In the forest, the child. In the child, the forest.
Tunes for a Monday Morning

The enclosure of childhood

Illustration by Crista Unzner

This week, we've been talking about the ways that childhood is becoming more and more detached from the natural world, and what that might mean for those of us creating fiction and art born out of myth and the mythic landscape. To further the discussion, here's another salient passage from Jay Griffith's fine study of childhood, Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape:

"If there is one word that sums up the treatment of children today, it is enclosure," she writes (alluding to the Enclosure Acts which privatized huge swaths of British common land from the 17th century onward). "Today's Rapunzel by Crista Unznerchildren are enclosed in school and home, enclosed in cars to shuttle between them, enclosed by fear, by surveillance and poverty and enclosed in rigid schedules of time. These enclosures compound each other and make children bitterly unhappy. In 2011, UNICEF asked children what they needed to be happy and the top things were time (particularly with families), friendships and, yearningly, 'outdoors.' Studies show that when children are allowed unstructured play in nature, their sense of freedom, independence, and inner strength all thrive, and children surrounded by nature are not only less stressed but also bounce back from stressful events more readily.

"But there has been a steady reduction in available open spaces for children to play. In the USA, the home turf of children shrank by ninety per cent beween 1970 and 1990. Similarly, in Britain, children have one ninth of the roaming room they had in earlier generations. Childhood is losing its commons. There has also been a reduction in available time, with less than ten per cent of children now spending time playing in woodlands, countryside or heaths, compared to forty per cent who did so a generation ago.

The Frog Prince by Crista Unzner

"Although they are themselves part of nature, children are removed from the world of moss and trees, of fur and paw. Children don't need to live in the countryside to have access to nature, and most city children, left to their own devices, can find a bare minimum of what they need in urban parks and gardens, even on the streets. But play is enclosed indoors while outside signs bark at children like Alsatian guard dogs: NO CYCLING. NO SKATEBOARDS. NO BALL GAMES. NO SWIMMING. NO TRESPASSING.

Frau Holle and Hansel & Gretel by Crista Unzner

Christa Unzner

"My later childhood was hollowed by cold and poverty," Griffiths continues, "and that depression which sets up snares in the young psyche, trapping it for life. My early childhood, though, was far happier, in large part because my brothers and I were part of the last generation which was not under house arrest. It was not a rural childhood, but we had a garden, and a few streets away a river ran by the side of the 'wreck,' as we called the recreation ground. It was a wreck. Scruffy. Ignored. Ours. Five minutes' walk away was a park. Two hours away were grandparents who lived by the sea. All the games we had fitted into a bench trunk about six foot by two. We were rich in library books, bicycles and outdoors.

"Outdoors, we could do what we liked. Throwing sticky seeds at each other, gurgling water or chucking it all over someone. Indoors, obviously not, for indoors was where complexity began: 'mine' and 'yours' and the different rules of time. Outdoors was a commons of space and a commons of time, the undivided hours until dark. Outdoors could comprehend all our moods: thoughtful, playful, withdrawn or rampaging. Outdoors was the place for voices other than human."

 Ein Haus für alle

 Ich bin der kleine König by"Along with everyone else I knew, from the first day of school we walked there. I went with my brothers and friends, a little ragged string of us, taking short cuts that weren't, chatting nonsense, swapping things, eating sweets, making dares, sticking chewing gum on the walls, doing deals, showing off, doing silly walks, shuffling, holding hands, telling secrets, getting the giggles. It was a crucial part of the whole business of childhood. We learned our home territory....There was, of course, safety in numbers. When today so few children are out alone, the venturesome child feels vulnerable indeed. In Britain, in 1971, eighty per cent of all seven- and eight-year-olds went to school on their own. By 1990, this had dropped to nine per cent. In 2010, two children, aged eight and five, cycled to school alone and their headmaster threatened to report their parents to social services. They should have been awarded a medal for allowing their children the freedom which we took for granted and which gave us so much."

 Was macht der Kater in der Nacht by Crista Unzner

Steffi Start

"See, this is my opinion: we all start out knowing magic," says Robert McCammon in his novel Boy's Life. "We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God’s sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they’d allowed to wither in themselves."

"Because children grow up," writes Tom Stoppard in his play The Coast of Utopia, "we think a child's purpose is to grow up. But a child's purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn't disdain what lives only for a day. It pours the whole of itself into the each moment. We don't value the lily less for not being made of flint and built to last. Life's bounty is in its flow, later is too late. Where is the song when it's been sung? The dance when it's been danced? It's only we humans who want to own the future, too."

