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In Defense of Wildness

Broken Arm

This was the name of the book I wrote in 2007 until Beacon Press and I compromised on In Defense of Childhood instead. By “wildness” I meant the inner kind, that luminescent spark which animates us and is the source of our uniqueness and creativity. It’s wild because it dwells deep beneath the surface, out of reach of the conscious mind, and it strives mightily to resist the control of others. Without enough inner wildness, we lack the drive and the resourcefulness to overcome the obstacles in the way of  becoming who we are meant to become.

Beacon Press asked me to change the title because they were concerned that referring to this wild inner energy on the cover of a book about children might scare readers away and dampen sales. Thus the book begins with the simple statement, “Childhood is in trouble,” when what I really wanted to say was  inner wildness is endangered because childhood no longer supports the kinds of experience that nourish and sustain it. My central thesis: childhood has become so thoroughly domesticated that virtually every dimension of a child’s daily reality is now fenced in by some outside agent.

Thankfully there has been a certain cause for optimism since I wrote In Defense of Childhood. A number of more recent books have come out, such as Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids, that are aimed at reversing the hyper-management of children’s lives. Skenazy also hosts the popular reality show “World’s Worst Mom,” which is the moniker she earned after making headlines by allowing her nine-year-old son to ride the subway home by himself in New York City. (She will be one of the keynoters at the Alternative Education Resource Organization conference this summer.)

There has also been a groundswell of efforts to save the free forms of play that are among inner wildness’s greatest allies from extinction, which brings us to the subject of today’s post—an article in last month’s edition of The Atlantic magazine entitled “The Overprotected Kid.” The article begins with a group of people in England calling themselves “playworkers” who are trying to resuscitate play by maintaining outdoor play spaces that haven’t been scrubbed clean of risk like most modern-day playgrounds with their rounded-corner equipment with rubberized mats underneath.

In fact, in one such “adventure playground” occupying nearly an acre at the far end of a housing development in North Wales, there is no play equipment at all. Instead there is a rope swing over the creek that borders one edge and a big pile of used tires and dozens of wooden pallets at the center that can be used to build forts and clubhouses. A stack of old  mattresses serves as a perfectly serviceable trampoline. There is even a metal fire pit for kids to start fires in, and a bunch of trash-picked chairs and couches to sit in while they hang out together and stare at the flames.

C. T. Sorensen and Lady Marjory Allen

The Atlantic article is worth a glance just for the photos. Adventure playgrounds look more like  junkyards than anything else, which was precisely the intent of the Danish landscape architect, C. T. Sorensen, who designed the first “junk playgrounds,” as he preferred to call them, in German-occupied Copenhagen in 1943. Sorensen had been designing conventional playgrounds for over a decade and it hadn’t escaped his notice that most kids preferred playing in rough and tumble places like construction sites where they could alternately build things and then tear them apart.

Right after WWII, the English landscape architect Lady Marjory Allen was inspired by Sorensen to establish a series of junk playgrounds in rubble-strewn London neighborhoods destroyed during the Blitz. It was Allen who renamed them adventure playgrounds. Familiar with the work of A.S. Neill, she believed that engaging in undomesticated forms of play could help children recover from the psychological trauma of the war. She also saw her version of playground as a demonstration of a “democratic community of children working beyond the divisions promoted in fascism of class, nation, and race.”

Allen also once said, “Better a broken leg than a broken spirit—a leg can always mend and a spirit may not,” and so it is to people like her and Sorensen that we owe the survival of the idea that the kind of play that feeds inner wildness is unmanaged and involves a certain element of risk.

Overprotected Indeed

It should be noted that adults are rarely seen on adventure playgrounds, other than the paid playworkers who are there mainly to keep track of the tools and maintain the space. Other than keeping half an eye on the kids to make sure they don’t do anything too dangerous, the playworkers generally leave them to their own devices.

