Wild Children
Tunes for a Monday Morning

The enclosure of childhood

Illustration by Crista Unzner

After posting about "Wild Children" yesterday, I found myself thinking about the following passage from Jay Griffith's dazzling book 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 Rapunzel by Crista Unznerland from the 17th century onward. "Today's children 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 charming art today is by German book artist 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 hound. Please visit Crista Unzner's website to see more of her illustration and design work.

The Blue Monster by Crista Unzner

The 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) -- which I highly recommend reading it in full, along with her previous books Wild: An Elemental Journey and Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time. The rights to the text and art above aare reserved by the authors and artists.

Comments

This is beautiful--and true. Even I, who grew up in Manhattan and was often house-and/or-bed-bound with chronic asthma, was allowed to run wild in Central Park, where I climbed rocks, hid in the Ramble, got really, really wet and dirty playing off the paths--and occasionally skinned my knees. Either there weren't as many playgrounds then, or we didn't live near one (and I probably wouldn't have played in them if there were). And when we were somewhere with woods, I was always in them, playing Robin Hood and all his Merry Men, sometimes with my father, sometimes alone. I still love walking in the woods (and Central Park, although it's more manicured than it was in the 50's and 60's). The key, really, is the freedom to be whoever you are, to experiment and fall and get up again without anyone witnessing or scolding or monitoring you.

I was really moved by Robert McCammon's quote. I remember getting to run around with kids in Brooklyn in the mid 60's, we had the whole square block to ourselves, and figured out all sorts of secret ways and short cuts (that weren't short), made treasure out of bits of glass, and I got to know a variety of single trees in the neighbors' back and front yards. That wildness was exhilarating, and the variety of injuries I sustained, bleeding knee wounds from falls, all felt like battle wounds proudly won. I also remember that aliveness coming to a screeching halt when I entered 1st grade, a very long day with religious inculcation highly at odds with the fairies I met under the outdoor bushes, and what followed is what Jay Griffith describes--the feeling of being trapped in an enclosure, yearning for "outside". Thanks for this post, Terri. I love the book Kith, and the art today is so evocative of the kind of imagination we have when we are at play in the fields of the Lord and the Lady.

When I was a boy my dad was in the Armed Forces. When I was 8 we moved from a small town in southern Manitoba to eastern Quebec, and where we lived was on a dead-end road a mile from the entrance to the base and five miles ftom town. On one side, literally a ross the highway were the hangars, and when the fighter jets took off over our heads it made the windows rattle. We had to become inured to it rather quickly.

On the other side were fields and pastures and deep, deep forests that stretched for miles uninterrupted. Every day I came home from school, dropped my books on the counter by the back door and was gone. My dog, sometimes another human and I explored everywhere, with neither thought nor concern of getting lost, having an unfortunate encounter with a black bear or anything of the sort.

After three years we were transferred again, to eastern Ontario. A city. I had never lived in a city before and had no idea what cities were about. I endeavoured to find out, and I did. I don't talk much about those times. I was lucky in that my roots were still deeply anchored in the forest. After four years of that, at tge old age of 15,I'd sern enough. There was, fortunately, a wooded area a short walk from my parents house, a couple of miles long with a small swamp. It's been almost entirely eaten up by urban sprawl in the ensuing decades, but it became my solace. I knew those woods better than anyone, certainly much better than the city kids who skirted its peripheries. I tolerated them, except when they brought destruction to my woods, setting fires, leaving trash, setting poorly-designed traps... Then I became the forest's protector. I removed the traps and the trash, made sure the fires didn't spread on hot summer evenings. They knew who I was but nobody ever saw me.

Eventually, as these things happen, I grew up, went away to school, became a biologist-type person and traveled across Canada and into the US for work. The woods are still my home, and although my wife and I live in an apartment in an old house we're within 300 yards of the ocean and 20 minutes' walk of a 200-acre park.

I know few things in life with absolute certainty, but I can state unequivocably that back when I was a young teenager, surrounded by drugs and gang violence an post-pubescent angst, if I hadn't had time to grow roots in fertile soil I would almost certainly have been dead long ago.

Hugs,
Mike

This post was beautiful. My 72nd birthday comes tomorrow and with it the memories and ripened realities of having grown up out of volcanic earth, in the rattle of mango-rich old trees, Apple Bananas and an Island life with no fences, gates or litter. Life would change and the litter of all kinds did come; but the myth of a cross-pollinated mobile myth-maker would need those early times to imagine my way. They did pave paradise, but the soul and spirit of Island People stored paradise in our rich, chaotic beginnings(we understand if only subconsciously what volcanoes' purpose is) that had nothing to do with money. Our currency was heart based, molten and fed on rich breezes.

Happy birthday!! 🎂

Hugs,
M&M

Had all that growing up in NYC in the 1950’s with Riverside Park and being able to take the public bus to other parts of the city. Yes, magic lands those parks and playgrounds.

Thank you Mike it has been a good beginning 👌

What a beautiful, heart lifting post, as always! Would it be possible to find out the names of the artists? I love discovering new (to me) artists through your blog. Thanks!

Thank you for the well-timed post. My partner and I have been recently discussing in earnest about our desire for access to the wild for our young son (and any future siblings that may occur). I had an untamed childhood, my partner did also. At our city park, I am the strange-and-possibly-dangerous mother, who allows her son to splash in the puddles and doesn’t hover over him while he explores the equipment in his own time, in his own way.

I often scold myself, too, when we are in a rush, when he clearly wants to walk at his meandering, exploratory toddler-pace but I want him strapped into his buggy or carrier so I can sprint off to the next important place to be. But when everyone around you moves so fast, it can feel so hard to slow down.

Here’s hoping we find our wild and hopefully less rigid home soon—for his sake, and ours.

The artwork is by Crista Unzner - link in the main text above the final image.
And I agree - Terri's blog often takes me to an artist or writer I wish I'd found years ago :).

Thank you for pointing that out. I somehow missed it in all my excitement!

It’s called FREEDOM!

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