The case of the missing children.
September 29, 2010

There is a creek that runs near my home.  It twists and turns through hills, dips down a deep ravine, and then idly bubbles behind our suburb until it empties into an ocean drain.  When I was a child, playing in the creek was strictly prohibited.

Naturally, it follows that when I was a child, I spent as much time playing in the creek as I possibly could.

My childhood memories are riddled with that creek.  A friend and I made stick spears and (unsuccessfully) hunted small fish.  We hopped on rocks, explored bird nests and scrambled through bamboo forests.  Once, we found a football helmet.  We traded it back and forth all afternoon, pretending to be great explorers, probably looking pretty damned silly to anyone who happened to see us pass by.  Another time, we found a potted cactus.  We voted to name it Mr. Cactus.  One day, Mr. Cactus vanished as mysteriously as he had appeared.

Even today, when I find myself at the creek’s edge, I feel at peace.  I know this place, with its forgotten basketballs and overgrown weeds, with blackbirds pecking wildly at the growth and the periodic signs meant to deter trespassers.  This creek is a part of my soul.

Oh, I have other memories of my childhood.  I remember gorging myself on ripe figs, hunting lizards against a rock wall, dissecting a dead frog on the front lawn.  I remember bicycling for hours, running away from an opossum, lifting my body ever higher through the branches of a mulberry tree.

I also remember falling six feet out of that mulberry tree and into a rosebush, SHUDDER, but I like to ‘forget’ that particular occurrence.

At any rate, these are my memories, and now that I have a child of my own, I keep noticing something about them: they are all outside.  I grew up outdoors, with the wind in my hair and the dirt under my fingernails.

Every day since her birth, rain or shine, I have taken Charlotte outside.  And the peculiar thing about this is that we are almost always alone.

Together, we race across park lawns, walk in the hills, hike through the canyons, trek up the arroyo – without seeing a soul.  We dig in the earth, climb in the trees (albeit: not very high!), roll in the grass.  We play with leaves, sticks, and dirt clumps.  Sometimes I take her to the creek.

I stand on its familiar banks and whisper its secrets in her ear, and all the while we are alone.

As I whisper on, I look about.  Where are the other children?  Is this lonely world, this quiet place devoid of impromptu friendship, the nature that my daughter will remember?  Where are the hoots and hollers of innocence, the cries of delight upon catching a frog, the steady rhythm of a long game of catch, the coy smiles of a band of small adventurers?  When did their laughter stop ringing in this canyon?

And, as another silent summer slips away, as the creek babbles on without any small feet splashing in its depths, I wonder: IS IT GONE FOR GOOD?


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  1. By Tanzyn on September 29, 2010

    Love the pics:)

  2. By Lauren @ In the Pudding Club on September 29, 2010

    Charlotte is not alone in the great outdoors.  Eloise is there too, digging up weeds and worms in her overgrown english garden.

  3. By Jessica on September 29, 2010

    I love the way you wrote this post, your writing style. It was calming, inspirational, and put a smile on my face. It really took me back to my own outdoor adventures. I too fell out of a tree, named random trees (in my case it was a pine tree not a cactus), and played in the dirt.

    Thanks for reviving such memories.

  4. By Karen Bennett on September 29, 2010

    Don’t worry, my one day children will spend as much time as possible outside if I have my way. That is one of the things that I feel is missing from the world today, the need to go outside. I lived in the dirt when I was little. Mudpies, worms, blades of grass, tree climbing. It was great! I think the problem now is that if the weather is not perfect the parents don’t go out and so the children learn from them. Also it is not as safe for children now as it was for us. I can’t even leave my dogs outside without worrying that someone will steal them much less my children.

    I am so glad to come and read your posts on days like today. They make me feel like I am not the only one that is planning on making my child’s life just as imaginitive and full of wonder as mine was.

  5. By Monica on September 29, 2010

    Have you read Last Child in the Woods?  Right up your alley!

  6. By Amber on September 29, 2010

    Karen, that is a fallacy. Its not that its not as safe outside for children as it once was; its that in our 24-hours-a-day-always-on news culture, we HEAR ABOUT things happening to kids more. This perpetuates the belief that people are snatching/assaulting/whatevering kids at a statistically higher rate than in the past—and the statistics do NOT actually reflect this.

