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This analogy refers to different styles of raising a child. A “gardener” tends to the fertility of the soil—the access to sunshine, water and minerals allowing for the best development of his charge, while the “carpenter” has a fixed idea of the desired outcome—he cuts, shapes, smooths and joins his raw material until the final product has emerged.
The book by Alison Gopnik with the same title as this post, The Gardener and the Carpenter, has the theme that children are meant to be explorers, growing into their environment confident in their ability to adapt and thrive and that we should not be trying to constrain them within some idea of the ideal child, adolescent or adult. Our world is unpredictable, but as humans we have the ability to experiment, learn from our predecessors and from our mistakes, and to adjust accordingly. The fact that we have learned to live in practically every climate type on Earth attests to our ingenuity and separates us from most other species.
Alison Gopnik’s book is a pleasant read while also being peppered with results from academic experiments and observations which show that free play is generally a more efficient way for children to learn than by being directly taught. As a grandmother she shares many touching anecdotes of her experiences joining in with pretend games and scenarios with her grandson.
She writes in The Gardener and the Carpenter :
As caregivers we give children a structured, stable environment, and that’s exactly what allows them to be variable, random, unpredictable, and messy…. Part of the point of parents and especially grandparents is to provide a sense of cultural history and continuity…. What I can’t do, and shouldn’t do is expect my children and their children will exactly replicate my values, traditions, and culture….
In a different book, The Philosophical Baby, she writes:
Children are the R&D department of the human species—the blue-sky guys, the brainstormers…. They think up a million new ideas, mostly useless, and we take the three or four good ones and make them real.
The Learning Cooperatives are striving to provide the natural, safe environment or ecosystem which allows natural learners (everyone) to thrive organically without preconceived ideas of the outcome. We are essentially gardeners.
If you would like to learn more about this author’s ideas, here is a recent interview with Alison Gropnik.
The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children by Alison Gopnik. Pub. 9th Aug, 2016 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN 0374229708.
The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life by Alison Gopnik. Pub. 4th Aug, 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN 0374231966.