Let Your Child’s Imagination Run Wild

Here’s my latest South China Morning Post “Between the Lines” column that was in today’s paper.  A copy of the unedited version is included below.  

http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/family-education/article/1653162/young-imaginations-run-wild

Growing up in Pennsylvania on the edge of a wildlife preserve, I spent my childhood in the creek, building forts, swinging from vines and rolling down clover fields. I always imagined the same for my children. Instead, my kids have lived in urban metropolises their entire lives.   Suggesting to my son that he go outside and build a fort, he pointed to the tiny, well manicured back yard and said, “Mom, do you see any sticks out there? We have a gardener. There are NO sticks!” Sadly, he was right. There were no sticks to be found in our backyard. There are never any errant sticks.

Bill Plotkin in his book, Nature and the Human Soul, describes the stages of human ego development and explains that connecting with nature is an essential experience in transitioning from adolescence into adulthood. Those who fail to do so may remain stuck in egocentric adolescence, self-focused and unfulfilled. He says, “Imagination might very well be the single most important faculty to cultivate in adolescence.  Without this cultivation, true adulthood might never be reached.” Getting kids out into nature is essential, but often a challenge in busy, urban environments like Hong Kong. In some cases, children are so immersed in technology and indoor activities that they can’t even imagine going out in nature much less doing so independently.

Adolescent children must be able to imagine the world beyond their own current circumstance, and survival stories are a great way to introduce the concept. In most of these stories, fear and feelings of inadequacy are slowly replaced with competence, self-awareness and success as the reader watches as a capable, powerful, centered and loving young person emerges from previously unimaginable challenge.

Jean Craighead George is the most prolific and celebrated author of young adult fiction survival stories. Her classic tale, My Side of the Mountain, written in 1959, tells the story of Sam Gribley, a fifteen-year-old boy who leaves his crowded home in New York City to live on his own for a year in the Catskills mountains. The book is filled with realistic details about how and what food he foraged and caught, the intricate shelter he constructed by smoking out a dead tree stump, his protection, entertainment and emotions, and has intricate drawings to bring the descriptions to life. George wrote many other books including Julie of the Wolves, a similarly artful and detailed account of a girl who survives alone on the Alaskan tundra by communicating with wolves, and The Talking Earth about a Seminole girl who struggles to reconcile her tribe’s traditional legends with the destructive practices of the contemporary world. In each, the child protagonist demonstrates an upstanding character, resilience and calm, focused strength and determination.

Abel’s Island by Wallace Steig is a classic tale of an aristocratic mouse that gallantly chases the scarf of his betrothed only to find himself washed downstream alighting on an uninhabited island in the middle of a swiftly flowing river. Despondent at first and completely inept, Abel eventually learns to take care of himself, to find and catch food, create shelter, protect himself and slowly realizes the beauty and value in doing so. When he finally designs a way to get off the island and is reunited with his bride to be, he is a much more capable and resilient mouse.

Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, tells the story of a thirteen-year-old boy who survives a plane crash and his parents’ divorce, eventually finding his own inner strength as he struggles to survive alone in the wilderness until he is eventually rescued. In Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, the heroine Karana lives alone for years on a pacific island, discovering her own strength and the natural beauty around her. These are just a few examples of dozens of survival books for children in the 8-13 age range that introduce the concept of solitude, discovery and competence to adolescent readers. By introducing the idea, kids find increased motivation to get outside and let their imaginations run wild.

Don’t confuse contemporary dystopian future scenarios whereby children are engaged in killing each other for sport or to survive a post-apocalyptic new world order with survival books. These popular series like The Hunger Games, Maze Runner and Divergent books are entertaining and feed the adrenaline-fueled culture our kids enjoy, but they are not the same thing.

Taking our kids out into the woods to experience nature first hand is the best thing we can do for them. Despite Hong Kong’s urban center, the periphery offers some great outdoor adventures for children. Consider hiking the Dragon’s Back to Big Wave Bay, or walking from Discovery Bay to Mui Wo for a celebratory lunch at Turkish restaurant, Bahce. You can kayak in Sai Kung or Stanley, wander the country parks, visit Kadoorie Farm to pet animals or pick organic strawberries in Fanling. These are a few good ways to get kids out in nature. When that’s not possible, the next best thing is to read about it and help plant the seed for them to nurture in themselves later on.

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