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?