restricted access The Child of Nature and the Home Child
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The Child of Nature and the Home Child

In October 2013, BBC News reported that “a collaboration of almost 400 organizations,” among them the National Trust and the National Health Service, had issued a “call” for children “to renew a connection with nature.” Dubbed Project Wild Thing, the campaign set out to persuade young people to swap thirty minutes of time they spend in front of computers and televisions each day for outdoor play. Organizers clearly expected that the project would require the concerted work of adults, especially parents: according to chair Andy Simpson, “we all need to become marketing directors for nature” (Burns). Reasons to value children’s outdoor time were embedded but not emphasized in the report. The assumption seemed to be that such reasons are self-evident or well-known—of the first order of importance but, at the same time, obvious. Included were assertions that “wild time” contributes generally to “the health and happiness of our children” and, more specifically, to “kids’ development, independence and creativity” as well as to their “levels of fitness and alertness and . . . well-being” (Burns). An American writer and mother, making a pitch for time spent outside on a blog devoted to family issues in April 2013, was more systematic, itemizing twenty reasons to promote outdoor play for children, among them the reduction of anxiety, the promotion of problem-solving and leadership skills, the improvement of listening skills, and the increase of persistence, all of which, she claimed, combine to make children smarter (Loscalzo).

For scholars of childhood studies, the conviction that children belong out of doors and in nature marks these contemporary discourses as continuous with a long tradition of representations of desirable childhoods in societies derived from western European models. The linkage of the bucolic life with carefree [End Page 1] youth was a conventional topos in the pastoral idyll of classical literary tradition, of course (see Abrams and Harpham 210–11), but it was Enlightenment pedagogues such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau who codified the virtues of outdoor life for the hearty development of the child. For example, in Some Thoughts Concerning Education, a set of letters to friends published in 1693, Locke spends the first thirty sections detailing the methods by which these parents can encourage the physical health and resilience of their son, but encapsulates all of his advice by recommending that they look to the way in which “honest Farmers and substantial Yeomen” raise their children out of doors as a general guide to best practice (116). In the first book of Emile, published in 1762, Rousseau similarly reminds his readers that “[e]xperience shows that there are more deaths among children delicately reared than among others,” and recommends, as a result, that parents “[h]arden [children’s] bodies to the changes of seasons, climates, and elements, as well as to hunger, thirst, and fatigue” in order to ensure their robust good health (13).

Influential as these educational writers were, it is the Romantic poets who limned the child in nature in the most memorable terms. Take, for example, the lines in which William Blake pictures the young chimney sweeps of London returned to the natural condition of children: “Then down a green plain leaping laughing they run / And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.” The child imagined by the Romantics, according to Judith Plotz, was isolated and solitary, ungendered, irrepressible, imaginative and creative, close to nature, credulous, deep, possessed of erotic and emotional authority, and innately pious, among other characteristics. Most significantly, she argues, this idealized child was “immune to the pressures of history” and “conceived as existing free of the social net” (24). In cultural studies, the process of obscuring the historical construction of social, political, or cultural identities is sometimes referred to as naturalization (see Childers and Hentzi 202). This metaphor is curiously literalized in the construction of post-Enlightenment and Romantic ideas of childhood: the natural child in these discourses is the child of and in nature. That the figure of the natural child in nature continues to work in contemporary culture is obvious in the recent articles about the urgent need for adults...