Few areas of life still remain untouched by academic discourse and intellectual scrutiny. The wondrous stories that painted our childhoods are no exception. On Friday, October 25, the “Sensing Wonder, Serious Play” conference graced Harvard with a day of panels and speakers on ecocriticism and children’s media. The conference was aptly titled: it was easy to sense the wonder in the audience.

Scanning a table with recognizable titles and colorful pages, I experienced the now-common astonishment of viewing the familiar through an academic lens. The stories that had allowed me imaginative escape as a child seemed so disconnected from reality, from the pressing issues of a modern adult world, that it was almost difficult to analyze their implications for understanding and behavior. But as the discussions revisited the literature with inquiries into the effects of anthropomorphism and the role of nature, I was convinced.

Keynote speaker Sara St. Antoine, a distinguished author and senior writer for the Children and Nature Network, spoke about how books expanded her sense of wonder of the world and contributed to her empathy for animals and concern for natural communities. She spoke about her efforts in environmental education and trying to foster environmental literacy by teaching about pollution, endangerment, and climate change.

Protecting nature today demands protecting a sense of wonder. Inspired by stories and free play, we imagine nature as children and we still imagine it today.

There was a turning point in Sara’s career when she realized that children were being educated about environmental issues while there was a distressing increase in lack of passion for the actual places and species. She wondered if it wasn’t more important to encourage a sense of wonder about nature? Perhaps it was more beneficial for children to develop a love of nature before being burdened by its problems, she said. Perhaps children were more inclined to yearn for magical solutions—as reflected by the increasing prevalence of the nature-saving eco-warrior protagonists in children’s literature, because climate problems appeared too big and scary to solve?

A big theme throughout the event was the importance of permitting children to be free explorers, in their literature and in their play. Sara emphasized the importance of unstructured time in nature, echoing the thoughts brought up during many of the Q&A sessions with panelists. They talked about the framing of spaces—are we limiting children’s imaginations by framing the wild and the natural with picture books, enclosed playgrounds, clear separations of indoor and outdoor spaces?

As I listened to the speakers, the mahogany walls behind them opened up to reveal green thrush dipping into the vigorous current of the Mississippi River, and I was climbing with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn down the banks to embark on an adventure. I remember these stories coloring my childhood in a small suburban town; I lived next to a calm lagoon and a bike path stretching past grass parks and willow trees. I caught up to Sara after her keynote speech and I told her about my unstructured play. I told her about how I tried to use a wooden crate to raft into the lagoon, how I strolled through the tall grass imagining all the mischief and freedom of Emil Lönneberga, Pippi Longstocking, or Ronja the Robber’s Daughter - the Swedish children books of my childhood. Together we bemoaned the lack of unstructured play in today’s risk-averse society and the consequences of that lack of independence and imagination.

I wonder how much the books I read as a child opened up the world to me, and I wonder how much my Swedish parents’ encouragement to stay outside until the sun dipped beneath the horizon encouraged me to imagine and appreciate nature. The outdoors was connected to freedom, possibility, and wonder for me as a child, and those feelings are still clear and present today. Now that I’m older I see nature as connected to a need for protection and preservation, but I’m still driven by my sense of wonder. 

I was allowed to make the world my own, emboldened by the adventurous and curious spirits of the children in my books. I didn’t have a farm, a fortress or a pirate ship, but the unfettered wild space outside my door, beyond the fences and the boundaries, was an empty slate for my imagination. Protecting nature today demands protecting a sense of wonder. Inspired by stories and free play, we imagine nature as children and we still imagine it today.