Julia Steiny: Giving Thanks for What’s Left of Childhood Magic

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.

Julia Steiny

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 who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal's education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she's been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny
11 28, 2013
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