    I know that this is sometimes not what people want to hear, so I won’t go on about it, but I speak the truth.

  7. By on September 29, 2010

    Sarah, you’ve made a very insightful observation (once again). My neighborhood is full of small children who aren’t yet in school and it is silent. Oddly silent. I mentioned that to my friend yesterday while our puppies were playing together. I think parents are afraid to let their kids play outdoors for fear that they’ll get snatched and they don’t take or make the time to be outdoors to play with them or keep a watchful eye.

  8. By Rebecca on September 29, 2010

    I also grew up outside. My grandfather had three acres and 90% of my childhood memories are from racing across the bridge, playing in the creek, trying to catch frogs, making forts in the woods, running through the meadow barefoot, and on and on. I loved it and I miss it so much. I love how you said that it’s part of your soul. It describes what I feel as well. I can’t go to that creek anymore, but I can go to any body of water and feel the same calm and peace as I did at my grandfather’s.

    I know that my children are going to be the same way. They’ll be outside playing in the dirt and climbing trees. That makes so many more memories than watching tv.

  9. By Megan R. on September 29, 2010

    I spent the majority of my childhood outside, too.  Alone and with friends.  We were explorers of everything that we could get our eyes and hands on.  It was amazing, and I have such good memories of those times.  I try to get Finnley out as much as I can.  I hope that she has these types of memories, too.  Being dirty and getting to know your world is one of the blessings of being a kid.

    (love the pillow-sack type dresses..so adorable!)

  10. By Sarah Christensen on September 29, 2010

    Monica - Not yet, but I’ve heard good things about it.  Right now, it’s just in the line-up!

    Amber and Karen - Someone once told me that the world today is safer than when they were raising children…but parents today just don’t know it.  Their perspective was that it is in a parent’s nature to worry and that our world today just hands them things to worry about, things they can only control through deprivation of the outside (i.e. no sun = no skin cancer, no roaming around = no abduction), whereas when they were raising children the world gave them a hearty slap on the back and told them to let the kids loose.  Obviously nobody today has parented over the past three generations, and memories are notoriously unreliable, so it’s really hard to say for sure.  But it makes for interesting thinking, eh?

    Carol - HA!  A couple days ago, it hit between 110F-115F here.  A mom I’d made plans with cancelled them because it was too hot and she worried about how the heat would effect her baby (11 mos).  So Charlotte and I went day-hiking alone.  I picked a shady trail and made sure to bring plenty of water and we were fine.  I mean, there had to be high temperatures in the pre-air-conditioning days too, right?  I don’t know if people don’t feel safe or if they just don’t make time or if they prefer their temperature-controlled homes or if they’re all out working and their kids are in daycare centers or what, I have no idea.  It’s just getting old being the only person that nature center staff thinks is insane.

    Everyone else - YAY!  THREE CHEERS FOR PLAYING OUTSIDE (and letting your kids do so as well)!

  11. By on September 29, 2010

    Where ARE the children?!  My kids wonder the same thing.  We are outside all the time and never see a soul.  This is our third neighborhood since having kids and they want to know WHEN they are going to meet some friends.  I have no idea what all those kids do inside ALL. DAY. LONG.

  12. By Kymmie on September 29, 2010

    I have a confession. I’ve been popping in lately. But I haven’t been commenting. But now I have the courage to (gulp) comment and tell you how much I love your blog. You write so beautifully, your photos are stunning, and I love reaidng your life journey.

    We spend a lot of time outdoors and just love it. And now winter is over here in Australia, we’ll be spending more time there too. Which means you’re not quite alone. xx

  13. By on September 29, 2010

    Another book recommendation—not so much for you but to recommend to folks who are afraid to let their children experience the outdoors:

    The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places by Gary Paul Nabhan and Stephen Trimble

  14. By on September 29, 2010

    my E is out there, too! but alone, because we live on the other coast of this country :)

  15. By on September 29, 2010

    Where are the children? They are either inside playing video games, or glued to the computer screen, or they are not home because they are in some daycare center while both mother and father work all day. Mom isn’t home and if she were, she’d be hard-pressed to go romping about outdoors! You are the exception-to-the-rule, that’s obvious.