The Blue Monster by Crista Unzner

The lovely art today is by the German book illustrator and graphic designer Crista Unzner. Born and educated in Berlin, she has lived in Italy, Mexico, Nicaragua, The Netherlands, and now divides her time between Berlin and the south of France, sharing homes in both places with her husband and their dog. Please visit Crista Unzner's website to see more of her work.

The Blue Monster by Crista UnznerThe Jay Griffiths quotes in this post and in the picture captions (run your cursor over the images to see them) are all from Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape (Hamish Hamilton, 2013). I highly recommend reading it in full, along with her previous books Wild: An Elemental Journey and Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time.


So much truth here. I especially love what Robert McCammon wrote. My own childhood and adolescence was half-wild and enchanting, I spent at least half my time up one tree or another, and the other half messing around in boats. I was lucky to have a free-spirited education too. What seems mostly to be missing these days is the neighbourhood community which allows children to meet, and roam together, and find magical places without having to be driven there by parents.

The pictures here are beautiful.

A few months ago, I was told by my brother NOT to give my niece something for her birthday which was cool and had Batman on it (she was in a Batman phase) because "we want her to grow up a little." She was turning 12. His children are, of course, not my children, so I have no say in how they are raised. I gave her a book on how to draw manga (another interest) which was apparently "grown up" enough for my brother but still had the touch of magic I like to see in the niblings.
But now *I* feel old and I wonder how long it will be before the kids no longer want anything imaginative and just want money so they can buy clothes and other boring adult stuff.

Seen through the eyes of the advocates of enclosure my childhood must have been terrible. My parents both worked, so I was always alone at home in the afternoon. Poor me, I even had to walk all the way from school. I would throw my stuff inside and go out to play on a huge parking lot (oh, the dangers of it!)with my fellow neglected kids, each with a key to our respective homes dangling around our necks. Terrible. And I loved it.

But today parents are so afraid. Well, some of this fear might be justified. Everybody who parked his or her car on the parking lot I mentioned before knew that we where there and drove accordingly. Now people bolt down streets marked as "playstreets" without giving a second thought. No wonder nobody is ever playing there. Consideration seems to be a dying art form these days.

What I definitely cannot understand is this obsession with success in school and future careers at such a young age. If my kids want to play an instrument or learn chinese or what have you - I'll try to make it possible, but they should do it for the joy of it. And if they prefer to spend their time hanging out doing not much, so be it. The poor kids have nine years of compulsory schooling in front of them, I'm not going to spoil what free time they have left.

The neighbour's girl had her confirmation two months ago. She ran around for weeks, first anticipating all the money she's going to get, than counting it, comparing it to what her friends got, calculating how many iThings she could buy... I like her a lot, but the greed and envy where quite appalling. Well, she only emulates what she sees around her.

Reading this made me happy and sad because I had the dream childhood -- maybe more appropriate to say a dreaming childhood -- in a rural midwestern state where I could ride my bike out into the country. I had not thought before how most of my memories are of encountering the wide world on my own, of imagining what was past all the horizons -- until I was old enough to discover that what was really there could never hold a candle to what I had imagined might be there.

This topic is so important! I feel like I'm one of those 'last children in the woods.' We moved to Georgia when I was eight and rented a house that sat back in the woods down a long driveway. Having lost all of my friends and trying to fit in in this new place was a losing game. But I learned to find solace in the woods behind our house. I remember sitting by a small stream and I thought I was making up the game of silence. I would go there and listen, talk and have conversations with the water. I took my questions there and came back home feeling like I had secrets. There was a rather large piece of granite halfway between our house and the passage out of the woods into the neighborhood behind us. There was something about that stone that grounded me. I couldn't wait to see it on my adventures into the woods. One day my Mom walked with me through the woods. I was so excited to show her my rock. "Look! Look how big it is!" No reaction was the reaction. I still have dreams about those worn paths through the woods. They are an embedded part of my psyche. And I know that there are also pieces of me embedded there. The trees don't forget.

I must read Kith! Although it is hard for me to step out of my cherished fantasy world! But I think it will inform my teaching practice. I am lucky to be able to work at a private school in the States where recess is a sacred part of the day. Our students get a whole half hour, as opposed to the ten or fifteen minutes allowed in the public school. Furthermore our campus is beautiful, with trees surrounding the field, and even a little patch of woods where the children invariably are drawn to play. The forts that are made! One time even the Nile River was created. I am the teacher who takes the children out no matter how cold, how snowy, or how hot it is, and only when there is a downpour will I bring the students back in the building. "It's just sprinkling," they tell me and so we stay outside.

