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the wilderness of childhood »

The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors.

What is the impact of the closing down of the Wilderness on the development of children's imaginations? This is what I worry about the most. I grew up with a freedom, a liberty that now seems breathtaking and almost impossible. Recently, my younger daughter, after the usual struggle and exhilaration, learned to ride her bicycle. Her joy at her achievement was rapidly followed by a creeping sense of puzzlement and disappointment as it became clear to both of us that there was nowhere for her to ride it — nowhere that I was willing to let her go. Should I send my children out to play?

There is a small grocery store around the corner, not over two hundred yards from our front door. Can I let her ride there alone to experience the singular pleasure of buying herself an ice cream on a hot summer day and eating it on the sidewalk, alone with her thoughts? Soon after she learned to ride, we went out together after dinner, she on her bike, with me following along at a safe distance behind. What struck me at once on that lovely summer evening, as we wandered the streets of our lovely residential neighborhood at that after-dinner hour that had once represented the peak moment, the magic hour of my own childhood, was that we didn't encounter a single other child. — Michael Chabon, The Wilderness of Childhood

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Reader Comments (9)

What he describes is very much what my childhood was like. Such a sad thing to see disappear from the vast majority of American childhoods these days. I am trying very hard to give this type of childhood experience to my children--freedom, space, wilderness, but it isn't the same when there are no other children doing the same.

July 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTheresa

Such true words. I grew up in a very rural setting - we could ride bikes and run through the fields and woods for hours, and trust that we'd never encounter a stranger. How I wish that my own son could have that opportunity, and I worry about the fact that he cannot.

July 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle Z.

I am so looking forward to reading the rest of this essay. The fact that we live five minutes from Chabon brings the issue at hand even closer to home. His struggles are mine.

July 6, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterpatricia

I feel this lack with my own growing kids - the boundaries are clearly defined (by me!), in our urban-ish neighborhood of ever-changing college students and other renters (which we also are). We get to the Wild Places often, but they are never on their own to go far. I remember moving here and wandering the streets on our nightly walks and seeing evidence of children (the ubiquitous strollers, swings, toys), but no kids at that magical hour! I find that we gravitate to the homes and land of friends who are lucky to have that space and comfort with it, where our girls can tag along on the adventures...

July 6, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdebbie

I appreciate your post about this. I often find myself wondering, How far is too far? Can they go alone? Is it irrational fear or sensible parenting?

After reading Last Child In the Woods, I find myself longing for those experiences for my children where they can find solitude outside of their room. This reminds me of something I recently read by Charlotte Mason...

But organised games are not play in the sense we have in view. Boys and girls must have time to invent episodes, carry on adventures, live heroic lives, lay sieges and carry forts, even if the fortress be an old armchair; and in these affairs the elders must neither meddle nor make. They must be content to know that they do not understand, and, what is more, that they carry with them a chill breath of reality which sweeps away illusions.

My compromise, along with a group of other like-minded mothers so far has been to take the children into a patch of wilderness where they can play freely at a safe distance without our intrusion.

Funny how the kids ask us not to go back to places where Rangers or well-meaning Volunteers have told them not to touch, take, or re-arrange the nature.

July 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNaomi

This is such an important issue. I often wonder about how these restrictions on childhood are going to effect the future of our children. They are missing out on so many opportunties to problem solve, invent, just be alone with their own thoughts and ideas. With the ever present parent ready to step in whatever the issue... how does that effect the psyche?

July 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDawn

we had a long conversation about this over the weekend — me, my husband, and our two sons — and we reached the exact same conclusion. what is the point when no other children are out there? my childhood and my husband’s were the same. walking long distances to school, spending afternoons, weekends, and summers outside playing unsupervised and riding bikes all over town. but we were surrounded by a community of families all doing the same — children to play and walk and ride and explore with and a parent home in every other house to pass out cookies and keep an eye out. it is a different world today.

naomi, i love that c.m. quote — thank you for sharing it!

i think your solution is a good one — giving them enough space to invent their own play. banding together with other families is a good move, too.

we have discussed here before the oddness of public wild places being hands-off — can’t pick the berries or collect the leaves, can’t climb trees or mush down grass to make a fort. it’s a conundrum — we need to be able to interact with the land we own.

July 8, 2009 | Registered CommenterLori

dawn, that is an interesting point. and it ties in neatly (thank you ;^) to project-based learning. we *have* to let kids do things on their own. are we creating a generation of children who will be dependent on praise? on constant supervision/attention? on having everything organized for them?

the kids who are used to negotiating things on their own, the kids who have their own ideas and prefer freedom to sterile safety — those kids are going to be at a strong advantage.

July 8, 2009 | Registered CommenterLori

Seth is only 4 but we follow our instincts, when the outdoors draws him we manifest, when the work table draws him we manifest, etc. I try to be in the moment to facilitate his curiosity in a safe and self driven manner. In this day and age that is the best I can do and I am at peace with that.

July 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAlis

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