Currently I am teaching in Malaysia. The course is for graduates from about a dozen countries in Asia, and it’s about childhood in cultural context. We’ve been exploring how to define a child in our own cultures, how childhoods (for boys and girls separately, because gender is so important) are in our own communities, whether childhoods have changed, how global trends including “media childhoods” relate to our experience of what is happening on the ground locally, and how all this might and should affect our interventions in children’s lives, whether we seek to rescue them from dangerous situations, to facilitate their well-being or to protect and advocate their rights. That’s the background.
Teaching at undergraduate and graduate level has been part of my life for over thirty years, and I enjoy it increasingly. I recall a teacher of French at my old grammar school in Leyton who was nearing retirement, and he was clearly bored by the whole process. He had done it all, and seen it all before. In my case, by way of contrast, I find I am on a learning curve, and discovering more every time I teach, not least about my own blindness and lack of knowledge and insight. Teaching in a cross-cultural context has much to commend it, if you are willing to learn!
And as you might expect my teaching style and content has adapted in this Asian context. We reconstruct the classroom to create groups within the whole class, rather than sit as individuals within a single large group. We have music and craft materials available (as if it were a kindergarten) and we spend time outside in the shade of the trees with the monkeys, or down by the shore.
But last week it struck me that language (that is the English language, which for many students is their second or third language) was such a problem for several students that I must eschew anything like a lecture if I was to communicate effectively to everyone in the class. (There is, of course, plenty of work in groups, and communication is often good there if the mix is right.)
I suppose there are various alternative resources including PowerPoint, icons and pictures, stories and so on, but I found myself opting for the idea of sowing, as in a sower sowing seeds. Rather than develop arguments about how ideologies affect the construction of histories of childhood (I think that they do), I found it better to plant a few seeds hour by hour, and day by day. I am conscious that I am not the first to have used this concept or paradigm: Buddha and Jesus were among two who got there several hundreds of years before me.
So I tried to choose my single seeds with care and see which ones took root. One of the seeds was the idea of “safe space”. Rather than thinking in terms of protecting or safeguarding children, I suggested that what children thrived in was “safe space”.
Creating safe spaces
Sometimes this would be a literal space in a mother’s arms, in a zoo but on the right side of the bars, in a known and familiar place and so on. But it was more than this: where there was trust in another person a child might find a safe space on a rock face with the ground several metres below their feet, in a sailing boat with a tidy wind and surf spraying, or in a crowded market.
In such cases the space is not obviously safe to an onlooker: it is experienced as safe by the child because she trusts the person she is with not to take her into unsafe spaces. And sometimes a child will internalise trust to the point where she can feel safe when alone, even it is dark, or the place is unfamiliar and so on.
I didn’t tell one of my all time favourite stories about safe space, so I will do that right now before rounding off this column. It is told that a ship was in a storm in the Mediterranean Sea, with waves breaking over the gunwales and onto the foredeck, when a couple who were tourists on this cruise liner noticed a little girl all by herself standing by the rails. The spray and sometimes the waves were breaking over her. The couple rushed from the saloon and struggled against the wind and a rolling deck to reach the girl. She seemed unperturbed and completely oblivious to the precariousness of her chosen perch or vantage point. In fact she seemed to be enjoying the experience.
The couple sought to take her by the hand in order to lead her to a place of safety, but she refused. They pleaded with her, needing to shout to do so. “Don’t you realise that you are in danger?” they asked. She shook her head and was clearly intent on staying put. “Where are your parents?” they continued, trying to find a way of rescuing her. She pointed up behind her, “My daddy is there,” she said, pointing to the bridge. “He is captain of the boat”.
And so there can be safe spaces for children which strangers including professionals can’t easily recognise as such. But I suggested to my students that over time, and with lots of observation and experience, it was possible to identify such spaces from the way children were, reacted, played, smiled and inter-acted with others. You would find it hard to define a safe space adequately to cover all eventualities, but you could sense that a child felt safe or content, relaxed and creative.
This led us to consider how such safe spaces might be created. And taking our cue from stories like the one of the little girl and her seafaring father we realised that one of the primary ways in which safe space is created is by the mother and or father of a child from the earliest bonds and attachment.
As Erikson saw so clearly, this is where trust begins to be established, and without trust there can be no genuine experience of safety for a child. But what can others do to help; what can projects, teachers, schools, faith groups, hospitals, playgrounds, governments do to facilitate the growth of safe space?
We acknowledged that protecting children from predators and harm in a variety of forms was part of this process, and that relieving poverty and famine was a primary task in the lives of millions of children, but what about the positives? So often we tend to make do with preventing harm and insecurity, rather than creating the conditions in which security can thrive.
And this is where I dropped a second seed into what proved to be very fertile ground: I suggested that rituals were one of the best ways of doing this. In Asia that connected immediately and richly. We talked of the smallest family rituals to do with getting up, washing, getting dressed, eating, playing, going to the shops, stories and going to sleep. We talked of yearly festivals and celebrations in communities and nations. And it became clear that all of us who were alongside children could, if we took care, create and nurture such rituals: healthy patterns of interaction with children, and between children, so that they could play and laugh without any fear of criticism, ridicule or harm. The responsible adult should rarely have to say, “Be careful” if a space is really safe.
We had great fun working at a deeper understanding of rituals, and how we could reshape our interventions and patterns of work to facilitate them. One of the class who is a teacher was so struck by the whole idea that he is going to write a dissertation on the subject of “classrooms and the teacher-child relationship as safe spaces”!
Which is, if you can remember where we started, back to the beginning: the wheel has turned full circle. As a teacher I try to find ways first and foremost to create a safe space: a fertile learning environment. It means starting slowly in order to enable relationships between us to grow and develop, for us to begin to trust each other.
And you don’t have any difficulty recognising when it has happened: the students start smiling, laughing, testing the boundaries, and even an approximation of answering back (Asian-style that is). There is a sense of well-being within each individual and in the group as a whole.
And part of the process is creating simple, firm rituals from the very start: clear boundaries, so that everyone is safe with and within them; several tasks for members of the class; careful listening to any question; respect for the privacy of each student; recognition of different abilities and needs, and the very different experiences of the males and the females.
So here’s a seed for you: what are the rituals you have been able to establish by way of policy, practice, or practice model in the lives of children in your work or relationships with them, so that they are enjoying safe space?