As a family committed to allowing our children a Free Range childhood, I am loving the posts this week - and yes, I too must read Kith. (*note to self: ask the bookshop to order it*)

My own childhood was a 'unwooded' one, to use Griffith's term, unlike my husband who grew up on a farm close to where we live now. We were determined to give our sons his childhood, not mine - to the dismay of my parents and the delight of his. Every time I see the boys' smiling faces as they come home cloaked in mud, or romp with the dogs, or trot off with the ponies, or feed the chickens, or help us with the round-the-clock work of the lambing season, my heart is squeezed with joy. That lonely little girl in me who was overly-supervised, overly-scheduled, overly-timid, overly-clean, and overly grown up for her age takes enormous vicarious pleasure in the boys' earthy mischief and mayhem. And I entirely agree that it's important for children to have unsupervised time away from adult eyes, both alone and with friends.

I love everything from Kith you've quoted, but most especially her thoughts on fairy tales and folk tales in the picture captions today. Twined with Crista Unzner's charming art, it's all just perfect. Thank you, thank you, dear Terri.

Cynthia, do you know Stornoway's brilliant song "We Are the Battery Humans," comparing the current generation of young people to battery/factory-raised chickens?

Free the Battery Humans!

The Riddle of the Child

Who am I? asks the child,
am I grass or rock?
Sometimes I seem
to bend in each breeze yet
other times feel harder than stone.

Am I crow on a branch
scolding and being scolded?
Or tree paying attention
Only to root and crown?
Or am I both at once?

Am I rosebay willowherb
lighting up the roadside,
or the quiet trillium
nodding by the running stream?
Maybe I am trout being tickled by a rill.

It is a puzzle all right,
an enigma, a maze, I answer,
for though I am grown old,
I, too, am all those things—
grass, rock, crow, tree, flower—

and still a riddling child.

©2015 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

LOVE IT!!!!!

Beautiful. And I love riddles.

Last weekend I had my son's friends over, found myself checking they were allowed to go to the park without an adult (they are 10). The kids get thrown out regularly, garden or park. They climb trees, make dens and chuck jumprrs down for goal posts.

Even so, I fight the draw of the games machine.

I can't bear the thought that they will never know how to make a grass blade squeal, dip for tadpoles in a pond, fall in a pond, catch grasshoppers or any of the million things I took for granted.

When I was twelve two things happened: I moved from just outside of DC to the wild mountains of North Carolina, and I received a copy of Froud/Lee's Faeries.

I had enjoyed plenty of outdoor spaces in Reston. In walking distance from my townhouse I could find three playgrounds, two tennis courts, a volleyball court, two ponds, a lake, and three pools. There were groomed lawns and wooded walkways, and often neighborhood kids would get together to play kick the can or skateboard together.

But outside life in the mountains of North Carolina was an altogether different experience.

We moved in 1977 after my parents purchased 65 acres. The property was wild when we arrived, filled with lush raspberry and blackberry bushes, towering trees hundreds of years old, buffalo trails, and rhododendron so ancient that they had formed tunnels to explore. There were streams and creek beds lined with enormous limestone rocks, and filled with minnows, tadpoles, and waterbugs. One could hear a daily tattoo from pileated woodpeckers, and the nightly hoot of the owl. Sometimes I would sneak out in the middle of the night, and climb an enormous pine tree in order to listen to night noises and the wind.

There were few neighbors and fewer kids, so I had to rely on my own imagination to keep me company. This was greatly aided by the Faeries book, a book as equally informed by the landscape as it was by faeries. Now the land I explored seemed inhabited by magical beings everywhere I looked! In the rhododendron tunnels, hiding under the limestone rocks, in the slanting light among the ancient trees, in the tap of a pileated woodpecker, from the call of an owl.

Much of my creative life today was formed by those years rambling and exploring the North Carolina mountains. I cannot imagine how much poorer I would have been without my relationship to nature.

That sounds so wonderful! How lucky you were to be immersed in the natural world.

Thanks, Dona, I really do feel truly blessed, and try to get outside with my daughter as much as possible now.

Also, I remember building an elf village in one of the rhododendron tunnels, complete with a stone paved common area and fencing made of little twigs, making up stories as I created my tiny world! :)

Angela, this last line of yours resonates so strongly for me--that the magic I wanted was more firmly entrenched in my vision than in what I could find outside.

What a powerful post and it's so true. I am going to share it as much as possible. It's so important. Much to think about.

There was a time when a fallen tree became our private clubhouse, a time when roaming was safe, or so we thought, and there were long wanderings in Summer rentals too when i had cousins and we were free to play till supper time. In this city the playgrounds are sterile cages, there is no turf, just rubber mats, there is no free wandering even in Central Park. It's dangerous, though some poor kids do, and often they are dangerous too. Behind my apartment building a fenced in place is full of desperate little souls, kids pour and stampede out of the Catholic school at lunch and they scream the whole time. It is sad. Very sad indeed.