Today there are over 1000 adventure playgrounds around the world; but, not surprisingly, only two in the U.S., where as the Atlantic writer rightly points out, “Failure to supervise has become, in fact, synonymous with failure to parent.” The article then takes an interesting turn as it explores the depth of the American obsession with child safety. In the early 1970s, the British-born graduate student Roger Hart spent two years mapping children’s movements in a rural New England town for a dissertation project he called “a geography of children.” Hart found that the kids spent huge chunks of time orchestrating their own adventures, with their range including the entire town as well as the surrounding countryside once they were old enough to ride a bike.

Then in 2004, Hart returned to the same town to reconnect with the now-grown-up kids he had followed who still lived nearby, in order to find out how they were raising their children. The first difference he encountered was that the parents wouldn’t let him talk to their kids alone, which had been his original modus operandi. It wasn’t that the parents were suspicious of him, Hart concluded, just that they’d gotten so used to always being close to their children. One mom who had been particularly adventurous as a young girl told him that she and her husband didn’t like their kids going off by themselves because the area is “so diverse now, with people coming in and out and lots of transients.”
But when Hart checked with the local police, he was told that that there actually aren’t all that many transients, and that over the years crime has remained steadily low. “There’s a fear among the parents,” Hart told the journalist from The Atlantic, “an exaggeration of the dangers and a loss of trust that isn’t totally explainable.”

Hart’s saddest discovery of all: the new generation didn’t seem to want to venture all that far from home.

There’s Good News Too

Thankfully, Hart’s findings aren’t universal. There is Lenore Skenazy’s boy still riding the subway by himself, and here in inner-city Albany, NY, Albany Free School kids who live near the school spend their outside-of-school hours roaming the neighborhood like a pack of wolf cubs. They turn the block into their own adventure playground. One day they’re marauders wielding swords and bows and arrows—the girls as well as the boys—and another they’re building another clubhouse in a double vacant lot they call “Wilbur Woods.” No one really watches them, or maybe all of us adults who are around do, each just the slightest bit. Either way the kids are extremely busy inventing and reinventing a world that is entirely of their own creation.

Then there are my next door neighbors—Mara worked at the school for several years—who filled their backyard with an extra-large trampoline they got off Craigslist for a hundred bucks. It’s an extremely popular meeting place and sometimes I see eight or ten kids bouncing around on it at the same time. There’s no safety curtain surrounding it as is so common these days, but when I asked Mara if any child had been injured in the five or six years they’ve had the tramp, she said only one. One afternoon a boy whose mom was quite fearful of it managed to fall off and sprain his wrist.

Why the difference? In Skenazy’s case she is determined for her kids growing up in Queens to have the same degree of autonomy she experienced as a child in the suburbs of Chicago, and here there are a group of parents who have chosen to send their kids to a school where they direct their own learning as well as their own play. All of these moms and dads understand the vital importance of children figuring things out for themselves—the younger the better.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. m.i.l. Bunty Ketcham #

    I read your book when it first came out, Chris, but now you have reminded me of aspects of my own childhood that I am thankful for: the total freedom I had every afternoon after school to create my own fun outdoors. I had so many choices! Playing with our dogs meant teaching those that were willing how to jump higher and higher, climbing the huge beach tree in front of our house, loading my red wagon with cardboard furniture I had made out of my father’s shirt boards and distributing them throughout the fields below the house for the fairy families that I knew lived there, walking down through our woods to play in the brook with a friend, walking the mile or so to our village library for the newest Oz book (I distinctly remember how proud I was to be allowed to do that by myself). I never remember any adult supervision in these aftrnoon adventures and somehow I knew to come in for supper on time. Considering the fact that our family was relatively privileged and there was always lots of help around and my Mother was always there in her sculpture studio, this freedom to find my own amusement was certainly a gift. Your article makes me more aware of this.

    Keep writing…particularly now that you’re sixty!

    Love, Bunty

    April 22, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Sixty … not so fast!

      April 24, 2014
  2. Excellent post, Chris. I’ve shared it widely.

    April 23, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Thanks, Wendy.

      April 24, 2014
  3. Betsy #

    Once again, clear and heartfelt. Thanks.

    May 15, 2014

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