Thursday, February 4, 2010

Magical Spaces

My boys love "clubs". When I was a kid we called them Forts. You know, a couple of blankets, some couch cushions, maybe a chair or two to hold it up. Throw in a few pillows a blanket or two and you've got a ready made magical space fit for a child sized king or queen.

NAEYC: What draws children to build forts, seek and create hideouts, and make out-of the-way places to play?

Saw this tweet yesterday which lead me to the following thoughtful article by teacher and artist, Anna Goldin.

Exploring the Forest: Wild Places in Childhood [PDF]

Reading about Goldin's secret childhood places caused me to remember my childhood in nature. We were very lucky to grow up in a mostly rural part of New Hampshire. Of course I'm sure we didn't always see it that way, but now that I live in suburbia I'm really glad that our parents chose that particular environment for us to live.

My magical space was behind our house where the brook that flowed there took a sharp turn toward the right. I assume the brook flooded the small patch of land that was bordered on two sides by water thus making it a slightly different habitat than the surrounding forest. There were the plants we called skunk weed because of the smell. I don't know what the plant was really called, some type of fern or large leafed plant. There were also Pink Lady Slippers, a rare wild orchid species. They grew in no other part of our property making this small patch of land doubly precious. 

This space seemed to grow as we girls did. When we were young there was a lot of tramping through the brook, trying to make sure we kept the leeches off our bare feet and legs. Then for a while it served as a place to play "house" and finally a quiet place to get away, dream or maybe read a book. As I think about it now, I wonder if it is still the same and if other children have found it to be magical for them. I wish I had a photo of it, fortunately my magic space stands out in my mind almost as clearly as a photograph. I'm sure a photograph wouldn't do it justice anyway.

In considering this magical space several quotes from Goldin's paper stood out for me:

Children's inner voice--imagination--as well as their confidence and self-knowledge, is nurtured by their constructing and playing in wild places and secret spaces (Goodenough 2003). Children need to build places for play because the "imagination needs to feel protected as it expands within safe boundaries" (p.3)

I'm sure that it wasn't a secret, I'm sure our parents knew we played there frequently, but it felt secret. We were free to be whatever we wanted in that space. The space didn't really change but our use of it did. We needed that space. It was all ours, to share with our friends or enjoy by ourselves. The space never disappointed us or hemmed our imagination in. In some ways it was ever changing, in others static - because it was there for us when we needed it.

"It is in the fringe, out-of-the-way places that children create their spaces--under tables and in closets, in alleys, fields, or vacant lots."

So when my kids create their clubs they are looking for their safe environment, their magical space. I can't help but think how much more meaningful my natural magical space was than any of the forts I built growing up. I wish they had more opportunity to get outside by themselves to find a hidden space of their own.

Moore estimated in 1986 that "the current generation will spend 5/7 of their time in experientially deprived spaces". Experientially deprived spaces include the indoors, manicured suburban lawns, and school and park playgrounds that offer only very programmed and safe play.

That was 1986, what would Moore say about the generation I'm raising? Our back yard is bigger than a postage stamp (maybe postcard size?) but it's flat and there is nothing hidden for exploration, nor is there a part where I'm okay with them digging, flooding or otherwise making their own and it's a shame. I know I could do better, not care if they dug a hole or let the water run flooding the land (and of course wasting water) but after all when you live so close to other people somehow your space seems to come with extra requirements to keep it neat and tidy.

If it were up to me my back yard would be wild, with unexpected discoveries around each corner and of course a seemingly never ending maze of forest perhaps with one special, magical place that no one else knows about.


If you are interested in early childhood learning I recommend visiting the site of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. It's primarily an organization for preschool teachers, but there's a lot of great information there that parents of young children might find useful. If you are looking for a pre-school for your child you can't go wrong by checking out any NAEYC accredited schools in your area.


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