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]



Graduation and Goodbyes

Today was a big day at L&M. It was graduation day for some and my personal last day before starting maternity leave.

In the three short years we’ve been here we’ve seen lots of kids come through our programs. While we’re lucky that our community keeps us all connected, we’ve come to expect that we’ll miss sharing the ins and outs of sharing our day-to-day with the playschoolers we’ve come to know so well and for so long. One of our graduates started when she was barely two years-old and has spent more than half of her life playing each week with us at L&M.

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While I know my replacement Monique will be wonderful, I can’t help but think that part of me will miss the day-to-day with  my wonderful colleagues and all the families who have come to form our community. Cameron, Grace and Megan are much more than coworkers or even co-founders. They are true friends who I’ve had the privilege of working along side to bring The Lion and The Mouse from a vision to a reality. Their hard work, ingenuity and passion inspires me on a daily basis and I am excited to see what they and Monique have in store for The Lion and The Mouse in the coming year. Even more than that, I am grateful that my own son is part of such a vibrant and caring community and will one day be a proud L&M graduate himself.


Winter Party: Why campfires are THE BEST

This past Sunday was our annual Winter Party. Armed with s’more supplies, our two portable campfires, snow paint, shovels, tea and hot chocolate, we welcomed 30-40 kids and their parents to the Marché des possibles, one of our favorite local green spaces, despite some pretty unforgiving temperatures (-10 plus a nasty wind chill and a layer of frozen ice under the snow!). While a lot of the faces were familiar, we were happy to see plenty of new friends and friends of friends out for the occasion!


When planning events and programs for kids, it’s easy to overlook the benefits that they have for parents too. While the kids were happy playing on one of the two huge mountains of snow, I had the pleasure of hunkering down with a group of parents by the fire as their kids popped in from time to time. It was wonderful to watch the parents hand down “techniques” for marshmallow roasting and to hear them share stories about their own experiences sitting around campfires. We exchanged songs and summer camp stories. There was a sense of nostalgia within the group, and I could feel a certain stirring of emotions as everybody chatted or perhaps reflected on the experiences they’d shared around a fire– whether it was weekend trips with their family to the woods every Sunday in rural Poland, working as a camp counselor in the Eastern Townships, high school bonfires, or scouting trips.

It was beautiful to see such reverence in the eyes of adults. In my work as an educator and playworker, I spend so much time focused on the reverence that kids experience in nature, or how kids benefit from play, that I sometimes forget how it touches the adults in their lives. After all, the memories that I have of my own experiences in nature and around campfires as a kid are a huge part of why I enjoy working as a Forest School educator. Last weekend, I was happily reminded that as grownups we need to play too and that we all benefit from a little time together in nature, roasting marshmallows and sharing stories around a campfire.


I heard so many kids ask their parents as they were leaving if they could “go camping”, “have a picnic”, or “make a fire” at home/next weekend/in the summer. I’m sure many of these kids already share these kinds of adventures with their parents, but I like to think that the event served as a gentle reminder in the harshness of Montreal winters that there are many ways to share in the joys of nature and play within our communities, even in the heart of the city!