When I was very small I liked to climb what I called a tree. It was actually a sturdy shrub. I sat between branches less than a foot off the ground, sure I was hidden, feeling mysterious as creatures that speak without words. I also used to retreat to the coat closet with my younger brother. We sat companionably in the dark under heavy coat hems, talking or just enjoying the quiet together. And we made pillow forts, draped sheets over furniture, and played under the folded leaves of the dining room table.
My favorite hidden place was in the woods behind our house. There was a small rise no bigger around than two desk tops. Tall trees grew at either side and a creek bed, dry most of the year, ran along one side. The whole area was covered with leaves. I tried to walk there soundlessly, as I fancied Native Americans walked, not cracking a twig or rustling the underbrush. I tried to identify plants I could eat or use if I lived in the woods, as the boy did in My Side of the Mountain . I’d sit alone in completely silence, hoping if I did so long enough the woodland creatures might forgot about me, might even come near. I snuck food out of the house to make that place a haven, as I’d read about in Rabbit Hill , but I always came back to find the iceberg lettuce and generic white bread I left were still untouched.
Once I became a preteen I found a hidden world right outside my bedroom window. I climbed on a chair and hoisted myself up on the gently sloping roof that faced the back yard. When I started college at a large urban university I’d just turned 17. My hermit soul craved time to be alone and still. The only place I found was in a bathroom on the upper floor of the oldest building on campus. I’d retreat behind a heavy wooden stall door, close the antique latch, and meditate on the wood grain of that door until I felt restored. A necessary refuge, although hardly ideal.
Most children seek out small places to make their own. They find secret realms in couch blanket forts, behind furniture, and in outdoor hideaways. There they do more than play. They command their own worlds of imagination away from adult view, often listening to silence by choice.
Perhaps retreating somewhere cozy harkens back to our earliest sense memories, first in the sheltering confines of the womb and then in the security of loving arms. Yet at the same time, hidden worlds are also a way of establishing our independence. Children have surely always slipped out of sight in the cool shadows of tall cornstalks, the flapping shapes of sheets hung on clotheslines, the small spaces under back steps, behind furniture, and inside closets.
There are all sorts of tiny retreats that can be purchased for kids. Plastic structures made to look like ships or cabins, tiny tents, pre-made playhouses. These things lose their allure. Children want to discover hidden places on their own or to create them out of materials they scavenge like fabric, cardboard, scrap wood, whatever is handy. (The benefits of this play is described in the “theory of loose parts.”) These places tend to be transitory, lasting for a short time or changing into something else. They’re special because they’re unique to the child. These places contain the real magic of secret places.
Hidden worlds are made with blankets, indoors
They’re found in cardboard boxes
and under trees.
They’re made out of old logs
The hidden worlds I cherish these days have more to do with a quiet sense of peace found in moments of solitude. What’s paradoxical, these are also times when I most often feel the oneness that connects everything.
Maybe growing up with the freedom to retreat within hidden worlds, no matter what was going on, helped me to access this in myself. Hurray for blanket tents, for treehouses and spaces under tables, for all hidden worlds that let us gather up what is fragmented in ourselves and feel whole again.
How do you make time, and space, for hidden worlds in your child’s life and in your life?
20 thoughts on “We Need Hidden Worlds”
I find the same thing, the connectedness in the silence, even in relationships I love when I get to the point where we can just sit in silence in our own little worlds but still connected. There’s a romance in silence I find. I can always gauge how well a potential partner is suited by the way they either fill the silence with inane mindless chatter or just sit and contemplate. The speech is always more animated too following a good silence, normally still inane banter but there’s just more of a buzz to it. Silence and solitude are so under-rated these days.
Your post has made me long to go to the nearest wood and pitch a makeshift den and hide in the recess of my imagination and memories for a while.
“There’s a romance in silence.” I love the way you put that.
