COMMENTARY: Where the Wild Things Are

Why Children Still Need Nature

I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.

~Henry David Thoreau

The creek was child territory. A communal green space.©

As a child, I had a creek in my backyard. My younger brother and I lived at the creek. The minute perfection of a baby crawdad held in my palm elicited one of my earliest moments of wonder. My creek was an ever-changing constant. It could dry to a mere trickle in a dry summer or burst from its bank after a heavy spring rain with a current that begged attempts at rafting. It was a refuge, my chief source of entertainment, an interactive zoological exhibit, a place to play with like-minded adventurous friends, and a great source of snakes.

Long after my friends began wrinkling their noses when I suggested creek play, I could still be found ankle deep in silty water, net in hand. The creek was what anthropologists call a "magic circle of play". A place both real and imagined; it was a world away from adults. Adults were rarely needed or wanted—unless we made an exceptionally interesting find. I remember once, after a time of heavy rain, a huge dogfish had been washed from the Sangamon into our little creek through mysterious channels and my brother and I caught it in a butterfly net. The fish had barreled in an aggressive manner straight for my legs, electrifying the crowd of kids watching. As the large fish flopped in the fragile net, we raced up to find a grownup to show. My grandfather admired the fish and said it was a type of shark. A shark in our creek! The imagined danger was delicious.

With surprising wisdom, the adults of my childhood left children to their own devices. They knew that children need the space, solitude and most importantly, unrushed time in nature. I knew that kind neighbors were nearby if true need arose. In the many years of creek play, I can recall only one time that an adult intruded, and injected unwanted interference into my wild world. When I was 4 years old, a neighbor glanced out her window and saw me. I was completely nude, wielding a shiny new hatchet, and making a valiant attempt to chop down a large tree. The startled woman made a hurried call to my grandfather. A child was collected and re-attired (despite my protest that clothing impeded my hatcheting ability). A few admonishments later, I was back at the creek sans hatchet. If the same scenario were to transpire today, I am certain the scanners would be ablaze with calls indicating a naked toddler carrying an ax, running amok and bent on murder and mayhem. Various social service agencies would be notified, schools would be put on lock-down, and well-intentioned interventionists would swoop in and various psychotropic drugs would be recommended.

Luckily for me, my neighbors were familiar with children and childhood. The creek was child territory. A communal green space. At twilight, children crouched and flitted along its banks like moths. After my brother died at age 12, the creek was one of the first places I sought comfort in my haze of grief. Nick had written his name on the bridge with a writing rock. It became one of the few tangible traces of him left to me.

When my own sons were small, I looked forward to sharing the creek world with them and they were also thrilled with the creek’s offerings. We soon discovered, however, that the climate had changed. The fish and animals were thriving, but the banks had been groomed and planted up to the water’s edge. New neighbors worried about damage children might cause to the plantings and to themselves. One expressed real fear that an injury in the creek might result in a lawsuit. The sidewalk that had connected the creek to several subdivisions was claimed as private property and made forbidden to walkers and children. These actions speak not only to Americans" growing litigiousness, but also of the pervasive paranoia, creeping isolationism, and culture of fear that is killing American neighborhoods and keeping our children indoors. Rather than quarrel with neighbors, we sadly departed the creek and mourned the loss.

Children have always been drawn to wild, natural spaces. Toddlers allowed to explore will seek out mud under a bush or explore the most unkempt area of a backyard. Children come equipped with a natural curiosity toward the wild. The author Valerie Andrews says in her book, A Passion for this Earth, "As a child, one has that magical capacity to move among the many eras of the earth; to see the land as an animal does; to experience the sky from the perspective of a flower or a bee; to feel the earth quiver and breathe beneath us; to know a hundred different smells of mud and listen unselfconsciously to the soughing of the trees." In much of America, however, children have disappeared from the landscape.

Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, writes that a lack of exposure to nature leads to not only a decrease in a child’s sense of wonder, but also an actual loss of senses. Nature is restorative. A recent study from the University of Illinois shows what parents have long known anecdotally: that children suffering from ADHD who are exposed to green spaces show marked improvement. Nature therapy is becoming a popular recommendation among child psychologists. Yet fewer and fewer American children are playing outdoors.

It is my sincere hope that we can reawaken within ourselves and in our children the love of green places. I hope we can remember that aesthetics should not take precedence over sharing the natural world with children. We should care less about trampled hostas and more about allowing children to experience wonder. We need to reclaim the creeks and other magic circles for our children. If we fail in reconnecting with nature, we will have millions of children with the constitutions of hothouse flowers. We will have yet another generation of children who collectively echo the fourth grader in Louv’s book who announced, "I like to play indoors better "cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are"; a message truly worthy of our fear.

CHRISTINA SANTANTONIO is a former teacher and a current family violence council coordinator who blogs at