In a world that tells girls to be careful, clean and quiet, it’s not surprising that many grow up with few experiences in the outdoors. Fear of wild animals and the “ick” factor keep them out of forests even as grown women. Boys, however, are meant to get dirty and climb trees and build forts, and when they grow up, many still love exploring nature.

It’s important to let our girls have “wild lives just like boys do,” said Brandi Cartwright of Raintree School in Town & Country, Mo. Students ages 2 to 8 years old spend time in the nearby woods of Queeny Park every week as part of the curriculum at this official “forest school.”

“People always say: ‘Boys need to run around.’ But we keep girls indoors — in dance, gymnastics — in climate-controlled buildings,” Cartwright said. “We haven’t prepared girls to love the outdoors.”

Cartwright is collaborating with Italian filmmaker Sara Bonaventura on a documentary that draws attention to the idea that little girls need to spend more time in the wild. They hope the film will encourage families (of girls as well as boys) to leave their screens behind and explore the great outdoors together.

“There’s a lot of data showing why kids should be outside more, but it’s not changing hearts and minds. We’re hoping this film will spur some change,” Cartwright said.

The documentary, titled “Forest Hymn for Little Girls,” follows eight preschool girls over the course of a year, showing how they play and learn in the forest throughout the four seasons. Sometimes it’s muddy or there’s snow on the ground, but rain or shine, the girls dig for treasures, shape mud to make bowls for a pretend meal, splash in creeks and joyfully get dirty, with no one chastising them for doing so.

No adults appear in the film. This mimics the real-life experience offered at forest schools, where teachers are nearby for help or support, but mostly the kids explore “without boundaries,” collaborating with each other with less reliance on grownups. It’s the sort of play that children of earlier generations — probably anyone who is 40 or over — will remember: endless hours in nature, imagining, pretending and conquering until the dinner bell rang.

A Different Documentary
“Forest Hymn for Little Girls” looks at young girls’ experiences in wild spaces from their own perspective, in their own voice and with animations of their art. The filming takes place in the woods of Raintree School and nearby Queeny Park, as well as in Forest Park.

“The film documents what little girls do when outdoors with no boundaries,” Cartwright said. “You won’t see experts speaking on camera. We’re placing the girls as experts. They’re the ones who have knowledge of themselves.”

Bonaventura says many documentaries have been made about forest schools, with parents and teachers talking about the benefits, but this one is different. “Ours is more poetic. We are documenting movement and gestures,” the filmmaker said. “It’s not always verbal.”

Italian filmmaker Sara Bonaventura

Italian filmmaker Sara Bonaventura

“There’s a synchronicity among the girls,” Bonaventura continued. “Some are collecting leaves, some climbing trees and some are engaged in symbolic play. I let them be free and play, and I become invisible.”

The film will be created entirely by women. Female composers, illustrators and animators from 15 different countries are contributing their talents, at no cost, to produce the film. The group raised about $21,000 from a Kickstarter campaign to cover expenses and is hoping that’s enough.

Bonaventura has traveled to St. Louis each season for filming. She said she is “amazed by the hugeness” of the U.S. compared to her native Italy. “We don’t really have wild spaces. People are everywhere. But even in a city, you can find natural areas that aren’t built up or cultivated, like along a river.”

The last shoot for “Forest Hymn for Little Girls” occurs this fall and then production work begins. A snippet of unfinished the film, which was used to help raise funds during the Kickstarter campaign, can be viewed on YouTube.com. The completed documentary will be released in 2018 to a worldwide audience.

Nature Deficit Disorder
Remember making mud pies and forts in the woods when you were a kid? Or looking for treasures such as the perfect stick that could be a magic wand or a spear on the battlefield?

We didn’t know it then, but the long hours many of us spent outdoors, independently exploring and creating and using our imaginations, free from the worried eyes of parents, was good for our development in so many ways.

Now, though, most kids don’t have these experiences and are being deprived of developmental advantages, experts say. Dozens of studies show that free and unstructured play in the outdoors boosts problem-solving skills, focus and self-discipline. Socially, it improves cooperation, flexibility and self-awareness. Emotional benefits include reduced aggression and increased happiness.

“Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured play in the out-of-doors,” said authors of a study published by the American Medical Association in 2005.

A children-and-nature movement has been underway now for over a decade, much of this spurred by Richard Louv, author of the bestseller Last Child in the Woods. He coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder” and said something “very profound” has happened to children’s relationship with nature over the last couple of decades.

Louv and others have documented how modern family life has changed dramatically in the last two decades. One study shows that only 21 percent of today’s kids regularly play outside, compared with 71 percent of their parents when they were growing up. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that the average 8-to-18-year-old now spends more than 53 hours a week “using entertainment media.”

Another change is the “stranger danger” fear of abduction that keeps parents from letting their children out of their sight. The reality is that child abduction is rare, but when it does occur, non-stop media coverage can overwhelm people into believing their kids are at risk.

The Woods vs. The Playground
Getting kids into the woods isn’t as difficult as it may seem, says Raintree School’s Brandi Cartwright. “There are wild spaces all around here. If you’re at a park, leave the playground. Just keep going, get lost a little bit. Find a creek, a fallen tree, a ravine,” she said. “You don’t have to stay on the trail.”

Raintree School student playing in the woods

Raintree School student playing in the woods

Forest Park has the Zoo, but try going into Kennedy Forest, Cartwright suggests.

“You can be there to make sure they’re safe, but voiceless so they can explore. It’s about climbing trees, getting dirty, building forts, having secret lives,” she said.

Another suggestion from Cartwright is to dress girls so that they can truly enjoy the woods. “Tutus and sandals make it harder,” she said. “Boys are already dressed for a wild life — they’re in tennis shoes and pants.”

The power of the wild outdoors can’t be underestimated, Cartwright says. “Being in the forest triggers your imagination. It encourages kids to bring their forest experiences indoors. They want to draw or write a story about what they did or saw.”

Playgrounds, however, are a domesticated outdoor setting. “The forest is always changing, but the playground is static all. Kids get bored and take more risks. Kids are more likely to get injured on playgrounds than in wild spaces,” Cartwright said.

Being indoors is not fulfilling either, compared to the outdoors, she says. “You can see dragonflies and birds. A stick can become different things — a spoon to stir your soup. You don’t need those plastic kitchens. It’s a different life experience to say ‘I was surrounded by life today’ versus surrounded by plaster and plastic.”

Being in the wild is also good for self-esteem. “Even the quiet girls love it in the forest. They shout and laugh; they’re not self-conscious,” Cartwright said.

Bonaventura adds that kids who don’t experience nature enough are less likely to see the importance of preserving wild spaces. “How do you grow up caring about the environment if you’ve never experienced it? Children can only understand what they’ve lived,” she said.

“The forest is the best playground,” she added.

Terri Waters is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. She enjoys exploring hiking and biking trails and likes the camaraderie of organized rides as well.