Thank you so much, I find it a truism for me,. Strangely just this afternoon (prior to reading your post) I walked 3 miles for a 2 mile journey just so I could nip down tree lined side streets where there is little hum of traffic, just to be alone with my thoughts and appreciate the tree’s. I realised I must walk around with my eyes closed I rarely notice the beauty surrounding me in developed areas and my mind started wondering what secrets those tree’s held, if only they could talk. I stumbled across a large black tree (I am not sure of the species) and it was majestic in its magnificence and those branches looked so tempting to climb I thought that would have been my tree when I was little. I intend to walk that way again and get some photo’s for the blog.
You are remarkable. I know, you doubt the veracity of that statement, but each week you come up with something I am delighted I read. Thank you. I treasure our friendship.
Oh Sarah, bless you!
I don’t think it necessarily changes with age, either. I have been feeling recently that it is about time that I once again ‘stepped out of my life’ momentarily. This is interestingly one of the only times that I choose to use public transport rather than drive for journeys when driving is arguably more convenient. That seems to be necessary in order to shed the ‘real life’ for a few hours or a day. To go somewhere other than my usual haunts and just do whatever appeals to me at the time. To be an unknown in an unfamiliar world, and in doing so to reconnect with the real me. It is only about once or twice a year that I need this, but it is creeping up on me, and not so unlike the childhood me climbing a tree to sit on top of a high wall at the bottom of our garden, or a tree or a rock in the countryside, or slipping through the school fence to go and sit on the fence by the horse’s field as a bullied schoolchild. In that case though I went to Narnia …..
Oh Helen. You reminded me of walking through the woods to visit a downright ancient horse. I had no familiarity with animals, so I was too afraid to feed him, but would pick long grasses to push through the fence for him.
I like the idea of a regular “step out of life” journey. Now I’m hankering to do the same!
I had two places as a child: my ‘book tree’, which had a big crook between three branches of a tall oak tree, where I spent hours with my books, deaf to my mother’s voice. The other was a tiny island in the creek at the bottom of our paddock, very low lying between high banks and overhung with trees – almost invisible unless you knew where it was. I still miss them both, 40 years on… Kate
Those hidden places sound heavenly!
It’s so good to have found your blog. I just began on a few months ago.
Solitude is underrated. I do believe we all beckon for the quiet comfort of our mother’s womb. Also. the unconscious warmth of babyhood, when we could just be, absorbing our environment.
I have gotten into the “wonderful” habit of staying up late, with candle and wine, watching the darkness of the night, a blank notebook on my lap, and an empty mind waiting to be filled.
Your evening tradition includes two of the most powerful engines of contemplation. Watching fire, even the flame of a candle, prompts us into a state of wordless reflection. All the eons our ancestors sat before fire, safe and warm, surely encoded this in our genes. And the night sky is such a wonder to consider, leading to consideration of ever larger wonders. What a great habit. I’ll be strolling over to your site hoping to find what ends up in that blank notebook.
Thanks, Laura. I recently watched the Imax film about our Hubble telescope, and have bookmarked it. Absolutely amazing wonders.
What a lovely article!
I remember spending hours when I was young, building little hideaways with my siblings, from fallen branches or packed snow, or blankets draped over furniture. I don’t recall anyone showing us how do it; I guess children just instinctively figure it out. My own did the same when they were young.
Nowadays my favorite sanctuary is a green mossy hollow in our woodlot. It reminds me of a woodland Secret Garden.
You’ve hit on exactly the right word to describe any of these hidden places: “sanctuary.”
Under the lilac bushes in spring. The empty parts of the logpile leanto in summer. A blanket and couch cushion fort, or a huge circle of leaves burrowed up next to a treetrunk, in fall. A snow castle in winter, or the warm spot under the stairs.
Yes yes yes.
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Great article. I had forgotten about these things, it being almost 20 years since my children had such fun. But maybe it’s time to get the grandchildren involved in such hidden worlds. Thank you for sharing this.
It is good when kids know world in games.Your childern fotos beautiful.
Love this!! Agree with every line 🙂