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Jim Greenman is a child advocate who fights for giving our children a natural childhood. He writes, “The civilized world, as we like to think of ourselves, is increasingly fastidious and cautious. In the mall, trees flourish without visible water or dirt. Autumn leaves do not fall because there is no real autumn in a mall, only Halloween displays and Thanksgiving sales. There are no shadows, no discordant noise, few signs of age or wear. People are measured, too. The streets and lanes of the mall are private property. Not bound by strict requirements of free speech, they don’t have to accept the rowdy or those in pain engaged in dialogues with their tormented inner selves. No one has a right to be there, least of all those who may assert their struggling or divergent reality upon us.”

The issues in all our common spaces of how to balance life – with its joyful but frequently messy and sometimes disturbing realities – and our desire for a safe existence – with its seductively numbing sterility – are played out in both malls and child care programs. Critics call malls canned life. Can we afford to have canned childhoods? We are well on our way to the malling of childhood. The shadow world is losing ground to fluorescent light. The child’s laboratory is shrinking. Unmanaged experiences that children shape and give meaning to through their investigations require some exposure to fields and streams or to vacant lots and rainy streets. Time available for child science and freedom from the eyes of solicitous and restricting adults shrinks as child care and organized activities fill the child’s day. We are tightening our concrete web of good intentions and driving out the flowers growing in the cracks.

The tolerance is dropping for allowing these natural but inherently messy scientists the opportunity for vigorous investigation. An opportunistic insurance industry and a litigious fashion sweeping the culture have banished the notion of accidents from life; there is only negligence and liability. Perhaps we can do a little to reorient a culture bent on inauthenticity. We can be participants instead of expecting that we be entertained. We can do our own gardening. We can use pinecones and dried grasses for decorating. We can encourage our children to exercise vigorously – with us. We can let our children fall without letting it become anything more than a learning experience. We can teach our children to reach further and try harder, risking mistakes, and chancing new heights. It’s exciting out there, just a little past “safe” and “tidy”.