The start of summer seems to invoke images of childhood that may be more retro than real, but that certainly remind us of a childhood that’s free and sometimes even wild. Children have historically and socially been connected to nature. Children have often been positioned as “wild things,” in the romantic or problematic state before “civilization” sets in. Richard Louv (author of Last Child in the Woods) contends that children have a need for, and an inclination towards nature is so significant that children who don’t encounter a bit of the wild in their daily lives suffer from “Nature Deficit Disorder.” And Gail Melson explored children’s camaraderie with animals in Why the Wild Things Are.
So for today’s kids, tweens and teens, what’s wild about childhood?
Despite dwindling opportunities to trek through the forest or wade through streams, today’s families and youth often feel most at home in the outdoors. Many parents count camping, or even just running around outside as some of their favorite shared activities (even though they turn to tech when they need or just want it). Google’s “Camping” ad from last summer captured the way that today’s families integrate tech and nature (not choose between them). But aside from these structured and connected endeavors in the wild, youth have fewer and fewer chances to test themselves, discover the dangerous and cultivate a living thing the way perhaps we once did.
Still, evidence of the wild nature of children abounds! The last day of school might be followed up with a structured summer program experience. But for youth, the loosening of the reigns for a few months means possibility. Control and competence might be the ideals for today’s youth and parents, but parents still prioritize play places when buying or renting homes (from backyards to city playgrounds), and this generation of moms and dads often make vacations about the outdoors (even if it is a manicured beach!).
For marketers and experience providers, it’s important to both acknowledge children’s connection to the natural world, and to simultaneously refrain from judging the outdoors nearby. Their backyards can be bounties, and their neighborhoods can serve as important sites of identity exploration. Even adolescents somewhat risky reliance on the sequestered spaces of the woods in their town or the natural spaces in their cities can serve a purpose. Kids, tweens and teens require spaces that let them hide, sit in silence, and wander and find. Make it your summer resolution to find one way to help them.
In honor of what would have been Maurice Sendak’s 85th birthday, which Google has honored with its own Wild Things signature, re-read our own take on the author of “Where the Wild Things Are”.