Young children’s spatial autonomy in their home environment and a forest setting

Open access


Places assigned and places chosen have major implications for the lives of children. While the former are a result of children’s subordinate position in an adult world, the latter are the essence of their agency. Beginning at a young age children seek out places to claim as their own. Places, real and imaginary, shape children and children shape them. This phenomenon of spatial autonomy is a formative, and extraordinary, part of their identity formation. While spatial autonomy has been casually referred to in the children’s geographies literature, a theoretical framing of the concept is generally lacking. This article draws together findings from two research studies, which were conducted by the author, to further theorize the meaning of young children’s (ages 3-6 years old) spatial autonomy in their home environment and a forest setting. Informed by a phenomenological framework, the studies used children’s tours as a method. The findings reveal that spatial autonomy is an expression of children’s independence enacted through symbolic play and hiding activities. The children sought out small places and high places where they could observe others while maintaining autonomy. Additionally, spatial autonomy is relational, negotiated within adult imposed-regulations and influenced by peers, siblings and other more-than-human elements in their environments. By claiming just-out-of reach places, the children collectively and independently established their own rules and a sense of control. The achievement of spatial autonomy plays an important role in young children’s identity formation, boasting their self-confidence as they develop a sense of self with places in all the various environments of their lives.

Autonomy. (2018). In Merriam-Webster dictionary online. Retrieved from

Benwell, M. C. (2013). Rethinking conceptualisations of adult-imposed restriction and children’s experiences of autonomy in outdoor space. Children’s Geographies, 11(1), 28-43.

Bromley, R. F., & Mackie, P. K. (2009). Child experiences as street traders in Peru: Contributing to a reappraisal for working children. Children’s Geographies, 7(2), 141-158.

Chawla, L. (1992). Childhood place attachments. In I. Altman, & S. Low (Eds.), Place attachment (pp.63-86). New York: Plenum.

Cobb, E. (1977). The ecology of imagination in childhood. New York: Columbia University.

Corsaro, W. M. (2015). The sociology of childhood (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Freeman, C. (2010). Children’s neighbourhoods, social centres to ‘terra incognita’. Children’s Geographies, 8(2), 157-176.

Green, C. (2011). A place of my own: Exploring preschool children’s special places in the home environment. Children, Youth, and Environment, 21(2), 118-144.

Green, C. (2013). A sense of autonomy in young children’s special places. International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 1(1), 8-33.

Green, C. (2014). “Because we like to”: Young children’s experiences hiding in their home environment. Early Childhood Education Journal, 43(4), 327–336.

Green, C. (2015a). “Because we like to”: Young children’s experiences hiding in their special places. Early Childhood Education Journal, 43(4), 327-336.

Green, C. (2015b). Towards young children as active researchers: A critical review of the methodologies and methods in early childhood environmental education research. Journal of Environmental Education, 46(4), 207-229.

Green, C. (2016a). Sensory tours as a method for engaging children as active researchers: Exploring the use of wearable cameras in early childhood research. International Journal of Early Childhood, 48(3), 277-294.

Green, C. (2016b). Monsters or good guys: The mediating role of emotions in transforming young children’s encounters with nature. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 21, 125-144.

Green, C. (2017a). Four methods to engage young children as environmental education researchers. International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 5, 6-19. Retrieved from

Green, C. (2017b). Children environmental identity development in an Alaska Native rural context. International Journal of Early Childhood, 49(3), 303-319.

Green, C., Kalvaitis, D., & Worster, A. (2016). Recontextualizing psychosocial development in young children: A model of environmental identity development. Environmental Education Research, 22(7), 1025-1048.

Hart, R. (1979). Children’s experience of place. New York: Irvington.

James, A. (2000). Embodied beings: Understanding the self and the body in childhood. In A. Prout, & J. Campling (Eds.), The body, childhood and society (pp. 19-37). New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

James, A. (2009). Agency. In J. Qvortrup, W. A. Corsaro, & M. S. Honig (Eds.), The Palgrave handbook of childhood studies (pp. 34–45). New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan.

Kjørholt, A. (2003). Creating a place to belong: Girls’ and boys’ hut-building as a site for understanding discourses on childhood and generational relations in a Norwegian community. Children’s Geographies, 1(1), 261-279.

Kylin, M. (2003). Children’s dens. Children, Youth and Environments, 13(1). Retrieved From

Laufer, R., & Wolfe, M. (1977). Privacy as a concept and a social issue: A multi-dimensional developmental theory. Journal of Social Sciences, 33(3), 22-41.

Lehman-Frisch, S., Authier, J., & Dufaux, F. (2012). ‘Draw me your neighbourhood’: A gentrified Paris neighbourhood through its children‘s eyes. Children’s Geographies, 10(1), 17-34.

Lowry, P. (1993). Privacy in the preschool environment: Gender differences in reaction to crowding. Children’s Environments 10(2), 46-61.

Proshansky, H.M., & Fabian, A. K. (1987). The development of place identity in the child. In C.S. Weinstein, & T.G. David, (Eds.), Spaces for children: The built environment and child development (pp.21-40). New York: Plenum Press.

Punch, S. (2002). Negotiating autonomy: Childhoods in rural Bolivia. Conceptualising child-adult relations (pp. 37-50). Routledge.

Schwandt, T. A. (2015). The Sage dictionary of qualitative inquiry (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Seamon, D. (2014). Place attachment and phenomenology: The synergistic dynamism of place. In L. C. Manzo, & P. Devine-Wright (Eds.), Place attachment: Advances in theory, methods and applications (pp. 11-22.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Smilansky, S., & Shefatya, L. (1990). Sociodramatic play: Its relevance to behavior and achievement in school. In E. Klugman, & S. Smilansky (Eds.), Children’s play and learning: Perspectives and policy implications (pp. 18-42). New York: Teachers College Press.

Sobel, D. (2002). Children’s special places: Exploring the role of forts dens, and bush homes in middle childhood. Detroit: Wayne State University.

Spatial. (2018). In Merriam-Webster Dictionary online. Retrieved from

Tomanović, S., & Petrović, M. (2010). Children’s and parents’ perspectives on risks and safety in three Belgrade neighbourhoods. Children’s Geographies, 8(2), 141-156.

Travlou, P., Owens, P. E., Thompson, C. W., & Maxwell, L. (2008). Place mapping with teenagers: Locating their territories and documenting their experience of the public realm. Children’s Geographies, 6(3), 309-326.

Valentine, G. (2004). Public space and the culture of childhood. New York, NY: Routledge.

Wilson, S., Houmøller, K., & Bernays, S. (2012). ‘Home, and not some house’: Young people’s sensory construction of family relationships in domestic spaces. Children’s Geographies, 10(1), 95-107.

Journal of Pedagogy

The Journal of University of Trnava

Journal Information

CiteScore 2017: 0.43

SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) 2017: 0.164
Source Normalized Impact per Paper (SNIP) 2017: 0.437


All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 270 270 46
PDF Downloads 230 230 40