In Open Horizons, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, Sigurd’s first essay captures two aspects of a child’s sense of place. The first has to do with exploring nature in small, deliberate, almost hidden ways. His key example recalls an alder thicket where as a child he used to hide:
the Pipes of Pan
He labels the second aspect of a child’s sense of place “the Pipes of Pan,” meaning a deep awareness of mystery combined with an active imagination:
my life experiences confirm his
I had similar experiences as a small child in the early 1960s. On family trips to such varied landscapes as Yellowstone, the Badlands, and the north woods of Wisconsin and Minnesota I caught the magic of the Pipes of Pan in the vistas, but often enough found myself drawn in by something small and close: a butterfly, perhaps, or a rock, or a chipmunk. The magic was there, too. At home, I made a little fort of sticks in the vacant lot next door, from which I could survey the world.
I saw it in my own children, too. They could catch the magic in places wild and tame, but always returned to the small things nearby. At home, they could spend hours in a little corner of our backyard under some bushes.
researchers agree with Sigurd
Perhaps you experienced this yourself, and have seen the same behavior in other little ones. Not surprisingly, researchers have been studying it for several decades and agree with us, and with Sigurd. There’s something about human development that brings out the preference for small, protected spaces in little children, an attraction to the little things of nature, and a powerful awareness of mystery.
In 1989, for example, Mary Ann Kirkby wrote about the behavior of 26 pre-school children on a half-acre playground. They spent more than half their time in three small, protected spaces at the edges of the playground, underneath vegetation.
Why this preference? Increasingly, psychologists are agreeing with Sigurd Olson: it is something that is part of human evolution. Sigurd called it “racial memory,” which is unfortunate as a term today because it easily stirs up inaccurate connotations. He meant it in an older, traditional sense of “human race.” He didn’t use the term in this portion of the book, but he described the concept that has been gaining recognition in the decades since his death:
If Sigurd is right–and I believe he is–giving children opportunities to spend time outdoors in green spaces is important for more than good exercise and fresh air. Important for more than mental health. It is actually an essential part of what it means to be human, and without it children cannot fully become their true selves.
Backes family photo
This post emphasizes qualities related to children’s experiences of nature, found especially in the teal portion of the singing wilderness spiritual map.