Thursday, May 20, 2021

Space Has a Way of Imposing Its Will on Us

We didn't stay in a lot of hotels when I was a boy, but when we did they were mostly motels because our family often opted for taking trips across the country by car. I remember those long motel hallways with doors all along both sides. They seemed to go on forever. As dad wrangled the suitcases, my brother and I would race ahead, vying to be the first to locate our room. Mom didn't try to stop us from running, even though it was probably against hotel policy and certainly against the etiquette of the era. I imagine she couldn't have stopped us from running even if she tried. I mean, that is what a long, straight hallway says to young children: "Run." 

Our first order of business once we'd claimed our sleeping spots, even before suiting up for the pool, was to grab the ice bucket and race back along that hallway, in search of the ice machine. This, of course, involved either careening down the empty stairways at the end of the halls or, when things were perfect, riding the elevators up and down. In those multi-floor establishments we didn't settle for the first ice machine we found. No, we had once stayed in a place in which we had discovered the ice machines on each floor produced a different shape of ice cube, so from that point on we would have to find all the ice machines in the building before deciding which type our family would be sucking for the evening.

We didn't spend much time in the motel rooms. The highlight were all those hallways, stairways, and elevators.

Space has a way of imposing its will on us. Just as long, straight hallways call out for children to run, large echoey places demand shouting, softly carpeted places command children to tumble, furniture arranged around a central point calls out for round-and-round game of chase, things hanging from the ceiling gives little choice but to jump up, waist high surfaces want to be climbed on, loose parts on the ground say "kick me," doors and drawers with knobs or handles insist upon being pulled open. Adults, perhaps have learned to ignore some of these things, but we are still dramatically influenced by our surroundings, which, I think explains the runaway success of home decorating and remodeling programs where people, spaces, and lives, are transformed by moving a few walls or putting windows in certain places.

When I look at so many spaces that are ostensibly intended for children, I see design that reflects, at best, an adult idea of what children should want, and in many cases they are adult-centric space that are overtly intended to control behavior. Desks in rows come to mind. Too many of our rules come down to an attempt to fight against the higher rules dictated by space. Walking in regimented lines down the hallways is a case in point.

As important adults in children's lives, we too often find ourselves scolding the children when our challenge really is about space. "No running!" "Indoor voices!" "That's not for climbing!" "Feet on the floor!" Some of us kind of give in, like my mother did, sending us out into those hallways, stairways, and elevators, closing the door behind us and counting on the kids to take care of themselves. Others try imposing rules or creating unnatural consequences (punishments) for simply following the dictates of the space in which we find ourselves. The wisest of us identify the source of our frustrations and rearrange the furniture or otherwise alter our spaces so that they speak differently to children.

And some embrace it. A recent conversation with an educator form New Zealand reminded me of one of the most genius playground structures I've ever experienced. It was back in 2013 when I was visiting the city of Auckland. On a dark, damp day, I came upon a freestanding structure that I at first thought was a strange narrow building under construction, but on closer inspection, I realized that I was seeing the product of someone who understood children and space from the inside out. There is was the motel of my childhood, stripped of walls and doors: it was nothing more and nothing less than three stories of hallways, stairways, with an elevator on each end. I was instantly transported to my own childhood. My brother and I would have been in heaven.

The only thing that would make it better would be a pool of water below it into which to drop pennies, because, after all, that magnificent three-stories in height says, quite clearly, "Drop something off!"


Registration is now open for Teacher Tom's Play Summit , a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world, including, of course, New Zealand, a place where I have consistency found that they get early childhood right. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. Please share this far and wide. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, and inspired to create a world -- a space -- that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"

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