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 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.
"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.
"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."
"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."
"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 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 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.