Misguided ideas of “protection” – of nature and of childhood

hand of man therapyjohn muir

There is much conversation in media to “return to nature.” Books and motivational speakers decry amassing material objects; slogans promote exploring the wilderness, saying that “you may have limited cell reception, but the connections are guaranteed to be better;” and social media is making the photographic capture of trees and mountains and rivers a trending fashion statement with its popularity contest of who can #exploremore in the #greatoutdoors. (Bonus points if you are so lucky as to be in the #pacificnorthwest. Which, I admit that I am. And yes, I have used these hashtags, for myriad of reasons that I am now reconsidering.)

My question, though, is when did we leave? There seems to be a general consensus that we return to nature, which would assume that there has been a departure. 

And perhaps this question has two answers, that mirror and echo each other – the first is a large scale, human history view of the retreat from wilderness into civilization, and the slow process of progress from early man’s reliance on nature to modern man’s capabilities with technology; the second is the much shorter span of a single human’s life, from childhood to adulthood, and the life sequencing of spending increasingly more time in schools, then office buildings, and with tools of work and study that go beyond our early curiosity with the outdoors as a play and learning space.


In human history, we have slowly moved out of depending upon the “wild” to survive, opting instead to live much of our lives indoors and in civilization. Likewise, it could be posited that a typical life span also follows this trajectory – from more to less time spent in wild / natural spaces.


Though really, there are doubtless more than just these two answers. For this post, though, humour me to explore these two ways of thinking of our societal withdrawal from nature, and the subsequent consequences both for us as humans, as well as for nature itself. Too, I want to take the discussion a level deeper, and step into the comparison between childhood and nature, both being given somewhat unrealistically pure and innocent attributes.

Looking at the correlations between early man to modern man, childhood to adulthood, and nature to not nature, there also emerges a pattern that the Adult – the modern man, as the civilized being – has the role of the caretaker/protector/”knowledgeable one” in relation to childhood and nature, because the Adult is the more evolved in a life span as compared to a child, just as modern man is more evolved than his nature-reliant ancestor. This role is taken on, though, with a series of unspoken assumptions about this “other” that has been created in the process; assumptions that are, at the least, limiting factors and, at the most, a complete fantasy that has the potential to harm this created Other. (The other here, just to stay on the same page, is the Child and Nature.)

Have adults created an idealized fantasy world to conceptualize nature, and childhood?

Affrica Taylor, a professor at the University of Canberra, talks about the “romanticized and idealized conceptualizations of childhood” (Taylor, 429) that adults create and impose upon real children, essentially creating a Childhood that is completely separate from Adulthood and, by extension, Humanhood.

winnie the pooh

This is a Peter Pan, Disney-infused effect – a way to remember one’s own childhood in a way that isn’t entirely true, and come to authoritative conclusions that affect children now, based on those made-up realities. Affrica explores the same cognitive separation that has taken place in regards to wilderness.

Not only are these images (of nature) themselves devoid of people, but most of us are much more likely to witness the romantic sublime of wilderness on posters, calendars and in diaries than to actually visit these places (427).

Further still, Affrica dives into the conflation between childhood itself and nature, both being pure entities – “innocent” in the case of children, and “unpeopled” wilderness. She writes how “endangered childhood” is becoming a topic as navigated as “endangered wilderness” in academic thought and research, and “loss, danger, purity, contamination, protection and recovery” are all becoming recurring themes in the conversation of both.


In Affrica’s mind – and I would agree – it is dangerous to so quickly conflate nature and childhood with the claim that they both represent a pure ideal of some sort.

Let’s talk about fires now.

This is where I’m going to change gears for a moment. Because sometimes, as adults/modern man in the protector/know-it-all role we’ve given ourselves, we mess it up. We take liberties based on ideas that we ourselves have made up, and these end up being harmful.

Ecology lesson, in the briefest possible way: forest fires are a natural part of the life cycle of a healthy forest; fires clear the forest floor, creating room for new growth and life; fires are a cyclical shedding of the old, and growing the necessary new. Humans have recently, in the big picture, entered the conversation, and decided that fires and their “destruction,” are bad.

We’ve created a version of nature that makes sense in our minds, but not in nature itself. 

