Did you take hikes in the Hundred Acre Wood when you were a child? I did. I skated on ponds with Kanga and Roo and Tigger, and I gazed up at trees searching for Owl. I loved Winnie The Pooh.
And when I read the Narnia books I escaped into a world of lamp-posts in the middle of woods, with Fauns who had fireplaces and yummy toast, with Beavers as friends who grilled fish in their little lodges.
Or I frolicked with Laura, watching the prairie dogs stick their heads up, trying to catch one, but always missing.
It’s amazing how much of childhood literature has to do with children exploring the outdoors. The Secret Garden is probably the classic, as a little conceited, self-absorbed, pinched girl blossoms and becomes adventurous and rosy-cheeked as she explores the heather, with a boy who can tame robins and crows and rabbits.
Childhood and the outdoors go hand-in-hand. Literature spoke of it because that is what children did. In the days before mountains of toys filling toy boxes and playgrounds in the backyard, children explored streams, and fished for tadpoles, and skipped stones. They could relate to Huckleberry Finn because that was their life; today we think of it rafting on a river as something quaint and romantic.
We do our children a grave disservice. I know we’re all scared that they will be abducted, or that the big, bad world out there is scary, but children learn so much just by interacting with nature; by staring at the ants, or watching the baby robins as they take their first flight, or collecting stones. These things are important. Children learn the cycle of life; they learn the breadth of God’s creativity; they learn to find enjoyment and amazement at the simple things in life, rather than just the things that we can buy.
We try to get outdoors as much as possible; we hike, or we take off to the wetlands 15 minutes from our home, so we can watch the small animals at different stages of life throughout the year.
There’s a farm about 15 minutes away, too, and we love watching the baby calves as they grow. Their tongues are so rough!
I grew up in downtown Toronto, and many of my friends had never seen a cow, or a horse, or even a chicken. They had read about them in books, and seen them on TV, but they had never smelt a barn. They had never seen another mammal, except squirrels scampering, or else in cages in a zoo. It’s not much of a childhood.
Children need to be free to roam and explore and discover things for themselves. They need to build forts and serve tea to wood nymphs and write their stories in their little clubhouse.
My children have always done this when we camp, for as much as we love the outdoors, we don’t live in the country. As a physician, my husband really can’t live more than ten minutes from the hospital, so we’re stuck in the city. But bike just a little bit down our lane and you get into a nice stretch of woods where all the bunnies live. My daughters discovered it a few years ago, and they love to go and sneak up on them and see all the babies. It was scary the first time I let them go on their own, because you worry about who else might be there. But they’re not far from houses, and I think the benefits outweigh the risks.
Too often we are so scared of something happening to our children that we keep them indoors and they fail to discover as kids, except on the computer. That’s not a real childhood.
Whenever I read The Railway Children or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and you read about children exploring a new house, or a new countryside, or a new town, it makes me nostalgic for the days when kids exploring was far more natural than it is today. But that doesn’t mean that we should accept the situation as it is now. Find times for your kids to explore. Take them to that wetland. Create an oasis in your backyard, if you have one. Let them build a fort, even if they wreck the grass. Let them learn to ride their bikes. Let them walk in a stream. Let them be kids.
It is only in the last few decades that we have forgotten what childhood is supposed to be. I think it’s time to remember again.