  16. By Sarah S on September 30, 2010

    It’s so sad. I listened to a child development speaker once and she said she would rather a child climb an apple tree and fall out and break their arm than never climb an apple tree at all. It sounds harsh but I think in our culture of safety and fear we have really taken something away from childhood.

  17. By Sarah Christensen on September 30, 2010

    Sarah S - THAT REMINDS ME, I read an article recently about a school district that is getting rid of playgrounds and chopping down their trees.  People keep filing lawsuits against them when their kid sprains an ankle jumping off the swings, so they decided that a better use of the money currently doled out in settlements every year would be to put it into academics.  So, beginning this year, there are no play areas at those schools.

    Talk about something being taken away.

  18. By on September 30, 2010

    Sarah your comment just reminded me that I used to climb to the top of the apple tree in our backyard when I was growing up so I could read without anyone bothering me! To this day I love to read outdoors.

  19. By Molly on September 30, 2010

    So very true. My entire childhood was spent running around outside…in fact, I wasn’t even allowed in the house doing the daytime. We HAD to play outside:).
    Now that I’ve got a Bitzy, I’m hoping that we play outside constantly, soaking it all in.
    Thank you Sarah, for your beautiful words.

  20. By Tabitha (From Single to Married) on October 01, 2010

    We used to do something similar when we were kids.  We roamed the neighborhood unsupervised and we’d head down to the creek in the park that was hidden at the end of a cul de sac.  Now I can’t imagine parents letting their kids do that, but this was the 70s, early 80s, and things were a bit different I guess.  I don’t see children roaming around free like they used to (I have seen a big debate on various sites of the pros and cons of free range children, but I won’t get into that here).  My guess though is that it has something to do with that.

  21. By on October 01, 2010

    oh sarah ! i spend countless hours walking outside, rain or shine, teaching my baby girl about trees and dirt and birds, as i carry her trough fields and forests, louis running along. and i NEVER ever see anybody. sometimes a dog, and maybe its owner. but never children. then i pack everybody in the car, to go grocery shopping and the mall is full of children….
    i can only speak for myself. but i am certain the hours and hours i spent outside made me healthier, stronger, curious, adventurous, interested. i want my daughter to never be scared of a spider or a dog of a fox or anything. i want my daughter to love just breathing the air after the rain. i want my daughter to love nature as much as i do.

  22. By J-Dawg's Realm on October 01, 2010

    I stumbled upon your blog, from another friend that I read regularly, and I think its time I bookmark another reader :) Thank you for sharing.

    I, too, have fond memories from when I was a child. I remember my friend at the time (unfortunately he has passed) Billy and I swimming in the Opequon Creek, holding on to the rock and pretending we were divers as the water rushed over us (I used the term RUSHED because at the time, the gentle flowing creek felt like a rush at the time as it hit the rocks). There were parts deep enough to jump into without hurting yourself, and even, the occasional fish would swim by.

    Now, I take my kids out, and like you said - where are they? I live right next door to a beautiful playground, and I take my two kids there regularly. It is not unusual to go spend an hour or so over there and never see a sole! Kids today seem to be raised by Wii, DS, and Facebook. I can say that there have been times where I have just said “lets have an “IN” day, which they love, because we can do things as a family still, but we have enough of those in winter up here that in spring/summer/fall if its not raining, and the wind isnt howling, we go outside!

    Feel free to stop by mine if you choose. I will try to catch up on “Sarah” as time allows. Thanks for the read :)

    J

  23. By erin on October 01, 2010

    I’ve seen those statistics too (that are no different from when I was a kid, etc) about safety… and yet I still shudder to think of letting Hannah walk to school, because I would die if something happened to her.  And we are just a quick 5 minute walk to the elementary school she will go to, and 10 minutes from the junior high and high schools.

    When we moved in here, the youngest neighbor kids were 6, and we would see them out riding their bikes and playing at the park alone.  Part of me thought, GOOD! because I used to do that all the time with my best friend when we were to same age.  The other part of me thought, WHAT ARE THEIR PARENTS THINKING?!?

