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Running Wild

aphorisnt's picture

When I was little I loved climbing. I frequently put on a rather perfect impression of a mountain goat and, at the rocky outcroppings of the lake near my dentist's office, would jump from boulder to boulder, summiting each in turn to spend a brief moment standing on top and surveying the land around that to my three-year-old eyes possessed a sense of majesty.

At ten I still played at the park, running throughout aluminum and plastic playground structures sunk in to sandboxes. However I never let myself be limited by the parts of the play equipment and their "suggested use." I would climb on top of the monkey bars and crawl across them like a bridge. I would sit on top of the tunnel instead of crawling through it and slide down the seven or eight foot drop to the sandbox below. I would climb on top of railings and roofs and climb backwards up the slide.

One memory that really sticks with me, though, is from a trip to Yosemite at age thirteen. I was a teenager and of course thought I knew everything, and was very sure of my own limits. I wanted to climb Half Dome. It had been a dream of mine for years, since that three-year-old hopped between rocks and that ten-year-old abused the jungle gym at the neighborhood park. Unfortunately, my mom did not agree. I hiked and climbed whatever I could, but Half Dome is still a far off dream for me, something I'll have to do in adulthood (given I manage the funds to travel to California on my own).

With these memories in mind, I cannot help but fear what might happen as I grow older. Will I lose my sense of adventure? Become too lazy or cautious to enjoy exploring or climbing? Will I ever climb Half Dome? Mugford raises the question, "Are parents, and adults more generally , also losing the ability to experience childish mischeif themselves"(94)? I know I have had days when I feel more "adult-ish" and do not seem to seek adventure like I once did. I stay inside on a snowday instead of sledding or building a snowman, the last harrowing or adventurous experience I can remember was running in the ice and snow to Haverford for Wednesday morning track practice, when I consider going places or doing things I start to automatically figure in such things as monetary cost, transportation, weather, returning in time to finish work or varoius tasks. The last time I climbed a tree I simply wanted a place to read for class.

This month I turn twenty and I have been dreading passing this milestone for a while–ask anyone, I complain frequently. I feel like I am not ready to give up my childishness for maturity, to lose my thirst for adventure and become instead the restrictive force that warns children away from climbing out of misplaced concern. I never plan to become a parent, which I suppose takes away dome anxiety, yet I cannot help but wonder I will let my nieces and nephews, my cousins' and friends' children chase adventure. I want so much to encourage play in wildscapes, whether those wildscapes consist of craggy mountains or crumbling ruins. I want to be the adult who tells the thirteen-year-old, "You want to climb Half Dome? Sure! But only if I can tag along!"

True, children's literature and Y.A. novels have adult authors and it is often the parents who secure said books for their children, which does offer some solace (Mugford 94). If adults can write and wax poetic about adventures and wildscape experiences and then go one to share these accounts with the next generation, then I suppose that desire to explore is not entirely dead. My only worry is that the desire ends with a sentence on paper and never crosses over into the realm of lived experience.

If fifty one-year-old Suzanne Collins can tell the story of children hunting and fighting to survive their dystopian environment or journeying underground as the prophesied savior of a subterranean nation, and fourty eight-year-old J.K. Rowling can charm an audience ofall ages with the adventures of a wizard boy who rose from the cupboard under the stairs to save the world, and fourty eight-year-old Eoin Colfer can relay the exploits of a super intelligent trustfund baby who uses the discovery of mythical creatures to his own advantage, then the soul of adventure surely does not diminish with the passage of time. So maybe I will still climb Half Dome, reach that summit and look down the otherside like me father before me–and then right an adventure novel based on the experience.


Simona's picture


I found myself really connecting to both chapters 4 and 5 of Urban Wildscapes. Growing up in Somerville, I wasn't able to engage with the outside world, I wasn't able to play in the ruins (as mentioned in chap 4) that lay right outside my door, but I was able to explore the constructed/managed/surveilled playspace at my school during recess. I don't consider that constructed playground to have influenced my development in any particular way, although I'm sure it did somehow. But reading chapter 4, I kept thinking back to the abandoned lot up the street from my house growing up. My dad and I would occassionally walk through it to climb the crumbling steps up to the Star Market grocery store. I remember when he finally let me go alone for the first time when I was in middle school-- it was an exhilierating experience. I had been trained to watch out for myself, don't make eye contact with anyone, walk with purpose and intention, be wary. In this way, I might have already been mentally seperated from this ability to explore and trust the ruins. I knew not to touch anything, or to spend time there. In this way, it seems important to not only acknowledge the spacial access to adventure and play in ruins, but acknowledge the mental aspect too. Would I have felt guilty for stopping to play in this lot alone on my way to the store? Is that why I never did?

