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.

Woods or Goods?

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Several years ago, when my son was quite small, my mother gave me a book to read.  It sat on the shelf for a few years, unopened, and eventually I gave it away.  A few years later she gave it to me again, and again it sat on the shelf.  When we moved overseas, the book was chucked in a box and sat in a dark storage place for five years until we bought a house and liberated our treasures.  Two years ago I found the book and carried it with me all summer and back to Hong Kong, still never cracking the spine.  I had a niggling sense that this book was important, but I wasn’t ready for it until yesterday.

With deadlines for projects I’ve assumed looming, I should have taken the rare moment of quiet on a Sunday afternoon to tackle my in-box.  Instead, my children busy with their friends and my husband grouchy, I retreated to the bedroom, pulled this book from the shelf and devoted the afternoon to discovering its teachings.  The book is Bill Plotkin’s Nature and the Human Soul. Cultivating Wholeness and community in a Fragmented World.

That same evening, checking Facebook, I saw that a friend tagged me in a post linked to a new television ad for Toys R Us.  The ad depicted a busload of children on their way to a field trip in the woods who are then re-directed to the toy store instead, much to their great enthusiasm, and at the expense of a day in the forest.  Here’s the clip.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lz4zqbDjYO4

I couldn’t believe the serendipity of having just read this book about how our egocentric society has gotten stuck in adolescence largely due to a lack of connection to nature.  I first re-posted the link to my own FB page with the comment, “pathetic,” but then added another post quoting directly from the book:

Stand still.   The trees ahead and the bushes beside you

Are not lost.  Wherever you are is called Here,

And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,

Must ask it permission to know it and be known.

The forest breathes.  Listen.  It answers,

I have made this place around you.

If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.

No two branches are the same to Wren.

If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,

You are surely lost.  Stand still. The forest knows

Where you are.  You must let it find you.

-David Wagoner, “Lost”

Toys R’US didn’t do anything wrong with their ad.  In fact, there’s probably not one among us who didn’t at one point during childhood fantasize about a free trip to the toy store.  They’re simply appealing to our collective voracious appetite for stuff and the delicious prospect of getting it for free.  But to have it so blatantly preferable to a day in the woods underscores that precise uncoupling of humans and nature that is as internally damaging on a personal level as it is externally to the planet.   I’m not a preachy environmentalist, but I think this book is skilled at linking a general human malaise and despondency with a very tangible explanation.

Some of my other favorite quotes so far from Nature and the Human Soul:

“If we look at the biographies of our society’s most celebrated geniuses, artists, and visionaries, we find that most of them had regular immersions in the wild, especially in childhood, and that all of them had great sensitivity to the stirrings of the soul’s deep imagination.” 

“Imagination might very well be the single most important faculty to cultivate in adolescence.  Without this cultivation, true adulthood might never be reached.” 

And my favorite quote that answers the question of an earlier post (The Wisdom of Art School)…

“I believe that most people would agree that we will not create a healthier society by affording women the equal right to be as pathologically egocentric as a large proportion of men have been for millennia, to acquire the equal opportunity to excel in the patho-adolescent, class-dividing world of prestige, position, and wealth, academic and corporate ladder-climbing, and power broking.  Rather, mature men and women must join together to foster soul centric development for both genders and for all races and cultures… 

If it’s true that…our environmental crises are due to a widespread failure of personal development, especially among the people in power in the industrialized nations (mostly wealthy males), then a radical overhaul in our way of parenting and educating children is in order.”

So, whether this post makes you want to go to Toys R Us to stock up for the holidays, or take a walk in the woods will probably explain a lot if you choose to listen.  I, for one, am going hiking…um, after I pick up a few things from the store.