Guest Post: Fostering a “Necessary Wilderness”

Maija-Liisa Harju  (L&M parent, Children’s literature and culture scholar)

David Almond, a much lauded UK children’s author, once argued that a feeling of “necessary wilderness” is inherent to childhood, and is something that children and adults must try to maintain throughout their lives. What is it to be wild? To run, jump, scream, howl, bark, burrow, growl, rage? Climb trees, climb shipping containers, make snail houses, make fires, tell stone stories?  Almond shares this particularly vivid childhood memory of being in and carrying home the wilderness:

And we’d get to the heather hills themselves, a scruffy little area of wasteland at the top of town, with its pond and abandoned mineral lines, the place where we dug our dens and built our fires and we re-fought ancient wars, and we ran laughed and screamed and howled and whispered. And generally had a great time under a massive sky in the reddening dusk as the first stars started to appear. And when darkness came on, the voices would start, echoing out from the town we had left behind […] and we reluctantly began to disperse and to retrace our steps to head home again. Back across the fields, past the allotments, back into the estate, into the garden, into the living room, into the house where it was warm and safe and civilized, and food and bed waited. And what does it feel to be a child like that, just returned from the wilderness and the dark? Safe at home, yes, civilized, the radio on, the TV on, everything at peace but the skin’s still tingling from the outside air; the mind’s still seething with what it’s seen, and what it’s heard and felt and imagined. The house is a picture of order, but the child has brought the outside wildness and darkness in. (“The Necessary Wilderness.” The Lion and the Unicorn, 35.2, 2011, p. 110-111).

In this passage, Almond identifies wilderness as something that is not only experienced out of doors, but a thing that children can embody: an essential, primal relationship that they carry inside them, in and out of civilized spaces. This ‘embodied’ knowledge of nature, a way of making meaning of the world through active, sensory engagement, is something that I see the Plaworkers at The Lion and The Mouse engendering—a “necessary wilderness” that my daughter can hold onto, for example, as she negotiates the socializing forces that dominate her daily life.


As evidenced by Cam’s recent post about stone stories, there are clear connections between children’s play landscapes (both natural and urban), experiences, story-making, and story sharing. Stories reinforce our experiences, help us understand them and allow us to share our adventures with others. In the spirit of this, I thought I’d share a few contemporary children’s picture book titles that can also foster a sense of necessary wilderness and connection to the natural world for readers of all ages (book covers above):

Wild, Emily Hughes

Virginia Wolf, Kyo Maclear & Isabelle Arsenault

Tokyo Digs a Garden, Jon-Erik Lappano & Helen Katanaka

Bright Sky, Starry City, Uma Krishnaswami & Aimée Sicuro

The Specific Ocean, Kyo Maclear, Katty Maurey

The Moon Inside, Sandra V. Feder & Aimée Sicuro [Available September 2016]



Snail Playgrounds

Over the past couple of weeks our playschool kids have been loving their Adventure Play. They love to build, love to climb, love to destroy. We provide them with real tools and materials because we believe that (even at the age of 3) they can build real things if we give them the room and the support they need.

Yesterday the kids decided to include some pint-sized friends in the fun. With a few buttons and other beloved loose parts they made an Adventure Playground that was just the right size for SNAILS :).



(I couldn’t help but share are a few photos of the amazing swings the kids have been building for themselves. Can’t wait to see what they do with our new stock of construction materials for spring!)


Adventure Club

This week we had the first sessions of our new ten-week-long Adventure Club after-school programs that’s all about free play in natural settings. I meet the kids with my big backpack of odds and ends (tools, tarps, rope, old cloths, tape, bandaids, the usual….), armed for whatever kind of play the kids want to engage in.

Our Tuesday crew, at the Champ des Possibles, was all about drawing with charcoal using bits of burnt wood from a past fire someone had, investigating rock layers vis-à-vis smashing rocks with hammers, and getting to work on building “le club”, our “headquarters” for “Club d’aventure”, by adding to a pre-existing old wooden structure at the Champ. At their guise, we focused on making booby traps (“pièges”) to trap unsuspecting visitors and amused ourselves by making a teeter-totter/lever system of sorts out of an old 2X4 on top of the structure. We didn’t take many pictures Tuesday afternoon but here is a pic of our playschool kids testing out the teeter-totter system the next day!


Our Wednesday crew, at Mont Royal, was totally different, but equally fun. We played plenty of old school games such as Simon says, What time is it Mr. Wolf, freeze tag, etc., to get the after-school willies out – four out of the eight kids are at a school that has been renovating their outdoor area for quite some time – so some of these kids don’t get any outdoor time at school. We then set off to explore the mountain, mainly just rolling up and down a giant hill, digging in frozen ground, using hammers as ice picks on a “mountaineering expedition”, and plenty of tree climbing.


The weather was hardly something most grownups would get excited about this week. Tuesday was -5, and it was blizzarding for most of the Wednesday session, but this didn’t bother any of the kids. In fact, the only complaint I heard was that the club was too short!

Long live adventurous play! Can’t wait to see everyone next week!


Spring Break Adventure (Play)

A couple of weeks ago, Megan and I had an opportunity to put together a pop-up adventure playground in an empty activities room at the wonderful Marc Favreau library in la Petite-Patrie as part of the Festival Montreal joue over spring break. It turned out to be one of the funnest pop-ups we’ve done in ages!

We were nervous at first because we didn’t know what the turnout would be like, or if children would be interested in the kind of play environment we were providing during their visit to the library. The group ended up being very lively, with some children coming and going but with an excited core group that formed spontaneously and stayed for the full two hours we were there. Most of the kids were elementary school age and easily and confidently use the loose parts we provided. Some children used the loose parts to build things that were very concrete (i.e. building cars, houses, and creatures) from cardboard and other materials. Others ended up creating things that were more abstract and highly personal and unique. Other children too simply used the loose parts as they found them to do things like dress up Megan, create a catwalk for modeling, tape each other to walls and floors, and play hockey with cardboard tubes and balls of material. It was an incredible group in that it showed Megan and I so clearly how creative and engaged all children can be when given the opportunity to design their own play.

It was especially nice to get to engage in pop-up adventure play at another community event, outside of the Lion and the Mouse’s daily activities, with fresh faces. As always, it was amazing to hear kids ask, in confusion, “What do I do with this stuff?” And to see the joy in their faces when we respond, “Whatever you want!” As Megan and I complete our playworker training with Pop-up Adventure Play, it’s wonderful to get out into the community and gain a deeper understanding of why playwork is a vital part of what we do.
– Cam

A River in the Champ (WE LOVE SPRING)

Milder temperatures this week have meant a lot of exploring, melting ice, and the first signs of buds. We even found this amazing “river” where Ethan was busy “putting little guys in to go meet their friends”. Vive le printemps!


Cardboard Forever

The Playworker Development Course we’ve been taking has been extremely influential for Cam and I. Every day we feel like we are growing in our ability to truly be “play based” and “child-led”. We are really enjoying seeing how kids interact with loose parts, particularly cardboard boxes, tape, and various containers. One morning this week the kids made a game where they pretended to be packages being delivered in cardboard boxes, but would jump out and “surprise” whoever they were being delivered to. How funny is that? The ideas were all theirs 😉 quel plaisir!