Then this idea of exploration ties in to chapter 5 too-- I grew up reading all the books in the Chronicles of Narnia series, my mind captured by the idea of sailing to the end of the earth, past enchanted islands, with Princes and giant swordfighting mice. And then somehow, I ended up sailing to what felt like the end of the earth, stopping at real enchanting (captivating and beautiful) island atolls, landing in french polynesia with SEA Semester for study abroad. How did I bridge that gap from imagination to reality? If I didn't have access to wildscapes in childhood (whether out in the abandoned lot, or in more "natural" spaces), what encouraged me to pursue adventure later in life? So...maybe, are ruins in which to play truly necessary? Is access to stories and imagination, without the physical aspect, almost enough to encourage adventure? I have a feeling not-- if I did get to play outside more often as a child, would sailing across an ocean be easier, would hiking up mountains be less scary? Maybe, but as the last line in chapter 5 states, "most of the really exciting things we do in our lives scare us to death. They wouldn't be exciting if they didn't."


Jenna Myers's picture

“Barriers to Children’s Adventurous Play”

After reading Chapters 4 and 5 I felt I had more of a connection to Chapter 5 on Nature, nurture; danger, adventure; junkyard, paradise. 

At the very beginning of this chapter, Mugford says “Note to parents: Why, when the landscapes of children’s literature support the principle of adventure, experiment, and development, are children given limited capacity for adventure play in the real world?” (80). This statement made me think of my childhood and how my parents raised me.

When I was little I had a city side to me where I was sheltered. My mother made sure I was always safe and protected from my surrounding city. The other side was a “nature” side. I put “nature” in quotation marks because although we were out in Wisconsin surrounded by woods, I never had a full feeling of being in “nature.” Again my mother made sure I was protected and safe. She would allow me to explore the areas where she would be able to see me or I would only get to go so far into the woods to explore. I always felt that there was a barrier between myself and the environment around me all because my mother wanted to keep me safe and protected from all of the dangers that the world has to offer.

“The implication is that children should be left alone to acquire the necessary life skills to deal with unforeseen circumstances, rather than being protected from exposure to risk and challenge through constant supervision” (83). In order for children to grow, learn, and develop they need to learn how to take risks and make mistakes. I think it is really important for parents to understand that sheltering and protecting their children all the time isn’t good for the child’s full development. Children need to explore and learn about the world whether it’s through books or physically exploring the world around them.

After reading aphorisnts post, I realized I have similar fears for when I grow up. I don’t want to lose my sense of adventure that I pushed to have. Not matter what age a person is, you should still have some sense of adventure. I also wonder when/if I have children or I am around nieces or nephews if I will be the type of parent/person to protect the children or if I will be able to let them explore and not be afraid of the unknown and scary areas of the world. 

Kelsey's picture

Cautious Exploration

I have always been cautious when it comes to adventure; I distinctly remember climbing up huge boulders at summer camp, when one of the counselors remarked that, while another camper scrambled up with little regard for falling, I always took my time, carefully considering each hand or foot hold before using it to hoist myself up.  But being cautious didn't mean that I didn't crave adventure, didn't want to perch atop the boulder and gaze out over the world and when, a year or two later at the same summer camp, the counselors stopped letting us climb on the boulders because it was too dangerous, I felt like an important part of my experience- freedom, adventure, challenge- had been taken away.  I relate to aphorisnt's and Sophia's childhood adventures, their desires to always keep experimenting and, when they weren't allowed to- such as when aphorisnt wasn't allowed to climb Half Dome- the disappointment that resulted.  

Reading Chapter 5 of "Urban Wildscapes", in addition to reflecting upon my own childhood adventures, I thought a lot about the books I loved as a child.  Especially in elementary and junior high school, I loved fantasy books, eager to experience adventure and magic that wasn't possible in real life.  Katy Mugford writes a lot in the chapter about "The Golden Compass" by Philip Pullman, one of my favorite childhood books for a lot of the reasons that Mugford mentions- adventure, exploration of deeper questions of human nature, relationships with other beings.  Literature was crucial to my childhood in part because it gave me a way to experience adventure I couldn't have in real life- partly because I loved the fantastical elements that don't actually exist, and partly because my own life was kept relatively safe and supervised.  My parents gave me as much freedom as they felt was safe, but that rarely extended beyond the confines of our neighborhood, and I have to wonder, if I had more freedom to pursue adventures, would I have needed literature as much?

Our society's desire for safety and supervision, and our constant fear of what could happen, isn't just limited to children, but dominates many aspects of all of our lives.  Today, for an internship application, I had to write 250 words about how I will keep myself safe in another country; many of my friends, even once we were in high school, were too worried about safety and getting lost to consider taking a day trip to Manhattan.  Keeping us scared is a powerful political tactic- continuing rhetoric about the threat of crime, for example, is enough to keep millions incarcerated for reasons that have little to do with actual dangers posed by crime and much to do with keeping control of the population and policing minorities.  I think that, to learn environmentally, we have to be unafraid to explore our environment, whether deep in the heart of a city or on top of a giant boulder, but allowing children to embrace their sense of adventure without fear or restriction is in some ways a challenge to the status quo many in power try desperately to maintain.  

Student 24's picture

Reading to learn the world or learning to read the world?