    Brian shudders when Hannah runs around the [fenced in] backyard “unsupervised.“  I figure she should be allowed to come and go from the house to the backyard as she pleases.  (It’s not like I can’t see her from the kitchen and family room windows, or even the sewing room.)  I also let her run around out there with no shoes on, which he also hates.  I figure, what’s the worst that could happen?  She can’t climb trees yet, so probably the worst is that she would track mud into the house or eat a rolly poly bug.  And if she sticks her finger on a rosebush… well, she won’t do that again, will she.

  24. By Julie Campbell on October 01, 2010

    As a mom of multiple kids I know where all the kids are. They are doing homework, at soccer, play dates, baseball, day camps, day care, piano, chess club, art lessons, karate, dance, gymnastics, and every other kind of lessons and activity under the sun. One of my biggest challenges is keeping a balance between free play and all the structured things they want to do. That is why when they are young you have to embrace the freedom you have in your schedule. It’s also why I’m thinking more and more about doing home school.

  25. By Sarah Christensen on October 01, 2010

    Erin - a) we let Charlotte barefoot it quite often too.  Not all the time, probably not even most of the time outdoors, but fairly often outdoors at home.  Lots of mud around here, that’s what I’ve learned! and b) I don’t know about that rosebush thing.  Charlotte has stuck herself like half a dozen times now, even with me standing right there pointing out that it’s not going to feel nice.

    Julie - All of the structured stuff is part of the reason we’ve been looking into home education too.  There are alot of reasons, but that one always comes up - once you take school and you add in structured play, where’s the time to roam around and be a kid?  Also, definitely one of the up-sides to living so close to grandparents: they can’t wait to help chauffeur kids around to soccer practices.

  26. By on October 01, 2010

    Another really sad fact is that children are growing up without knowing how to use their imagination. They are shown things so much that they literally aren’t able to make believe!  Little girls might play with dolls, but their idea of “playing with dolls” is dressing and undressing them. Period. They don’t know how to pretend the doll is real….truly sad.

  27. By Sarah Christensen on October 03, 2010

    Lynn - AGREED!  Some friends of ours recently moved to a new home with a huge oak tree in the back yard.  It’s the climbing tree of my childhood dreams, this tree - huge branches, not super high, very sturdy - and one of the branches has a smallish hollow.  Our friend bought a couple wood toys and dolls and built a little sign and made the hollow into a dollhouse that sits sort of adjacent to part of a treehouse they built in.

    I mean, it’s the coolest thing ever.  I would have loved to play there when I was a kid.  Great climbing, three-story treehouse, little dollhouse hollow.  What’s not to love?  But their daughter (four years old) hates it because she can’t watch iCarly (I’m not sure how to spell that? I think it’s a television show?) there.  And she doesn’t know how to play with the dolls, so they just sit in their dollhouse untouched.  I told her all it took was a little imagination, and got her to play with me in the treehouse and with the dolls, but ten minutes into it she’d decided it was too boring because the dolls didn’t do anything and you had to do everything for them.  I couldn’t believe it - where’s the imagination in childhood?

  28. By Hanna Sandvig on October 04, 2010

    I get this.  When I take my baby out in a tiny drizzle everyone is terrified for her.  Her first camping trip was early September and it was pretty cold.  She was fine, we just dressed her well and snuggled her at night.  I can feel in myself the tendency to be overprotective, but I try to be reasonable about it. 

    Although I do see a lot of kids out playing in my town.  Maybe it’s a small town and we still feel safe.

  29. By tracey on October 05, 2010

    You know, all is not lost with the kids that want to only play indoors or watch tv. Electronic deprivation will FORCE them to play other things. Locking the back door will FORCE them to be outside, whether they like it or not.

    I suggest that anyone who thinks that freedom for kids is more dangerous than it was for our generation check out the statistics. A good site for information is Free Range Kids (http://freerangekids.wordpress.com/ ).

    Home schooling has TOTALLY opened up our evenings and weekends. In fact, today was supposed to be a group meetup which got cancelled due to the leader’s child’s illness. So, instead of “schoolwork” we took a hike to the park for an obstacle course and then picked our favorite board games at home. On the way out to the park AGAIN tonight, we stopped by 2 little friends’ houses to have them join us. They couldn’t go to the park on a gorgeous afternoon because of homework.

    Homework is EVIL!!!


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