By George Beinhorn, Palo Alto
Living Wisdom School web content manager
In the late 1980s, I wrote a short article about an experiment by the elementary school children at the original Living Wisdom School near Nevada City, California.
Here is the complete thirty-year-old article. I present it with two thoughts in mind: as an example of how the LWS teachers encourage children’s expansive feelings, and as a reminder that love is the ultimate key to helping children thrive, both personally and at school.
The Love Plant
The primary school children of Living Wisdom School, age five through eight, have scientifically investigated the power of love.
In an experiment suggested to them by their teacher, Peter Kabir MacDow, the children planted five seeds in each of four pots.
In one pot, the “Dark Plant” received only water and was kept in a closet with no exposure to sunlight.
In a second pot, the “Too Bad Plant” received sunlight and water, but no extra soil nutrients or other attention.
A third, the “Everything But Love Plant,” got sunlight, water, and soil nutrients—the normal care a good gardener would give it.
The Love Plant got the same care as the Everything But Plant, plus the added ingredient of love.
It’s 9:30 in the morning. The children are working quietly at their desks. Peter asks them to bring the four plants to an open area on the rug. The children respond eagerly, smiling as they gather in a circle. It’s obvious that this is something they’ve been looking forward to.
First the plants are watered, then the Dark Plant is returned to the closet, and the Too Bad Plant is taken back to the window sill. The Everything But Love Plant is fussed over amid a discussion of the nutrients a plant needs to grow.
Peter: We’re going to focus our attention on the Love Plant now. This is the one we want to give our attention to. I’d like someone to explain what this experiment is all about—someone who’s been centered this morning. Tara, would you explain what the experiment is?
Tara: It’s to watch the plants grow and see what they do when you put them in different places, like put them in the sun, and put them in different kinds of soil, and put them in the dark.
Peter: None of us can really grow without all those things—the water and the sun and the air and the good soil—and something special is there, too.
(Several children begin talking at once.)
Peter: Let’s sit up, please. Sit up nice and straight. Now look at the plants. Look at them closely. You can see how well they’ve done. We’ve started these plants from seeds, and they’ve depended on us to take care of them and help them grow. Now, the plants that we gave a little bit to, they grew a little bit. The plants that we’ve given a lot to, they’ve grown a lot, they’ve grown a lot more than the rest of them. What we give is what has helped this plant; and we’ve been giving our love, which is one of the most important things that it could have. So we want to give it some more right now.
We can start by sitting up. Close your eyes. Inside of your mind, try to see the plant. Do this: Try to see the plant inside—it’s green, and it’s leafy.
As we sing, we’re going to try to feel that it’s pulling the plant up, making it great and big. All the leaves are spreading out and branching out and getting big. The blossoms are starting to come out on the plant, and the flowers.
(The children sing to the plant while projecting loving feelings toward it.)
The flowers this plant has are its gift to us. We give it love, and it gives us its beauty. Ready? Have the plant in your mind. As we sing, we can feel that we’re bringing it up. We can even bring our hands over it. Here we go, just bringing our energy up as we sing.
(The children sing again, then Peter leads them in a prayer. The quality in their voices is startling—it’s as if they are praying with one voice—vibrant, rich, enthusiastic. No voice wanders or lags; the children’s full attention is on what they’re doing.)
Peter (followed responsively by the children): Bless this plant. Fill it with Your love. Help it to grow strong. And beautiful.
The Love-Plant Model for School Success
In education, the worst mistakes generally begin with a tiny brain hiccup. Instead of nourishing the Love Plant in children’s hearts, we ignore its needs—we put it in the dark, in a feverish obsession with test scores and grades. We burn its joyful fronds with a deadly-boring standardized curriculum. Or we ignore the quiet instinct of our hearts that is telling us what the individual children in the class need in order to thrive.
There’s a current that runs through the Living Wisdom Schools. It’s a constant theme, that the right thing, in school and life, is to engage with love, and never limit the classroom instruction to force-feeding these young plants with barren ideas. The inborn excitement of math or science or history or English, beautifully taught by teachers who are free to be creative and independent and strong, infects the kids with a love and enthusiasm for learning that empowers them to blossom.
Our students do extremely well when they enter the San Francisco Bay Area’s most academically challenging public and private high schools. Yet parents who inquire about our school are often skeptical.
They worry that their kids will fall behind academically, because we spend so much time cultivating their hearts.
Or they raise reasonable objections.
Surely we’re successful because our students come from smart, successful families. Surely we accept only the top students. Surely our kids do well because of our fabulous nine-to-one student-teacher ratio. Surely our system, which spends so much time on “soft skills,” won’t help the kids compete when they enter the harsh, dog-eat-dog world of high school.
It’s true that many of our kids have highly educated parents. It’s true that our student-teacher ratio is as low as six to one in middle-school math, when the middle school teacher and two adult math aides are present in the classroom. But the truth is, we also accept students who are academically average.
Our successes are not due to those external factors; they are the natural outcome of an approach to working with children that takes account of each child’s hopes and dreams.
The high-pressure K-8 academic prep schools in the area don’t evoke our envy. To put it kindly, their results are no better than ours, because our philosophy is rooted in the Love Plant approach. A saying at our school is “Kids who are taught with love, love to learn.”
Our philosophy is based on the idea that life has meaning, that life’s meaning is reflected in school, and that the principles that work in life—at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, on sports teams, in the military, and at Google and other top corporations—are the same principles that help children thrive from kindergarten through college and beyond. Following these principles gives children two things that all people have craved since the dawn of time: continually increasing happiness, and regular, ongoing experiences of success.
If there’s a single core truth that we’ve learned in the forty-five-year history of the Living Wisdom Schools, it’s that, at school and in life, expansive attitudes of love, kindness, compassion, and joy improve performance, while negative, contractive attitudes and feelings destroy happiness and impede success.