I was going to muse on this in my posting, but I then forgot. But then your post reminded me. So here goes. It might feel a bit scattered.
You write about the adventures you can have through literature, about freedom to have adventures versus the concern for maintaining safety in our lives and actions. Restriction.

So that reminded me of my thoughts regarding taking risks in literature. Or using literature as escape from "real life." 

I wonder: if our brains are emotionally, mentally, (hormonally?) reacting to the adventures and stories we experience in the course of a piece of literature, is it not effectively that we are ourselves living those adventures ourselves? Of course, the extent to which we react and respond to literature depends on how able we are to engage with it... "Real life" could get in the way.

But what about when literature gets in the way of "real life"? There is a danger in that, isn't there? Thoughts can develop in dangerous directions, make us feel unsafe. More unsafe than physically-demanding adventures, perhaps. By internalising what we read, it becomes an experience we've had.

At the end of the day, we can't go on every adventure we want. We can't do everything we are inspired to do, which we've read in books. Our lives weren't created in the same context and circumstances of the characters we read... and it's hard (also sometimes impractical) to discard elements of our lives in order to attain the freedom that is idealized. But then again, maybe we can do whatever we want. We just have to trust ourselves enough to believe we know what we're doing. I don't really know. I don't think I can find an answer to these thoughts.

pbernal's picture


In reading Urban Wildscapes, I agree with chapter four's idea of "lack of ordering and surveillance thus allows wild scope for activities prohibited or frownned upon in other public spaces" (pg.66). I wrote about in the "my ditch" connection essay about how I picked at people's trash with my grandmother to find cans to turn in for money and I know that's not necessarily safe or intended for kids to do as a means of fun or exploration, but reagardless, those are the memories that meant the most to me and define who I am as a person. 

If we build barriers and fence around spaces we believe are safe for children to explore and play, then we are ultimately going against the whole purpose of letting children explore. To gain knowledge of the external world, we need to gain experience and become aware to the situations and dangers the world holds and if keep our children within fences, they won't know what they're really capable of. 

Sophia Weinstein's picture

half dome

I am writing based on Chapter 4 (Edensor, Evans, Holloway, Millinton, and Binnie) rather than Chapter 5 as aphorisnt has, but it is somewhat of a response to what she wrote so I will post here.

In reading about urban wildscapes, I felt myself having trouble connecting to the benefit of playing in ruins, this specific concept of abandoned industrial sites, or locations that are home to play as well as illegality. Never in my childhood was I introduced to such a location that was ever a hotspot for drinking, drug-taking, partying and sex. I have not experienced 'a lack of overt regulation...systematic surveillance and material maitenance' (66). Despite this, I do relate to the benefits of such an environment. I think that in the mildest of ways, I was able to find urban wildscape environments in the most highly developed and 'safe' places that I grew up playing in.

Like aphorisnt, my time on playgrounds was often spent discovering what adventures existed that were not meant to be found. Cheating the system. As a gymnast, I was always looking for new feats to conquer. When aphorisnt mentioned Half Dome, my first thought was of a ‘half dome’ that is part of the playground equipment at the park closest to my house. It was a clear dome roof on a tube/tunnel that you can sit inside and see the sky. But the older kids were always climbing above the tunnel to sit on top of the half dome, and I, too, was determined to do so. It reminds me of one “the second crucial quality of ruins is their… multitude of opportunities for playful interaction with space and matter” (67). Playgrounds are built by adults to be play environments for children that can maintain the upmost safety. But maybe this isn’t what they need.

When aphorisnt said that she is “not ready to give up (her) childishness for maturity, to lose (her) thirst for adventure and become instead the restrictive force that warns children away”, it really put into words the need that children have to venture into unsafe places. She says that her considerations of “monetary cost, transportation, weather,” etc make her feel more “adult-ish”. And perhaps it is exactly that consideration of economic factors that differentiates children from adults. Most children don’t need to think to balance these economic goals into everything they do; it is not their responsibility yet. Perhaps it is gaining these responsibilities that makes us all ‘grow up’. Instead, a child’s first consideration may be on adventure: on achieving something new, expanding their knowledge and understanding of the world around them. And that requires risks and ‘danger’ and the freedom and possibility to discover it on their own.  

I think that these urban wildscapes are everywhere, and are just waiting to be found. Any adult-made playscape can become a wildscape. The play gym contraptions at McDonald’s are a perfect example of this. The outdoor slide adventure playground was made entirely of tubes that were only big enough for children. No surveillance: check. It was always disgusting, seeing as none of the employees could fit easily inside to clean it, and full of strange objects; “objects and forms of matter that cannot be identified or classified” (69).

Despite their(our?) best efforts, I don’t believe that any place can truly be safeguarded from elements of urban wildscapes and ruin.

***Because there are five authors for this chapter, I sited only using page numbers. The authors of this chapter are: Tim Edensor, Bethan Evans, Julian Holloway, Steve Millington, and Jon Binnie.***