Space to imagine and create

The Tree House
The Tree House Photo: Jon King

Voicing an opinion on children and play is dangerous territory unless you are ready and well armed to defend yourself on many fronts. But with a lot of recent policy and talk centered on education, obesity and depression you begin to meditate on the root causes.

Without launching into opinions about fast food, television and computers with which we all privately struggle, and being conscious that broad generalizations are often simplistic, I was given some food for thought while watching kids playing over the last few weeks and developed a few theories which related to my work as an architect.

While those in the more privileged parts of society tend to drive children to and from activities and increasingly fill their days with stimulation and plenty of food, we also possibly take away some of the opportunity they have to negotiate their own way through life by the way we design and structure our physical environment.

As an architect I am concerned about the lack of spaces for children to get lost in their own imaginations and activities.  The loss is manifest in a number of ways. Increasingly fearful parents and authorities put boundaries on activity and exploration, whether it be fear of strangers, edges, roads, cars, the water or trees, and I wonder if we are not designing out all the in-between spaces, the places to escape and the places outside constant surveillance  that provide the settings for kids to grow up, to socialize and to look after themselves.

Everybody loves to tell stories about their childhood adventures. The time when surrounded by the bullies, and jumping fences to escape and negotiating a path through others’ backyards. Or being left alone and lost in the marginal country in reality not far from home. The bike races, or slingshot fights between opposing gangs in the bush behind the oval. These are the stories of an Australian suburban setting. And other more powerful memories and sometimes more profound experiences unfold in these unique and often hidden settings. But I am sure the same might apply in the back streets of Rome, London or Delhi, contexts very different to our own, but the stories might well be very similar

Writers over the centuries testify that the years of childhood are crucial to autobiography or more simply, the picture we have of ourselves. The places in which we play become very much part of our identity. Plato for his part observed that “place” is a veritable matrix of energies, and the “nurturing container” of experience. I often recall David Malouf's evocative experiences set under and within his family's old "Queenslander". In his writing and musings history, memory and place are all intertwined.

At our own house, I have enjoyed watching my own children and their friends  occupy a place never meant for them. They have created a house in the tree accessed by a wall and then the roof of a small pavilion. It has no handrails, no soft landings but is sheltered from our gaze by garden planting. They sweep, eat and argue, negotiate and build in this world of theirs, somewhat out of the reach of adults but within earshot.

What makes it special for them I think is that it has a boundary, a frontier that is of their own making. It can be protected, guarded and they have taken ownership of it. These are very human instincts and a place like this gives them room to imagine what it is like to have a place to call their own and protect. Try getting a nine year old to sweep up the kitchen, but on the roof they’ll clean with gusto of their own accord!

These very subtle issues that surround the making of suburbs and places are rarely considered in planning. It would be illegal, non compliant and someone would get sued. We have lost the art of accepting risk as a part of life and children are sometimes the victims of this thinking. We design greater densities, talk about public spaces, and try to design our way out of trouble without really taking into account that children and adults alike need places to escape, to imagine to build temporary things and stay busy, interested and engaged in life. Places that are not designed and mapped and that are void.

Where in the city are these frontiers, the places not under surveillance with cameras, or public officers, where we can breathe and move without paying or getting authorization or just be a bit delinquent.

I wonder sometimes what the next generations of children will remember as their place. Will it be an experience derived from movement, from activity and the imagination centered on a place, or will it be something more remote, synthetic or received? Will these memories be enough to give them a robust sense of history, identity and self-belief?

We have lost the art of accepting risk as a part of life and children are sometimes the victims of this thinking.