Childhood Spaces

I’m reading The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, and it is making me think about my own childhood and the connections to both Nature and Food that I enjoyed during that time.

I was a child of the ’70s and I grew up in a suburb of Vancouver that spreads across the face of the Coast Mountains, looking over Burrard Inlet and the lights of the city. Our house was on a double-sized lot; my parents bought it from a family friend in her late 60’s who grew up there. Her father had built the split-level bungalow and I always thought it had been a farm. I now understand that it was just a home, and that people in those days just naturally grew their own food and kept animals.

There was a patch of rhubarb that grew every year without us tending to it in any way. My mother made amazing rhubarb pies from that patch. We had some small strawberries in an overgrown garden patch near the back of the property, which delighted us and the neighbour children when they revealed their delicious little red fruits each summer. There was an apple tree with small, tart but juicy apples. A black cherry tree grew in our neighbour’s yard; we were allowed to harvest anything on our side of the fence, which we did by climbing onto the flat roof of our garage (our property was built on a slope, so the back of the garage was almost level with the ground). I’ll never forget the delicious juicy sweet taste of the large, almost-purple cherries. Today we pay $6 a lb for such delights.

There was an old chicken run alongside the garage – at one point I begged my mother to allow us to take some baby chicks home from school, where we had hatched them in an incubator as part of a class project. Mother, wisely figuring that she would end up in charge of the birds once we grew tired of them, said no. There was a shed at the back of the house with an old bird coop attached to it. It is now illegal to keep fowl on one’s property in my old neighbourhood, as it is in almost all urban and suburban areas.

My father was an avid gardener and the front of the yard was full of massive rhododendrons, poppies, and other delights. He kept a huge compost pile, largely fed by grass from our extensive yard. I can remember sticking my hand deep in the middle of the pile and marvelling at how hot it was in there. We built a tree fort next to the garage, from scraps of lumber we salvaged from around the neighbourhood, stealing Dad’s tools from the workshop, even lining it with bits of scrap carpet (which didn’t hold up too well in our wet climate). These days most people don’t have scrap lumber around their yard, children are discouraged from handling tools and nails especially without supervision, and many neighbourhoods have laws banning the construction of treehouses or requiring a permit to do so.

Our yard was an amazing playground, but we were fortunate to have been young in the days when children enjoyed far more freedom of movement than today’s kids do. We roamed the street, playing in whoever’s yard offered the best stage for that day’s games. A small cherry tree next door was perfect for climbing; the house down the street had a neglected tennis court that was perfect for riding bicycles. Someone else had a pile of sand that became the largest sandbox on the block. These days many people don’t know their neighbours; families where both parents work and kids go to after-school care means there are not hordes of kids and adults around in the afternoons, and liability issues lead parents to discourage their children from playing in others’ yards.

The ditches lining the road (no sidewalks back then) were treasure troves of life – I collected frog eggs which I hatched into tadpoles in a small fishbowl. I also found a garter snake that I brought into the house, much to my mother’s dismay. And two blocks away was a ravine with an old wooden bridge. We spent hours there, riding our bicycles to the bridge and daring each other to walk across the rickety-looking beams.

The adults were not with us, though most of the neighbours knew who we were and where we lived, even if they didn’t all know us by name. We remembered them by whether they were friendly to us playing in their yard, and what treats they handed out at Halloween. Homemade treats were prized, a rarity these days. Our parents called us home by standing on the doorstep calling our names. Or sometimes our father would come out and carry us home on his shoulders or back. Few children enjoy such freedoms today.

At my elementary school there were parts of the grounds that were forested and/or undeveloped. I well recall the little creek that flowed alongside the schoolground and how many times half the school would be out there playing along that creek. We had a game called “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” where we damned bits of the creek and mixed up the pools with mud to make various batches of “chocolate”. All along the stream kids would be spread out with sticks and rocks, inventing wonderful complex worlds of play. The forested area included trees with root systems that spread thickly above ground, providing wonderful play spots. One provided a cave, another’s long straight above-ground roots were display tables for various wares made of leaves and sticks, their exact identity dependent on whether we were playing “store” or “restaurant”. Large fronds of pine needles were brooms with which we swept clean areas around trees to make room for a game of House. And many a time I wandered off to a more private, overgrown section of the grounds to get down on my hands and knees and pretend I was a forest creature. Due to liability issues few schoolgrounds have natural areas in them; most are built up with ‘safe’ play structures and levelled ground. Rivers and streams are a lawsuit waiting to happen.

The next section of The Last Child in the Woods I will read is about “the Bogeyman”. I have suspected for some time that the main reason parents are so restrictive on their children’s movements – fear of abduction – is a bill of goods we’ve been sold by media who know that such dramatic stories sell newspapers. I wonder how much collective damage we are doing to our children by trying to protect them from something that has less chance of happening than winning the lottery or being struck twice by lightening. Then again, how much of modern children’s restrictions are due to lack of community (not knowing your neighbours) or lack of opportunity (the overscheduled family)?

I’ll let you know when I’ve finished the book. And I’ll talk about what we’re doing with our children to ensure that they enjoy the same freedom to wander and explore the Wild Places that we enjoyed when we were young.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Me and my Beverly Cleary lust all over again. I loved this book.


  2. Posted by Kat on June 14, 2008 at 5:00 am

    I wonder if the ban on poultry will be removed. There might be enough of a movement towards local food to bring that issue to the forefront again and actually get some support. I live in the District of North Vancouver and would have chickens in a heartbeat if I could.


  3. […] Green Spaces I recently read The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. The book discusses “nature deficit disorder”, a not-so-serious name for a pretty serious issue, that is, the lack of access to wild spaces that kids today are faced with (wild spaces being everything from a roadside ditch overgrown with grasses and teeming with wildlife, to hiking through an old growth forest). Books like this make me sad: reading about children who live without any access to green sites, and also reading about everyday kids whose life of school, homework, and organized sports leaves them so little precious free time for exploring. Add to that the lack of community and fear of the boogeyman (or worse, liability) and too few children get to experience the outdoors the way my generation did. […]


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