Children’s Special Places

I found this book on the shelves while looking at cooking stuff… serendipity of a sort? Anyway, I had read it and thought it lovely before… now again: Children’s Special Places: Exploring the role of forts, dens and bush houses in middle childhood, by David Sobel.

“Assuming,” writes Sobel, in introducing this book “that found and built spaces are a nearly universal component of children’s landscape [-p.13] experience, I want to elaborate on the role these spaces play in the evolving self of the child. To explore the child’s landscape and the implications for education, I will:

* describe specific examples of children’s houses, dens, and bush houses from England and Carriacou;

* portray the role these places play during middle childhood in helping to foster and shape the unique self that is born in adolescence;

* examine adult perspectives on the role these places have played in their lives via interviews and literature;

* provide working examples of elementary school curricula that translate children’s place-making interests into projects that expand their sense of self and their knowledge of the social and natural world.” (pp.12-13)

Later in the book, having gone through several descriptions of special places, he offers the following points:

“* Special places are found or constructed by children on their own. It is wonderful for parents to provide playhouses or build tree houses, but it is important for children to have the opportunity to build outside the parental field of vision.

* Special places are secret. Children do not want other people to know where they are, nor do they want to be found once they’re inside. Not being seen is very important.

[-p.96] * Special places are ‘owned’ by their creators….

* Special places are safe. A feeling of calm and repose comes over children when they are in their special places. There is often a reflective or meditatively quiet aspect to being in these places….

* Special places are organized worlds. Children love creating organized interior spaces suitable for storage of personal objects. Some children even create complex utility systems – simple plumbing and electricity really make your fort cool. Children like the process of building up a small world from scratch, of transforming natural or found materials into systems.

An additional aspect that characterizes almost all verbal recollections by adults of special places is a kind of breathless, twinkle-in-the-eye animation. It’s thrilling for adults to revisit these places in their mind’s eye, in part, I suspect, because they reexperience the explorer’s feeling of [-p.97] claiming the world for their own, being the first on the scene, carving a civilized place out of the wilderness. It’s like the process of selecting a campsite while backpacking in a trackless area. This place becomes home and security. Children are experiencing this in their own backyards, because they’re exploring the world, on their own, for the first time.” (pp.95-97)

“I suspect that it is the sense of self, the ego about to be born, that is sheltered in these private places. The onset of puberty in adolescence initiates an often painful focus on ‘Who am I?’ The construction of private places is one of the ways that children phsyically and symbolically prepare themselves, in middle childhood, for this significant transition.” (p.48)

“As they start to sense there independence from parents, they start to feel a need to have a separate space. Younger children do this in the form of blankets over tables, the space underneath the stairwell, the wardrobe in the attic. But starting around seven, children want these places to be outside the house, both as a way of separating from parents and because they want to be in the natural world.” (p.61)

‘The Right Place at the Right Time’

According to Sobel, an interest in such places happens as a developmental stage: “Certain developmental phenomena happen at very specific ages,” he explains. “The organism is keyed to certain biological unfoldings during specific time periods. Most children learn to walk somewhere between the tenth and fourteenth months. The loss of the first baby tooth around age six is used as an indicator of school readiness in Steiner schools. Language learning, as discussed earlier, unfolds along predictable developmental lines. The interest in, and perhaps need for, special, personal places seems to be one of those phenomena that occur during a closely prescribed time frame.” (p.97) “…my simple quantitative and more thorough qualitative findings suggest that fort buildiing is most significant during the middle childhood years, particularly between ages eight and eleven. Prior to this age children are still fairly homebound, and after this age there is either a clear turning away from forts or a clear change in their function.” (p.98)

Educational axioms – ‘Making a Place in the Curriculum’ etc

Sobel goes on to offer the following axioms:

Axiom 1: During the middle childhood years, children feel a deep urge to move into the larger world away from home to find a place for themselves. Secrecy creates a sense of satisfying isolation.” (p.108)

Axiom 2: The fort, or the special place, is a concrete manifestation of the abstract sense of self that is born in adolescence. The person makes a literal place in the world in childhood preparatory to making a figurative place in the world in adolescence and adulthood.” (p.109)

Axiom 3: Through making special places, children are experiencing themselves as shapers and makers of small worlds. The experience contributes to making them active shapers of the world in their adult lives.
Is this a necessity for education – that each child must have some kind of separate hearth, some separate fire to kindle in secret?

Axiom 4: Educators should acknowledge the unique world-making desires of middle childhood and shape curriculum to provide appropriate experiences in and out of schools.” (p.110)

[NOTE it seems to me that Sobel’s ongoing interest in secrecy ought to come with a disclaimer for modern readings… with regards to the difference, as a colleague and ex-social worker puts it, between ‘secrets’ and ‘surprises’… which is to say that adults can engage children in keeping surprises, but accepting an adult’s right to have children keep secrets is a slippery slope… can children really be allowed secrets in this day and age? I agree with Sobel’s thoughts on secrecy, but in terms of the space of education… what place do secrets have? it’s a discussion that connects with Sobel’s ideas about secret places]

Ref: David Sobel (c1993) Children’s Special Places: Exploring the role of forts, dens and bush houses in middle childhood. Zephyr Press: Tucson, Arizona.

Note also:


Sobel strongly recommends: Cobb, Edith ‘The Ecology of the Imagination in Childhood’ Daedalus, 1959

and he draws on Joseph Pearce’s Magical Child and Magical Child Matures for a framework, which proves rather interesting…


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in early years education, ecological literacy, Metaphors and Narratives around children and learners, social and political contexts and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s