Place means something to children discovering their world, who they are, and where they belong. Sensitive to their surroundings, children’s encounters with spaces and places are immediate, multi-sensory, physical, emotional, and full of information. Place, whether it is small or large, familiar or new, invites children to explore, discover, make meaning, and learn; it shapes their understanding, experiences, and ideas. A powerful way for them to know and understand themselves and their world, place calls to them to climb, check out new perspectives, pour water over sand and see what happens, stack sticks, use their whole bodies to measure a space, and hypothesize about what happens here.
Children are natural and active placemakers. Their placemaking is an open, exploratory process of transforming a space through play, imagination, stories, and friendships that brings new meaning to it, builds their knowledge of the world, and expands their sense of self.
Children’s constructions are the most obvious expression of their placemaking and initially what placemaking suggests to us. Images of forts, hideouts, and dens come to mind, hiding places tucked into a hedge or behind the curtain of low spreading boughs. Found across many settings, special places may also be under tables, nestled among sand dunes, in the attic, enclosed by sofa cushions, or deep in the woods. Sometimes ephemeral, children’s places may also be where they return physically and in different seasons. Special places are sometimes enduring and remembered throughout life.
Seemingly empty spaces–under the stairs, the corner of a lot, behind the garage, the depths of a snow pile–summon children and invite them to explore their potential; they fill in with their imaginations. Qualities of space–openness, enclosure, height, scale, shape, fragrances, sounds and silences, different textures, even drops of water–suggest possibilities for what a space might become. An old, old tree, a distant view, a rise in the landscape, a remembered story can envelop a space and make an ordinary spot extraordinary. Likewise, something fascinating may call out to a child or pose a question. The blurred pathway that crosses a clearing, a place of brilliant light changing to deep shadow might inspire placemaking.
Placemaking-possibilities may be triggered incidentally: stumbling on an old wooden crate, digging up pottery pieces, discovering a dented hubcap, finding traces of past activities, or remembering the fragment of a story or song. But the power of a place is itself a compelling invitation. Sunlight, lacy shadows, or cool shade can summon placemaking. Subtle, unusual, and capricious environmental conditions–wind, mist, springs, echoes–are qualities that can add drama, mystery, and possibility for shaping space and supporting exploration.
The open-endedness of placemaking supports a wide range of activity. Children hunt for and gather materials; they build and modify their space; and they embellish it with finds and treasures. They climb, chase and challenge one another. Stories live in the dens and hideouts children create. New narratives about events of daily life, movies seen, the lives of dolls, action figures, and cherished animals enter and enliven life inside. Groups form and friendships grow in the shelter of a camp, fort, or snow cave.
Play and placemaking are closely connected in many ways but are also not the same. Clearly the forts, dens, and hideouts created during placemaking become places for play, contexts for pretend play, and backdrops for games. But, at the same time, placemaking is the serious work of children exploring, testing, understanding, and making their mark on the world.
More than Building
Placemaking goes well beyond building forts and hideouts. In this dynamic process of exploration, change, and discovery, children are making a place for themselves in the world. They are mastering materials, building confidence and competence, forging relationships, and shaping a sense of self.
German social intellectual Walter Benjamin noted in 1928,
Children are irresistibly drawn to the detritus generated by building, gardening, housework, tailoring, or carpentry… In using these things they do not so much imitate the works of adults as bring together, in the artifact produced in play, materials of widely differing kinds of new, intuitive relationships. Children thus produce their own small world of things within the greater one.
Children use materials and objects, their knowledge of how the world works, and ingenuity in placemaking. Loose parts, found objects, and discarded building materials are instrumental in transforming a space. They use what’s at hand: bricks, boards, boxes, and blankets; clay, cloths, crates, and cushions; sand, seeds, sticks, stones, string, and stumps; Legos, leaves, and license plates.
Random as they might be, collected objects and materials contain valuable and actionable information about altering a space and realizing a vision. When they gather, move, and arrange materials; when they dig holes; when they drag a piece of sheet metal, children experience properties such as weight, mass, strength, and rigidity. They discover what different materials can do. Sticks help outline boundaries; some sticks bend while others are brittle and don’t. Blankets and branches span a distance; stones can weigh down a blanket; carefully stacked stones become a tower.
In exploring places, hideouts, and landscapes, children are constructing an understanding of space and themselves. They measure space, size, and dimensions using their bodies, hands, eyes, and voices. Through their movements, they know the prepositions of space: under, above, inside and out, through, between, and on top of. Being in or out, up, down, or underneath, children encounter distant views and unusual perspectives, uncover new routes, and make connections to another time or place. With playmates, they work to make something big happen together. They share secrets, make-up ideas, negotiate how to work together, make up stories, layer in rules, and take on roles.
Children come to know something about themselves as well through placemaking. They test themselves
As placemakers, children are experimenters, agents of change in charge of transformation. They find a spot that is undefined or open to being redefined and dictate its meaning. As they incorporate new materials and ideas, they continue to modify the space, its qualities, and meaning. This opportunity, ordering the physical surroundings in ways that express their own ideas and interests, is rare for children, but it engenders a feeling of competence and satisfaction. That anonymous patch of dirt transformed into a place with an original identity, yields a tangible, lasting sense of accomplishment.
Often children find something in a space that speaks to them of possibilities invites them to investigate their connection to the world. In working that space, they develop a relationship with it and come to know it, from its smell, sounds, or silences and from what has taken place there. A special place can stay with children when they are not there, over time, into their adult lives. Who doesn’t remember a place from childhood, created or found; a shelter for play, friendship, hiding; visited through changing seasons; and revisited over time in our memories?