Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review


Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review


Article excerpt

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home--so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world . . . .

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1958

Why do babies like peek-a-boo? Or children hang by their knees, play house, and capture insects in small cupped hands? Reframing the universe teases their imaginations to find their true dimensions. Schools exhort pupils to seek, but children know the importance of hiding out, of finding the "just for me" place where they can't be seen. Without a corner to build a world apart, they can't plant what Diane Ackerman calls "the small crop of self" Without sanctuaries for free play, they can't be King of the Castle or shout "I win!," popping up big because no one found them. Without time to incubate, they are unable to take their place in the world or make a way back home. Secret spaces may be found inside, outdoors, or in the middle of nowhere-in a tree house and den of snow, or beneath the stairs. But seeking getaways, like Crusoe's bower or the bridge to Terabithia, is essential to putting things together for themselves and becoming who they are.

Although architects, city planners, sociologists, and urban historians research adult behaviors in public and private spaces, much less is known about how children respond to their surroundings, how they explore, create worlds of their own, or find havens from nightmare and violence. What causes them to gravitate to certain locales in quest of comfort, security, excitement, community, self-awareness, or beauty? When we force children to live in ugly and dangerous areas, or mass media assault them with labels and "lifestyles" of the rich and famous, we squeeze them and their futures at the most basic level. The relentless destruction of vegetation by developers and the "mailing" of recreational spaces indicate how little adults actually care or understand about children's contact with living things or the social isolation of the very poor. City planners rarely consider the civic rights of low-caste children or those for whom home is not safe. Assumptions made by those trained in architecture, engineering, or real estate development often run counter to the actual needs of kids growing up on a scary street, without a backyard, congregation, or community barbecue. Most Americans now dwell in urban centers, yet assumptions about childhood still reflect romantic ideals of the past, not the white noise of today's advertising. As vicarious pursuits, virtual pets, and synthetic playgrounds take over, should we worry that a world where children have minimal engagement with plants and animals might be threatening to nature itself?

As our own sense of endangered survival on this shrinking planet becomes acute, children are our last frontier. A fitting topic for the year 2000, they represent 20 percent of our population but 100 percent of our future. Carl Jung wrote in Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, "the child is on the one hand delivered helpless into the power of terrible enemies and in continual danger of extinction while on the other he possesses powers far exceeding those of ordinary humanity" To the degree that we can envision children as triumphant go-betweens or heroic survivors, they shelter the imagination and sustain the hope of adults. Childhood is thus both a chronological stage and mental construct, an existential fact and locus of desire, a mythical country continually mapped by grownups in search of their subjectivity in another time and place.

This volume, which grew out of a November 1998 University of Michigan Residential College exhibition and symposium on children and their environments, extends that two-day interdisciplinary forum beyond events convened at Nichols Arboretum, East Quad, the School of Education, and the International Institute. It allows all the original artists, three speakersLouise Chawla, Robin Moore, Eugene Provenzo-and Lois Kuznets, who with Leslie Becker co-mounted the children's literature exhibit, to share their work with a wider audience. …

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