My son whistles to himself as he bends his head over a piece of paper, colored pencil in hand. Alternately tuneless and melodic, always cheery, the whistling is the sound of a child doing what children love to do most: being creative, meeting the world with his own imagination, reflecting his discoveries in what he puts on the page. His cheerful bird call signals to the world that he is drawing at the table by the sunny window and enjoying the moment.
Children love to make stuff. They are industrious. It’s not the adult version of productivity, which is so often marred by anxiety and pressure, banality, repetition, performance metrics and high-stakes outcomes. Instead, children pursue happy industry. They eagerly seek ways to engage fully with the world. They turn a box into something to play with; create a small book of drawings; glue together sticks to make a little house; fall into a great book; play school with stuffed animals or dolls; create entire imaginary worlds – it’s all about making something, transforming one thing into something else, learning and engaging, pretending, and being active, not passive. A great deal of what they do most naturally is inherently creative. Unfortunately, our school systems, schedules, and expectations seem to be interfering more and more with the beautiful, happy industriousness that children bring to the world. When children’s version of productivity is devalued and forced to look more like that of adults – e.g., with an over-reliance on performance metrics, high-stakes outcomes (i.e., testing), repetition, banality, pressure – we are getting in the way of their healthy development.
The trailblazing psychologist Erik Erikson conceptualized psychosocial development as a set of stages, each framed as a contrast between a healthy developmental step and what happens if that stage is not completed successfully. His theory, unlike other psychoanalytic theories of the day, extended the concept of development across the lifespan and was concrete about what people are trying to accomplish at each stage. The fourth stage of psychosocial development, from ages 5 to 11, Erikson called “Industry vs. Inferiority.” Healthy development in this stage is marked by increasing pride in one’s accomplishments, active engagement with the world around oneself, and a blossoming sense of oneself as competent. In college and graduate school, studying child psychology, I was particularly taken with this view of children as industrious. Their form of industry is fun and creative and both inspiring and humbling to see.
As a parent, I’ve noticed that my children and their friends appear to be especially nourished emotionally, socially, and cognitively by being outside. They spontaneously create games in the yard – ball games, imaginative scenes, treasure hunts, “nature studies.” They explore the nearby ravine, sometimes for hours. They climb trees or squat together to see something small, perhaps an interesting bug or a brilliant fall leaf or a beautiful stone, their heads close together as they peer at whatever it is. I love to hear their high, clear voices outside expressing delight or wonder, solving problems, identifying something new, making guesses, trying out ideas, and I love the questions they sometimes have afterward about their discoveries, or how they run inside to get one of us to show us whatever they’ve found. There is nothing as potent as experiencing nature for stimulating children’s imaginations, and I hope that more parents and schools and organizations can facilitate just that. These experiences need not be in nature writ large, on nature’s grandest stages – though those are lovely and wonderful and I hope that more children can enjoy them. On a smaller scale, a neighborhood scale, experiences in what we might call “everyday” nature are important for children to have and should be made as accessible as possible.
Under the evergreen tree in the front yard, shadows move in the twilight. My kids and two of their friends are building a fort out of logs. They move about, staying low under the boughs, pausing and squatting and placing logs, spider-walking around their developing creation. Walls take shape; conflicts and compromises get worked out; gravity is reckoned with when some logs topple and have to be placed carefully anew. Plans are laid, attempted, and reworked. Their discussions are barely audible through the house window. My son occasionally whistles. I’m aware of all of these sounds as the hum of contented kids doing what they love to do most – it’s the hum of happy industry.