From our assumption that we know what/how the forest should be, we not only stunt growth, but we create room for incredible damage: forests that have been “protected” from fires for too long will eventually reach their tipping point, and a rogue lightning strike will erupt years of unburned undergrowth, creating dangerously uncontrollable fires.IMG_2736

To go so far as to compare childhood and nature – or rather, human adults’ actions towards and control of childhood and nature – there may be a lesson in how we can get it wrong, sometimes. As adults create an imagined Childhood that they then feel the need to “protect” in the lives of real Children, we risk disallowing children’s voices from being heard. “Protecting the innocence” of childhood can look a lot like disempowerment. It can look a lot like ignoring actual children, and what they actually want and need, to impose ideas of a false reality, created by adults. (Non-children, by the way.)

Ultimately, what will be the repercussions of this idealized Childhood? What are the wildfires?

Instead of removing ourselves from the experience of childhood with the creation of a myth of what Childhood is, and instead of removing ourselves from nature and treating it as this Other entity, what is needed is a true relationship. Nature is a force of its own – not a fad, a decoration, or a necessarily vulnerable Object (a mountain certainly has power, and can allow or disallow a climber’s summit) – and the human goal should be to understand it and how to live with it, rather than treat it as something entirely separate from ourselves. Similarly, actual children need to be understood as they are, and not by how they fit into a romanticized box of “knowing.” Children are not weak, not voiceless, not representatives from an adult’s fantasy world of Childhood.



Taylor, A. (2011). Reconceptualizing the ‘nature’of childhood.Childhood, 18(4), 420-433.



How we see things is not just as they are, or always have been

She wrapped her arms around me in a tight hug, and stated: “I never thought I could have done this. Thank you.” Rebecca*, 14, was a participant on a weeklong backpacking course for teenagers for which I was one of two instructors. Over the course of the week, she had admitted to me that she had never traveled by foot further than three miles. She said this as a way to explain that she was out of her depth; as a defense of her relative “inability” (as compared to the other students), “slowness,” and proneness to slip or fall. In our five days together on the trail, we traveled almost 20 miles – one of the days was 8 miles over difficult and rocky terrain. DSC02737Rebecca had come to the course with Adam*, her 18-year-old biological cousin and foster brother, who also physically struggled to keep up with the other students. Adam, like his sister, gave words to his experience: his, though, were to tell how his mother “did not like to hike more than three miles,” and so he had never been exposed to the kind of experiences the other kids’ had, and was at a disadvantage – he “normally could keep up!” Rebecca often used phrases like, “I can’t do this,” “it’s just too hard for me,” or “maybe I’m just not good enough.” Adam, on the other hand, kept quiet about his doubts and pushed himself to the point of near injury in order to keep up with the other students – especially the (younger) female students who were surpassing him.

These two students’ behaviours are not considered necessarily exceptional. Many would even conclude that this is just “typical teenage behaviour” — that it is normal for a boy to be more physically competitive, and a girl to be quicker to complain and/or downplay her physical abilities. However, why would we say this is normal? Where do these “normal” ideas come from? What histories have been set in place that have created an environment for these two youths to approach the same physical challenge and react in entirely different ways to their peers, instructors, and even themselves?

Within the field of Child and Youth Care, attention is being paid to ideas just like this. What histories have been put in place that are now defining childhood and how we practically work with children and youth? Adding to the conversation on a gendered approach to the body, Mona Gleason, in her study of the history of education and its role in socially constructing the bodies of children, writes that “[i]n sharp contrast to the assumed ruggedness of boys, girls were believed to be not only the weaker sex but also the more emotional sex” (Gleason 2001, 205), and that “among boys, prowess at sports was probably number one” (209). School policies regarding gendered recess restrictions, clothing, or even discipline, then, reinforce these beliefs and, ultimat
ely, contribute to a history that states a certain reality for children. In another article, Gleason remarks that “children continue to be understood, in Western societies at least, as lacking the power and competency to drive social change or to produce important knowledge” (Gleason 2009, 132). And so it is that children have been assigned their identity, and too are believed incapable to change it.

As we look back at what we can see of the history of childhood, we can identify (at least parts of) the path from there to here. The way a student relates to his or her own body and its relative abilities is necessarily tied to an immense history of how we have been taught to think about bodies. How do we continue the conversation in a way that acknowledges history, and also pushes the dialogue… creating space, for example, for young girls to not discredit their bodies because of sex, gender, or age?

*Students’ names have been changed.

Gleason, M. (2001). Disciplining the student body: schooling and the construction of Canadian children’s bodies, 1930–1960. History of Education Quarterly, 41(2), 189-215.

Gleason, M. (2009). In Search of History’s Child. Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures, 1(2), 125-135.