Monday, May 16, 2011

Environmental Autobiographies: Remembering Childhood Places

Even now when I get together with my brothers and sisters who are in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s we often talk about the places we played when we were children.

The backyard woods was our everyday play place and a world in itself. Unlike the surrounding backyards, this ¼ acre on our lot had been left as it was when it had been farmland. Here we created imaginary worlds under the Mayapples, named landmarks in the woods, and left notes in the hole of the Burr Oak tree. We built and rebuilt forts and each earned its own story. When spring snow melt filled the low area at the woods’ edge, ducks nested there and raised families. Enthralled, we conducted our own kind of duck and bird count annually.

Our memories of the woods and our other places, like the nature area at the school, are abundant and vivid. They are just the kind of memories of childhood and its places that an environmental autobiography often evokes. This exploration is a written and mapped memoir of significant places in one's own life with an emphasis on environmental and sensory aspects.

I first learned about environmental autobiographies as I explored the new behavior-environment paradigm in the 70’s. Clare Cooper Marcus was associated with this as were others. I also found similar work being done in teacher centers and through Prospect Archives in the early 80’s. The interest was similar: to tap into what people know about where and how they learn and play.

For over 30 years, I have used environmental autobiographies in professional development, design, and planning work. Whether I have used this with infant and toddler caregivers, museum administrators, board and staff planning teams, elementary teachers, or staff development specialists, this simple exercise has been a powerful force for tapping into details of long ago places, playmates’ names, the smell of soil, vague secrets, and a color of light that were seemingly left behind for decades. The experience produces the rewarding sense of a self-discovery and a bit of the fun of party game. But it is also valuable in bringing children's perspectives and feelings about the places they inhabit to the center of planning. It is rich in generating useful ideas for environments and exhibits for children. More and more it makes me think about the power of place and play in the lives of children.

Think of a Place
In this exercise, adults are asked to reenter a childhood environment and related experiences. They are asked to think of a place where they spent time when they were young that they liked or went to frequently. Calling this place to mind and walking through it mentally, they are asked to think about it both objectively and subjectively.
As they revisit this place, they are asked to capture and record it in some way. Using basic materials–paper and pencil or pen–they might draw a simple map of it and add labels and notes. They might write a narrative description. They can work at a small or large scale. Whatever is comfortable and productive works. In thinking of a place, they might:
•  Describe it objectively thinking about:
– Where it was
– How old they were
– What it looked like
– How big it was; what its surfaces were made of
– Who else was there - human and animal
– What they did there
– What they could see and hear from there

•  Describe the place and the experience of being there subjectively:
– What were its smells? Colors? Textures?
– How did it feel to be there?
– What qualities of that place were strongest?
– What feelings, positive or negative, do they recall about the place?
– What strong memories do they have about that place?
– Did they have a name for it? What did they call it?

A favorite childhood place can come to mind quickly for some while finding it can take a bit of wandering for others. As they work on their environmental autobiographies, people are intent and quiet. Some memories arrive unbidden, some need to be tugged at a bit, and some emerge very slowly. There’s no definite stopping point. Turning attention from being in that childhood place to the present day and to a group of colleagues is a bit like returning from a far country. Each person tells about the place they remember and revisited. Following an initial description of the place and how old they were, strong, specific sensory memories emerge along with the significance of the experiences the place afforded and lots of details.

Small, Tucked in Nature, Invisible to Adults
While every environmental autobiography is unique, patterns do emerge. Over the years I have found natural clusters among the nature of the places, the activities and the play that were important then and are remembered so now.
•                  Recollections of childhood places are very positive. Many are joyous. Often there is a sense of the profound centrality of those places in the lives of the children; “That’s where we learned everything!” Even though many memories touch on risks that were taken, memories surprisingly do not end with, “well, we all got into trouble,” “we shouldn’t have been there,” or “he fell and broke his arm.”
•                   Outdoor settings and natural areas are recalled often and vividly. They may be truly wild places or just brushy abandoned spots within more manicured areas. In any case, children are attracted to unstructured areas that are often unruly and unclaimed by others. Even corners of the barn or the basement are just slightly outside the rules and control of the house and adults lives.
•                  Particular locations within a place are specified and these distinctions are significant. In citing a barn for instance, the haymow (or hay loft) is an important designation. In a wooded area, it is “where the trees were down.” In the park, it is among the crab apple trees. 

•                  Precise sensory content and detail persist across time. Even after 4, 5 and 6 decades, people access amazing detail in recalling their childhood places: the feel of the concrete water trough, the smell of hay at a certain time of the summer, or where the stream was narrowest.
•                  Some amount of control over the places is often expressed. It may be physical, but not always. Children gravitate towards small spaces, a degree of enclosure that provides some concealment, an out-of-the-way place under adult radar, or a high place that offers a vantage point. These attributes provide a kind of ownership, independence, or invisibility; sometimes under the radar is a fort under the table or on the floor of the linen closet.
•                  Childhood play places shelter an incredibly rich variety of activities. Every significant childhood activity I can think of has been mentioned over the years: making up games with rules some games extending over months; climbing trees, balancing on logs; running and chasing; building and changing the area with sticks, found lumber, car parts and furniture; gathering flowers, fruit, leaves and seeds; digging up clay and molding it; creating objects from found and natural materials; making up stories, poems and plays; and developing friendships.
•                   A strong sense of personal relationships comes through. The significance of the place and the experiences there flow through personal relationships: “It was our family home for centuries;” “I loved being with granddad;” “the three sisters always played there together.”

An Enduring Impact
Listening to individual environmental autobiographies and memories is fascinating. There is always something for everyone to take away personally and for the work they do such as planning experiences for children. It usually wakes up some dormant memory of my own childhood places as well. Just as important, however, is what these memories reveal about the value of play, the importance of compelling environments, and of childhood itself.

First, along with an appreciation of the value of rich and accessible play places and experiences is a concern for their absence in the lives of so many children today. I can’t help but wonder what the future environmental autobiographies of children today will be. There are many urban children and busy suburban children playing indoors, on teams, or perhaps not all. Rural children have greater access to open spaces.

For all children, there are, fortunately, still sofa cushions to stack and make caves; blankets to drape across chairs; and out-of-the way places such as under the steps. Children’s museums, parks, and nature centers add something to this variety. But I am extending my gentle plea for more varied environments. But children also need unstructured time to discover, shape, and become attached to these places and make them their own.

I am also struck by the enduring impact of early experiences and environments. After a Head Start director told about the empty lot she played in and how it was under the flight path of the airport so airplanes figured in their play, she announced, “And today I am a pilot.” This inspired me to follow up with questions about the presence of these places and experiences in adult lives. Identifying connections between childhood places and activities in their adults lives has needed little prompting. I have heard, “I now raise animals on a small farm;” “I count things for a living;” “I make toys for a living.” “I’m a scientist.” 

Writing Your Environmental Autobiography
Have you  tried something like an environmental autobiography? What was useful and interesting about it? Did you discover a connection to what you do now as an adult? Please let us know if you have done one tried one after reading this. You might also be interested in:

•  Children’s Special Places by David Sobel (2002); Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.

•  Secret Spaces of Childhood by Elizabeth Goodenough (Ed.) (2003). Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

• Getting to Know City Kids: Understanding Their Thinking, Imagining, and Socializing by Sally Middlebrooks. (1998). New York: Teacher College Press.

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