When spring arrives, my Pacific Northwest backyard becomes abloom with more than verdant greens and dazzling flowers. In addition to the stunning red rhododendron, the pollinator-calling pink of the flowering current, and the white-plated blooms of the dogwood, child-built fairy houses begin to appear. Rules of new games get called out like bird song. At the base of our birch trees my children spontaneously create colorful teas and soups out of herbs from our kitchen garden to heal imaginary ailments. Sage, thyme, oregano, chamomile, and parsley get stirred up; simmered upon blocks of wood, which are the children’s imaginary stove burners; and served to one another and a present parent in remnant cups upon mismatched saucers. Sticks and stones are found and become the elements with which they build new creative forms; mandala-like designs circle around their feet, emanating out from the locus of their imagination. Remnant chalk pieces sought out and mixed with stagnant pools of rainwater become a pudgy paint that is used to bring additional hues to tree trunks and tables. Painted rainbows appear randomly throughout the garden upon stones, stalks, and steps. Engaging with the natural world becomes the essence of imaginative play.
Being within the enchanted edges of the more wilder places is a foundational element to the children’s way of knowing, understanding, and interacting with the natural world that manifests in their ability for creative self-expression and sense of belonging to the world.
The associations between the child’s impulse to imagine and create and their experience of awe and wonder within the natural world are upheld within their earliest praxis of life. It is helpful to wade a bit, and briefly, into the waters of the work of British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Winnicott on the transitional sphere and the transitional object (1958, 1971) to illuminate the importance of these connections between how the engaged form of a play-thing becomes that which sparks new and imagined forms. Winnicott’s transitional concepts refer to the role of play in infancy and early childhood and explicitly designate playing as the praxis of illusion, or the practice of imagination. The toddler who hugs her doll (i.e., her transitional object) enters by this act temporarily into a special world (i.e., transitional sphere) in which special rules prevail. Says Paul. W. Pruyser, this is when the child and key members within the child’s world “contrive to suspend for a moment the common hard-nosed judgments that distinguish private fantasy from public reality, creating a novel intermediate zone between these tow which is commonly called the world of play and make-believe” (Pruyser, 1976). It is in this suspension of domesticated codes of conduct that the child’s wild imagination is unleashed.
The realm of her imagination becomes a soulscape of enchantment where the unhinged whispers from another world invite her into a sensory existence, manifesting as creativity, ingenuity, and inspirited artistry. Not only does she draw wings, she has them; not only does she design with sticks; she is the tree. From within the creative play emerges a child’s sense of their interconnection and communion with the whole of creation.
In The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood, Edith Cobb understood that a person’s “capacity to go out and beyond the self derives from the plasticity of response to environment in childhood.” And she continued,“Memories of awakening to the existence of some potential, aroused by early experiences of self and world, are scattered through the literature of scientific and aesthetic invention. Autobiographies repeatedly refer to the cause of this awakening as an acute sensory response to the natural world.” Artist-types, a category to which I believe we all belong in our truest form, seem to all be able to attribute their connection to the creative with a profound and prolonged experience in nature. Thomas Berry referred to this as one’s primary referent, a relationship gained through a particular occurrence in a particular place. This is an awakening that sets one’s imagination on fire for the possibilities of a flourishing future for all.
Creativity grows its roots in the land, not so unlike the most beautiful of trees.
Recent studies indicate that Cobb was on to something of profound importance. For instance, a 2006 Danish study found that outdoor kindergartens were better than indoor schools at stimulating children’s creativity. The researchers reported that 58 percent of children who were in close touch with nature often invented new games compared with just 16 percent of indoor kindergarten children did. A 2017 letter signed by leaders of Scotland's health, education and natural heritage bodies, backing a new Scottish “Away & Play” campaign, states: “If we are to grow and develop as a healthy and happy society, as well nurture the next generation of creative and innovative thinkers that will power our economy in the future, it is vital that children are encouraged to play outside – to build dens, to climb trees, to be free to turn a stick in to a magic wand and create their own world to play in.” This is a play that is good for the brain and good for the imagination. Within this wild realm, children gain an embodied confidence in their individually expressed creativity. Away from the ordered confines of straight lines, linear time and the rigidity of binary thinking, the imagination lets loose its wonder like the wind that sets wingèd ones to flight.
American nonfiction author and journalist Richard Louv states in his award winning book, Last Child in the Woods, “Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.” While the end-goal of providing the child safe and welcoming access to the natural world shouldn’t necessarily be environmentalism, it is a holistic outcome of a young one’s life lived in the company of the more-than-human world. The child instinctively knows that nature isn’t an object to subdue, but a subject, a kin, a trusted play-mate that invites her into a co-creative participation.
Muddy paths, twigs and sticks, stones and salamanders are the journey companions into beWILDerment. In this place we trust the child to become both lost and found within their imagination, to become re-wilded and re-membered through how they create out of this imagination-rich porous soulscape.
This is rewilding as a process of remembering: remembering that we carry wildness within; remembering that we are related to other plants and animals who inhabit Earth with us; remembering that we are on a common journey upon our common home with the whole of creation. When we lose our sense of belonging to the world, our lives can feel empty and meaningless, with our sense of creativity stunted. This hollow feeling is a result of a disconnection from the nature to which we have forgotten we belong. Mythologist and psychologist Sharon Blackie states, “…when we lose our relationship with the land and the other creatures around us, then in the deepest sense, we lose ourselves.” Consequently, when we recover our relationship with the land, when our soul-life is nurtured by it, we find our interrelated belonging. A deep sense of creative responsibility and solidarity is awakened and becomes our primary posture on the planet.
The outward creative expressions of the child—like the chalk-tinged Maple leaves, moss-roofed fairy houses, and birch twig tracery I find throughout my garden, are then not only artistic styles, but ways that bespoke a sense of belonging the child intuitively embodies. As guardians of these young souls, and in participation and protection of our planet, it behooves and benefits us all to let the child into bewildering landscapes and let them create their unique way, their imaginative-found path, within it.