Sadly, yes, I've seen this kind of behavior too, and it's ultimately not the fault of kids who haven't been taught any better. Our consumer culture celebrates greed and greedy people -- the people who "have" rather than the people who "give." It's hard to teach children otherwise when everything around them re-inforces the idea that greed is good.

This is in direct contrast to many traditional cultures, where greed was defined as an illness and a threat to community life. Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about this in relation to the Windigo myth:

I would have loved having a teacher like you.

I agree entirely with Cynthia!

What a wonderful, wonderful place to be a kid!

Thank you, Melinda.

It is surely possible to design cities with green spaces and spaces for genuine play. As more and more of the world's population moves to cities, this is going to become increasingly important.

Even the countryside, however, has its "keep out" signs. A friend of my husband's who was over to dinner last night, who lives in a village on the other side of the moor, was saying how frustrating it is to live in beautiful countryside where there are few places close to their house to roam; the woods and fields are all private around them. I was surprised to hear it, because in our village we still have our Commons, plus many other public green spaces and footpaths and right-of-ways, plus informal right-of-ways over private lands where local folks can walk as long as they cause no harm to the land or livestock. The extensive network of footpaths here is one of the things I love best about this corner of Devon -- in contrast to America where land tends to be privately owned and therefore off-limits, or else is a designated public park, with little in-between the two.

In Kith, Jay Griffiths devotes a chapter to the poet John Clare, who was completely devastated when Enclosure privatized and then destroyed his local woodlands, locking local people out of green spaces they had roamed and foraged in for generations. It makes for very poignant reading...particularly in Britain today, where privatization of everything public and held in common seems to be the goal of our present government.

I love the art, especially the last piece, and I couldn't agree with you more about kids needing to get out and play. I was lucky to grow up with a river and woods and endless time to explore both. The memories I built back then keep me warm now that I'm older and responsible. They also give me seemingly endless stories to share on my own blog, and I think people yearn for that kind of childhood even if they have to live it vicariously. Hopefully some of these caged children will grow up and let their own children loose to play.

Hi Terri

I have a western fence lizard who appears on my backyard stoop around this time of year. He likes to sun himself and catch a meal of noonday bugs. He does this odd
head jig bobbing up and down while the gnats circle around him. But it is whimsical and very charming. He's almost pumping out music indicative of the high desert and brings out the child within me, engirdled in these grown-up bones. I saw that marvelous creature yesterday and this poem along with the title of yesterday's essay came to mind.


A lizard crawls on our porch
and bobs his head
in the wind.

Around him, gnats circle
like the notes
of a nursery rhyme
known only
to plant and stone.

Either the one
about rain
chasing off the sun
and birdsong turning
to complaint

or the child in the woman
who girdled herself
in a henge of bones

but caught the light
of invisible things
when she cornered the sky
quiet and alone.

Talking of the present government, just who is it who votes for these old Etonian Posh Boys, and Cheltenham Ladies' College Posh Girls?!

P.S. Great artwork

Statistically, only a small minority of the UK population, and almost no one in the whole of Scotland. The electoral system here is broken. *sigh*

The Blue Ridge Mountains are some of my favorite places to visit, and since I live in SC, the NC mountains are closest for me to get to. They are indeed an enchanted place, and I visit every chance I get!

Ah yes. The joys of the 'First Past the Post' system!

Oh my goodness, I love this!!!

Thank you, Terri, it really was!

I love the Blue Ridge Mountains as well (as you can probably tell), a magical place. A marvelous ecosystem teeming with life!

Thanks so much Terri

I am so glad you enjoyed this and appreciate your kind words!!

Take care,

My own childhood was semi-rural and had its own rough magic which I still glimpse in odd moments, even in the depths of a city or in the grey office spaces of a day job... especially when I stop by here on my way to a spreadsheet or an email.
Wonderful post, thank you, and for all the evocative comments after.

Thank you for this beautiful post which I'm just reading now. I could say loads about my own childhood and this matter, but what's really on my mind are my children and this anxious urban world they have. I frequently read alarming stories about children "taken", either by disturbed individuals or by agencies that fancy themselves well-meaning. I see constant warnings to keep watch over my children or else face terrible punishments too painful to imagine. We live in a large city, and even in our wooded parks, I rarely let the boys go too far from my sight. But they're small still, and I like to think as they get a bit older, my trust will grow. It isn't that I don't trust them. It's the other parents, the grown-ups, the bogeymen well meaning or not. I don't know how to combat this, other than to set them free in smaller more private spaces (like our small garden) where I feel more secure. Where there is less traffic. Perhaps I just need to breathe.

Still, we just got back from some time on the Oregon coast. The boys ran wild in wide open spaces where I could see them but there were animals and winds and water in abundance. I guess that's the best wild I can offer for now.

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