Giving Thanks for What’s Left of Childhood Magic

Published by EducationNews.org — You rarely see a place that actually belongs to children.

Completely by accident, on a get-away to Maine, my husband and I ran across a fairy village created by children.  It was so large and thrilling, it took us a minute to take in its riches.

I’d been focused on the views of the Casco Bay.  But tucked on the interior side of a woodsy path going around one of Maine’s myriad islands were dozens of structures big and small, each quite unique, though made entirely of the natural materials at hand.  We were already content with exploring the moody, fall-colored coastal woods, but unexpectedly encountering children’s magic made us gasp.

You so rarely see a place that actually belongs to children.  In a regular public park or a playground, if children took down a structure and made it into something else, painted or decorated it with fun found materials, they’d be vandals.  Miscreants.  They’d be bad kids deserving to be punished for defacing some painfully sterile bit of “play equipment,” designed primarily to pacify adults and lawyers.

But in a fairy village, reconstruction is what children do.  Well, minus the paint.  A sign put up by the local Parks and Rec Department specifically asks children to use only the natural materials they can find there.  In deference to one another, the kids probably didn’t dismantle one another’s structures because they could just keep delving into the ample woods to find more space, more tree roots, stumps and hollows that would make a perfect foundation for a new fairy home.

The inventiveness.  The charm.

Without any hard evidence to back me up, I thought I could see gender and age differences.  To my mind, girls had continued along the path a ways and taken the long flight of stairs down to the shoreline for seaside materials.  Seaweed thatched the roofs of small structures, and served as curtains elsewhere.  Shells, sometimes matched with great precision, provided the Spode china for tea parties.  The place settings were laid out on a variety of tables, suitably flat surfaces, sometimes fashioned from a split branch, supported by fat legs of stones balanced on top of one another.

Surely it was older children who’d woven a biggish Lincoln-log sort of structure with ingeniously-defined doors and windows.  And surely older children were the ones to build a house up in a tree, though below my eye level, with a base balanced on a couple of broken branches.

Branches made Stonehenges, reverently adorned with shells, rocks, pine needles and bark.  Designs on the ground carpeted the way between houses.

I’m thinking the boys and tomboys, perhaps with the collusion of their dads, had hauled logs, larger branches and pieces of driftwood to make tepee-shaped hobbit houses with yawning doorways.  A supplemental sign, merely laminated paper, forbade the use of any wood longer than three feet, arguing that large structures could be dangerous to animals, children and in bold, block letters, to FAIRIES.

But the three-foot rule had been broken repeatedly, and indeed the largest structure would have collapsed on any little fool who’d dared to enter it.  But really, nothing serious could have resulted.  Seemingly, adults whose kids frequent the place allowed the more impressive monuments to stand.  Some rules beg to be broken.  So these kids have very common-sensical adults in their lives, including the Parks and Rec folks.  If only many more were like them.

When I was growing up in the middle of Los Angeles, we had no such woodsy areas for fairy villages.  But we certainly had magic spaces.  Ours were corners of garages and city gardens, fed by the then-plentiful scrap wood piles, bags of fabric left-overs, all manner of found objects, and natural detritus.  We banged things together with hand-me-down tools.  These were our spaces and our structures, destroyed only by weather, or by being cannibalized for better uses, or by ill-advised sprucing up by the adults.

When I see the word “interactive” on video games, all I can think is that the buyers don’t know the meaning of the word.  Magic spaces invite genuine interaction, because there is no “there” there unless kids make it themselves.  Today “interactive” refers to a kid plugging into a pre-fabricated electronic world that has fantasy aesthetics, but none of the kid’s own imagination.  Consumerism has colonized all that once was magic, so adults pay through the nose for admittedly-fun, but passive entertainment, like Disney’s “Magic” Kingdom, where Snow White looks the same in everyone’s mind.

If urban kids had bits of woods where they could build little structures, they might learn to love nature, and even science.  Yes, it  might take a generation before older kids and nasty adults would quit vandalizing such places.  I assume that present-day graffiti defilers and similar hoodlums did have not have their own building spaces as children, so they don’t know the pain of someone wrecking their creation.  To have a sense of place, kids need little corners of the world where they can make magic.

As some kids in Maine do.  Let us at least give thanks for that.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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