The Right Kind of Space. By Keith White

The concept of “safe space” is familiar to all those seeking to create therapeutic environments, or to intervene in the lives of children and young people by rescuing them from neglect and abuse.  However, for obvious reasons, much of their attention is focussed on the adjective, safe, rather than the noun, space. The advent of Covid 19 with its stress on “social distancing” has been a trigger to re-consider the nature and role of space in the growth and development of children.  This piece explores some of the elements that go to make up the kind of space we are looking for.

I think we all agree that it is possible for human beings to have too little or too much space.  Where families are forced to live together in cramped conditions, with little respite or opportunity to go outside, it does not take much imagination to realise that this is a recipe for disaster.  The sheer pressure of being together is bound to create friction, and feelings will spill over into disagreements, arguments and even violence.  Those who are familiar with the London Underground in rush hour know the unfortunate social consequences of being crammed together like sardines.  And those who are aware of prison and life inside, know that perhaps even greater than the loss of freedom that incarceration involves, is the fear of being trapped in a single cell with someone else, with no room in which to cool down, and no opportunity to retreat.

At the other end of the spectrum, we realise that boundless space has its disadvantages. When children are alone, knowing that there is no-one near enough to hear them cry, it’s a desperate type of scenario. There are many varieties on this theme: perhaps in a hypermarket, on a large beach, or in a forest, or on their first day in a large secondary school.  There comes a point where freedom to roam without let or hindrance comes to resemble the cosmic loneliness of the wanderer or seafarer.

These are the extremes, of course, but as we begin to focus in on something in between, how do we know what constitutes the most appropriate amount of space?  My sense is that this is a matter of art, rather than science. Slide-rules and computers are unlikely to provide us with the right answer in terms of cubic capacity.

It was while ruminating on this during the Covid lockdown that it dawned on me how wonderfully blessed Mill Grove is with hospitable and friendly space, all through the year, inside and out, both London, and in North Wales.  The process of enlightenment came as people asked me how things were going during the pandemic.  I became rather defensive as I wanted to reply that we were mostly enjoying it! I tried to soften the impact of this unexpectedly good news, by describing how for the most part, and with some judicious adaptation, we were managing to thrive.  As I knew that this was not the common lot of many families and groups, it set me rethinking the extent and nature of the space that we had.

In London the houses allow private space for each family, and for each individual, with a variety of shared space from a small reception room equipped with internet, telephone, piano and games, to a hall large enough to contain an indoor badminton court.  And there is a lot a varied space in between.  And the spaces that I know intuitively are somehow more special than any other: the nooks and crannies, that simply cannot be designed as such. The fact that the place was not “purpose-built” is one of its most endearing and practical characteristics. Without it being anyone’s intention, individuals and families who are resident have had no difficulty social distancing, while being close enough to be re-assured that they are not alone.  There are rooms that offer varieties of ambiance and resources.  And there are lots of doors that can be kept open or closed depending on the situation.

Meanwhile the pre-school has opted to go fully woodland, and the orchard, playground and garden have come into their own.  It has been able to function without problem either to its own staff and children, or risk to the residents.  Who would have thought that the former chicken run, its inhabitants killed off by rapacious urban foxes, would in time become an idyllic outdoor classroom, their roosting area, a library, and their nesting boxes, a toilet?!

At the other end of the premises, the children with cerebral palsy and associated conditions have their own entrance, rooms, and specialist equipment in the sunniest room in the house.  Because they are so vulnerable to this virus they and their families need to be shielded, and this has been possible without any undue problem.

Thinking of the whole community, when there have been special events such as VE day on the 8th May, personal birthdays, or November 5th bonfire and fireworks, there has been space outside for them to work smoothly.  That space is pretty much perfect: enough for social distancing, but familiar and somehow friendly.

250 miles away in North Wales, where we were able to go for our usual summer holiday in August, we discovered that, with a few small adjustments, the two terraced houses that belong to us, could be reconfigured to function as four independent “bubbles” or “pods”.  It was tight for one or two, but once on the beach, sea, and mountains, the space was practically unlimited, but because we know it so well, familiar and therefore unthreatening even during two storms, Ellen and Francis.

I know that this summary risks making the place sound like Shangri La, and that is unfortunate because the accommodation in both London and North Wales is in many ways unexceptional and ordinary.  But it helps to explain how I came to see what is now palpably obvious:  since 1899, we have been blessed with just the right kind of space.

There is a literature on the dynamics of groups of different sizes, including the seminal work by Georg Simmel, On the Social Significance of Numbers.  As a sociologist I have always found this intriguing, wondering for example what is the best size for a thriving, people-friendly city.  What about class sizes? Or the number of children or young people in therapeutic residential establishments? What this reflection set in motion was an attempt to set these discussions in context: always asking about the kind of space that is available.  Is the city set on a hill, for example, or beside a river delta?

We are still a long way from being able to understand how factors such as security, health, well-being, educational attainment, and creativity, relate to space and spaces available, but intuitively we know enough to realise that there are bound to be significant correlations.

Years ago, when John Major was Prime Minister, I happened to visit Blenheim Palace.  Because Winston Churchill was our MP when I was a boy, I was interested in seeing where he and his family had lived. John Major had, I believe, grown up in council housing.  Walking around the library, and along corridors adorned with portraits and the maps of historic battles, looking out over manicured lawns towards the lake, I couldn’t help thinking how their different childhood homes might have affected their worldviews.  And I have wondered about this ever since.  I do not expect a definitive answer of course, but know I am on firmer ground when fearing for the welfare of children whose families are packed into confined spaces.

All through this journey of exploration, I have been trying to stay with physical space, but again and again I have been aware of how important space is symbolically; and how it seems through the eyes and imagination of children.  How do they feel in the relative confinement of a tent, cabin of a boat, or the playground of their school?

A few weeks after this article appears in TTCJ, we will once again be celebrating Christmas at Mill Grove.  It is not possible at this stage to know what the government guidelines are likely to be, but as you have probably already have guessed, it is becoming apparent that the space with which we have been blessed opens up numerous possibilities for creative activity.  We are quietly confident that there will be ways of connecting, sharing, and reflecting made possible by the quality of the premises and grounds.

Is there, I wonder, a therapeutic environment (from say, Dingleton Hospital, to Newton Dee, Finchden Manor, the Mulberry Bush, or the Cotswold Community) that was not similarly blessed with the right kind of space?

When the 2012 London Olympics were planned, meticulous attention was paid to footpaths, bridleways, and canal paths.  During the lockdown these have come into their own: gateways for ordinary families to virtually endless varieties of parks, facilities, and open spaces.  The connection between indoor and outdoor space, schoolrooms, and sports facilities, is integral to this whole consideration of the right kind of space.

Which reminds me: I am assuming that this Christmas 2020 in the UK carol singing outdoors, as well as family walks, will not only be allowed, but encouraged.  It must be difficult for individuals and families for whom such activities are not possible.  This is all about calculus or art because there are so many variables.  The worst of all possible worlds is surely restricted indoor space set within oppressive, confining outdoor space.  So it behoves those of us blessed with plenty of appropriate indoor space to share it where and when we can, and to do what we can by means of carols and walks to release pressure and open possibilities, not only for Christmas, but also the New Year.



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