was no reason to. When I asked them how the beets had tasted, even the boy who "hates" beets told me they were delicious and that they wanted to grow more. I couldn't help, however, mentioning that if they had waited a few more weeks, the beets would have been bigger and, maybe, even better, to which they replied with shrugs.

Very few of the things we've ever planted in the playground garden have made it to what the world would consider "ripeness." Our kale rarely grows a leaf larger than my thumbnail before being devoured. Our strawberries are usually picked while still hard and green. Often they don't even make it that far, becoming instead tiny white and yellow bouquets. Other things, like cilantro and radishes, go to seed allowing us to discover that their pods were quite tasty.

Like with many things, our adult "wisdom" often amounts to little more than habits and conventions that we seek to impose on children as the "right" answers. 

But there is another metaphor in this story. Our adult wisdom also tells us that picking the leaves and pulling up the plant, even if we don't pick all the leaves or immediately plunge those roots back into the soil, the plant is liable to be stunted, if it even survives. We know that overwatering or the wrong amount of sun, will result in a plant that does not live up to its potential. The key to growing healthy plants is to start with the right soil and season, to water judiciously, to protect it from pests, but to otherwise allow the plant to grow. No amount of leaf tasting or root checking will benefit the plant, although that is often what we do to children in the name of assessment. We forget, I think, that these children, like those beet sprouts, are already fully formed and complete as they are.

We call our lifetime of experience our age, but we forget that we are born preprogrammed with all of Mother Nature's instructions, evolved over some three billion years, for growing from a single cell into a smart, learning animal. In other words, our children are born with three billion years of experience in how to grow. Our main job is to keep them safe and let them. 


"This inspiring book is essential reading for every family choosing a preschool, every teacher working with young children, and every citizen who wonders how we can raise children who will make the world a better place." ~Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

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