The boys are quiet. They’re two and a half and three and a half. They’re in the shed, on their own. The door is shut. I’m in the house, looking out on the garden, and I realise that I haven’t heard or seen the children for a while. The last time I took any significant conscious note, there were three children sat quietly in the shed, surrounded by the sand they’d up-ended, sitting on the wooden booster boxes or on top of the empty old keg in there. They were sat around chatting in a way that was a little unusual for this small group of two to four-year-olds: they’re usually bouncing around after one another, some place. Now though, there’s one child of the three indoors, but the boys are quiet some place else: the shed door is shut. I go out to investigate.
When I open the shed door there’s no-one inside. Strange, I think: I could have sworn they were in here. It’s a little dark without windows, and it’s a little musty. This is where all the play stuff lives: though it’s scattered around now and flung into new living places this end of summer. I’m just turning back out of the shed when I hear a small sound. I have no idea where it’s coming from. I listen hard and think I must be hearing things, or the sound is coming from next door’s garden or something. There it is again though. ‘Are you in here, boys?’ I say. There’s no reply. Instead, again after a little while, there’s another small shuffling. I can’t trace it so I look in low places.
There, wedged right in at the back by the wall, nestled on top of a mound of old fabric sheets that some children I once worked with painted several years ago, are the boys. They grin out at me, looking like mice in the process of burrowing. I don’t think they’re hiding from me: I think it’s the other way around — I’ve disturbed something here. ‘Hi,’ I say. It’s all I can say. The boys wait, still grinning, and I don’t know if they expect me to tell them to get out or demand of them what they’re doing in there. I like to think they know me well enough though. ‘So,’ I say. ‘Um, OK. Mind your heads on the wood there, won’t you? It might have some nails in, and it’s dark in there.’ The boys nod. Adults can tend to state the obvious sometimes, can’t they?
‘I’ll, er, leave you to it then,’ I tell them and, as an after-thought — because something in me just tells me I need to get out of there, but also something in me tells me I ought to suggest something also verging on the ‘safer’ side — I add: ‘Can we just leave the door open a bit?’ The boys are OK with this, but I also realise (sort of, at the time) that that’s going to change things. The space no longer has the same potential quality as it did a few minutes before I’d come in: for one, the door is now ajar and there’s more light in there; for another, the ‘just burrowing’ — or whatever it is — now has a tinge of ‘hiding’ about it; for one more thing, a least one adult now knows about the play and the space. None of this in so many words, no doubt, is going through the minds of a two-year-old and a three-year-old, but it goes through mine now as I write.
Caught unawares by the process of creation unfolding (unexpected in that space, at that time, by these particular children, in this way), this adult — though pleasantly surprised — clicked into default adult mode of stating the bloody obvious and looking to modify the ‘safeness’ of the scene. It didn’t really need either. It needed me just not to have got in the way, or having done so accidentally, to get out again soon enough. Why does this matter? Surely it’s just a small thing, this finding of a secret space being created, trying to make sure no-one gets hurt? It’s about trust, of course.
If we extend it out to the idea that adults can, and often do, poke their uninvited way into such secret play repeatedly, the children aren’t going to feel trusted. Secret spaces are important for children. They’re created and owned, or places of escape, or places where all manner of strange imaginings can happen and can only happen there. They’re all of these and more. That we might not be able to see or hear the children will probably be a little disturbing for many adults: we’re conditioned to want to protect, of course, but also increasingly we’re conditioned to impose our own wills on children. Children become the receptacles for our adult ideas, morals, teachings and other wisdoms. Small, dark spaces in slightly musty sheds (albeit full of play stuff, but also home to tools and garden equipment and piled up things) are — adult ‘knowledge’ says — not appropriate places to be ‘hiding’ in.
The boys weren’t hiding, as such; or so I believe. They were ‘burrowing’, or ‘making’, or ‘just seeing’, or whatever it was they were doing. Maybe there was some hiding in it, but maybe they were ‘just hiding’ and not hiding from anyone in particular. I don’t know. This small, dark space in a slightly musty shed — it seems, therefore — was a perfect place to be doing whatever the boys were doing in it. The things we adults seem to have forgotten . . .
In my childhood there were many such spaces as these: in scooped-out gaps in various hedges; in the narrow concrete tunnel tubes that led to the lakes; in the cupboard under the stairs; in the possibility of the central heating system, just big enough to squeeze into (though I never tried); under upturned sofas; in the long grass at the end of the school playing field; in others’ discarded places found in the woods. What things happen in places such as these? It’s not for us adults to know: it’s only for us to remember.
There are times when the boys are quite comfortable with me being around their play, when they actively want me to be a part of it; there are times when they tolerate me or need me to help make something happen; there are times when they tolerate me, but when I really should be leaving them be (times such as when burrowing in old fabric in a dark corner of a slightly musty shed). I’m reminded of how, once, at a setting I worked at, other staff were agitated by the children’s need to climb into the cupboard (which could fit several of them at once); by their need to pull the blackout material across (which I’d stapled there beforehand); by their urgent need for me to find the torches, then shut the door, leave them be. My colleagues said that they couldn’t see the children. I said, ‘So?’ We could hear them banging and gurgling away, or shuffling around. When I checked in, every so often (yes, I disturbed them too and maybe shouldn’t have done), they were keen for me just to close the door again. The smell was ripe enough and I was keen to close that door for them!
Maybe, as adults, we’ll always have this in-built need to ‘check in’ on children (in our settings or in our homes); maybe, if we need to do this, we should find other much more subtle ways to do it: after all, something of the essential quality of that space the children are playing in will, no doubt, be lost if we check in too clumsily. A chipping away of trust will happen if we repeat and repeat our clumsinesses.