The picture to the left is our daughter finding a trillium flower in the woods, a seemingly innocent activity without planning or forethought on her part or our part. I would like to offer a brief reflection on the study of flowers and plants by young children. Since human persons first begin to learn about the substance of things by watching things that are and by naming those things, a simple exercise to do in this is horticulture, the practice and science of plant cultivation which also involves the observation and naming of plants.
To illustrate this activity, our children begin learning about plants, the naming of plants, and the uses of plants long before they learn to read. The toddlers and preschoolers help plant seeds in March for the greenhouse while the baby is busy digging in the dirt (see my older posts for a disquition on dirt). We wait a month, sometimes two months, before we ever see the first sprout. The children then shout, “Mama, mama, look! There are baby plants in the greenhouse! We helped plant those!”
Now in May, we are putting our small, well-tended seedlings into the ground. Such culinary herbs as summer savory, thyme, coriander, and parsley will be cut from the garden this year and used in the kitchen. The children, who have seen these plants start from seed, now watch the plants grow, mature, even flower, then be cut and put into tasty dinners. The oldest can name almost every plant and flower in the garden. She can tell you what each plant is used for in the kitchen, and she can tell you which plants especially attract butterflies, a perk in her botanical knowledge.
What can we learn from flowers and plants amidst all this? We see a flower, we name the flower, and, if we allow ourselves more time, we contemplate the being of the flower. Through horticultural practices as above, children learn that the substance of a particular plant is both in the seed, in the plant, in the flower, and in the herb at dinner time. This is a huge accomplishment for a person, the realization that although something is in flux, it is nevertheless the same thing.
Seeing this realization occur again and again in my children has made me consider that children can certainly begin to have a contemplative life, an intellectual life, with the study of nature. For indeed, [t]he contemplative is not one who discovers secrets no one knows, but one who is swept into ecstasy by what everyone knows (A Carthusian). Something “everyone” used to know was the nature around them, and this knowledge we can give to our children with a little study on our part. What child is not in ecstasy after learning a new word?
Most rewardingly, naming plants and flowers then helps our children to wonder all the more, that is, to think beyond names and to seek answers. Now that my oldest has realized that different plants have different names and that they are more than just “plant”, she will bring me new flowers she has found to ask for a name. The next question is “what is it for?” Sometimes I do not know the answers, so we go inside and look in our books. She learns from this act that although she may not know the answer, there is a way to find it.
To conclude, she and any other child is certainly using intellect to grasp the things around them. Pierre-Marie Emonet describes the word intelligence as such: “The word intelligence comes from two Latin words: intus, which means ‘within’, and legere, which means ‘to read’. The human being is endowed with the ability to “read within” things, to read the intimate interior, the secret of things.”
What a wonderful ability the human person, the child, has — to look at a flower, name the flower, and read within the flower!