Young imaginations run wild

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 December, 2014, 10:28am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 December, 2014, 10:28am

Growing up in Pennsylvania on the edge of a wildlife preserve, I spent my childhood in the creek, building forts and swinging from vines. I always imagined the same for my children. Instead, my kids have lived in urban metropolises their entire lives. Suggesting to my son that he go outside and build a fort, he pointed to the tiny, well-manicured backyard and said, "Mum, do you see any sticks out there? There are no sticks!" Sadly, he was right.

Bill Plotkin, in his book Nature and the Human Soul, describes the stages of human ego development and explains that connecting with nature is an essential experience in transitioning from adolescence into adulthood. "Imagination might very well be the single most important faculty to cultivate in adolescence. Without this cultivation, true adulthood might never be reached," he says.

Getting kids out into nature is essential, but often a challenge in urban environments such as Hong Kong. In some cases, children are so immersed in technology and indoor activities that they can't even imagine going out in nature.

Adolescent children must be able to imaginethe world beyond their own situation and survival stories are a great way to introduce this concept. In most of these stories, fear and feelings of inadequacy are slowly replaced with competence, self-awareness and success.

Jean Craighead George is a prolific author of young adult fiction survival stories. Her 1959 classic, My Side of the Mountain, tells the story of Sam Gribley, a 15-year-old boy who leaves his home in New York to live on his own for a year in the Catskill mountains. The book is filled with realistic details about how and what food he foraged and caught, the intricate shelter he constructed, his protection, entertainment and emotions.

George wrote many books, including The Talking Earth about a Seminole girl who struggles to reconcile her native American tribe's traditional legends with the destructive practices of the contemporary world. In each, the child protagonist demonstrates upstanding character, resilience, focused strength and determination.

Abel's Island by William Steig is a classic tale of an aristocratic mouse that gallantly chases the scarf of his betrothed only to find himself washed downstream to an uninhabited island. Despondent at first and inept, Abel eventually learns to find and catch food, create shelter, protect himself and slowly realises the beauty and value in doing so. When he finally designs a way to get off the island and is reunited with his bride-to-be, he is much more capable and resilient.

In Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell, Karana lives alone on a Pacific island, discovering her strength and the natural beauty around her.

These are just a few examples of survival books for children in the eight to 13 age range that introduce the concept of solitude, discovery and competence to adolescent readers.

Don't confuse dystopian future scenarios, whereby children are engaged in killing each other for sport or to survive a post-apocalyptic new world order, with survival books. Popular series such as The Hunger Games and the Alex Rider books are entertaining and feed the adrenaline-fuelled imagination our kids enjoy, but they are not the same thing.

Taking our children out into the woods to experience nature first-hand is the best thing we can do for them. Hong Kong offers some great outdoor adventures for children. Consider hiking the Dragon's Back to Big Wave Bay, or walking from Discovery Bay to Mui Wo. You can kayak in Sai Kung or Stanley, wander the country parks, visit Kadoorie Farm to pet animals, or pick organic strawberries in Fanling. These are a few good ways to get kids out in nature. The next best thing is to read about it and help plant the seed for them to nurture in themselves later on.

Gweneth Rehnborg is a board member of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong a non-profit body devoted to improving children's literacy