In this editorial post concluding the February theme, blog editors Rohini and Neha look at the sociological aspects of children's spatiality and the implications of the pandemic on assumptions regarding the same.
“Are we on another planet?” asks the five-year old Jack when he wakes up in a hospital ward after spending his whole life confined to a tiny shed he knows as “Room.” The 2015 movie Room, adapted from a novel of the same name, is about a young woman, Joy, who was abducted and held captive in a shed by “Old Nick.” She gives birth to a son, Jack, and as a means of coping with their confinement, teaches him that only “Room” is real and everything else is imaginary like what they see on television. On finally escaping Room, Jack is stunned and disoriented with the vastness of the world. He clings to his mother, speaks but little, and takes a long time to take an interest in games and form relationships with people who are not familiar to him.
Horrifying as the premise of the film was, it is not an inappropriate analogy for babies born during the pandemic and young children who spent important formative years in the lockdown. Born in a world that was in the throes of sweeping restrictions and lockdowns, their lives were circumscribed by their parents and their homes. A report by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences, Bangalore noted that among the effects of school closure on younger children, were a tendency to be clingier, attention-seeking, and dependent on their parents. The inability to play outdoors on a regular basis had negatively impacted their affective development. With a definitive return to normalcy, it is necessary to confront the fallout of the pandemic on children’s conception of space and identity.
For a long time, children and childhood were underexplored areas in sociology. They were seen largely as incomplete human beings who underwent processes of socialisation to become mature adults. A change in this outlook has bred diverse studies across the social sciences on the social construction of childhood, including what is of interest to this paper- the spatiality of childhood and its association with children’s identities. The home, school, playground, and city are the everyday spaces where children’s identities are made and remade. They are designed to regulate and control, spatially and otherwise, a child’s mind and body, based on a notion of how children should be. For instance, the geographies of a classroom, staffroom and playground are sites where children learn such things as authority, discipline, the codes of gender and organise themselves in groups and networks that have resonances with society at large. Under normal circumstances, spatial disciplining provokes expressions of children’s agency in the way they resist adult control or make strategic alliances to avoid being dominated by other children. Spaces are also characterised based on our shared conception of childhood- the home is a safe space for innocent youngsters while the outside world is a risky space, rife with dangers and corrupting influences (Holloway and Valentine). The pandemic and related restrictions have upended the normal spatial regulation of children.
As physical mobility shrank in suffocating ways, the role of imaginative mobility has risen to the forefront. Arjun Appadurai’s pioneering work on the social imaginary becomes ever more relevant in such a moment. In his pioneering work on globalisation, Appadurai describes imagination in the modern world as “an organised field of social practices, a form of work, and a form of negotiation between sites of agency and globally defined fields of possibility” (Appadurai). The converging experience of children in the globalised world during the pandemic is evidence for the idea that imaginative and subjective possibilities, through the five “scapes”, take precedence over material realities. Whether through digital escapism or viewing one’s limited physical space through rose coloured glasses, imagination was at centre stage of both daily routines and long term vision of one’s life and identity. Knowledge intended for children is, more often than not, teleologically leaning and is focused on the transformation of a child into an adult (Bowen). The effect of the pandemic on this pattern can be seen as two-fold and contradictory. First, the pandemic threw the conventional flow of events in this teleological rhetoric into jeopardy, as children could not accomplish many things they were ‘supposed to’ achieve in their formative years to successfully transition into youth or adulthood. Second, the teleological nature was reinforced as the precarious present forced a shift in focus to the future, when the pandemic would be over and children would finally be able to fulfil the predestined tasks.
Having established the link between space and identity, we must now look at how this relation manifests in children. Chatterjee uses a socio-physical perspective and explores the idea of “place friendship”, whereby children develop a deep relationship with their everyday environments. They suggest six conditions to make a place child-friendly, which includes mutual affection, shared interests, attachment, and commitment among others (Chatterjee). Similarly, Cook posits that children use their spatial skills to develop a sense of “sacred” and “hated” environments, and that the pandemic has led to a diminishing of children’s unsupervised mobility, resulting in a “nature-deficit disorder”. At the same time, Cook also believes that the pandemic has allowed children to reclaim public space as the conventional formal facilities are unavailable. However, this is only a phenomenon in a minority section who have unrestricted access to such extensive areas. In a study in rural Odisha, Bowen sheds light on the diverse meanings of spatial contexts for children that they develop within the framework of adult control and use to engage with the physical village spaces. These meanings, developed during play in the form of an “imagined map”, include adult meanings but often go beyond them, such as the inclusion of certain forbidden areas where the children enjoyed freedom away from adult eyes and shared their takes on the world (Bowen).
Some distinctive characteristics in children’s spatiality in South Asia must be highlighted here. While the binary of individualism and collectivism and the power distance framework can be quite reductive (Bond), it is certainly true that students in North America and Europe are given far more space, both physical and mental, from an early age. However, socio-economic factors that influence ‘space-poverty’ and ‘space-richness’, such as a much higher population density and a majority of families not possessing multiple separate rooms for children, must also be taken into consideration beyond cultural factors.
‘Sense of place’ is a term used to describe the meaning embedded in an environment by a group or an individual. For a child, the spatial areas where they develop their identity are the home, school, and areas of leisure and play. This multiplicity allows a multi-dimensional and well-rounded identity to flourish. For many children, school or play areas were the only spaces where they could exercise agency. However, the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns have confined this spatial development to one space or shifted it to virtual worlds, hampering the development of an independent identity and a well-defined sense of place. This is not to say that this shift in the sense of spatiality is chronic; children are highly malleable and can adjust their internal self to their external surroundings with relative ease. However, it is far too early to definitively assess the long-term effects of pandemic confinement on children’s personalities and behaviour.
This blog theme for the month of February on children and spatiality during the pandemic attempted to address questions of agency and identity, and saw pieces on the experience of limited agency during the past two years as well as the virtual avenues used to bypass such a lack of physical spatial mobility. We have tried to largely pose questions rather than give definitive answers, and we hope the issues raised are subject to sociological scrutiny in the future.
Andrea, Cook. “Post-Pandemic Planning : Re-Claiming Space for Children.” Lund Humphries, 10 Aug. 2020, https://www.lundhumphries.com/blogs/features/post-pandemic-planning-re-claiming-space-for-children.
Appadurai, Arjun. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy.” Public Culture, vol. 2, no. 2, 1990, pp. 1–24., https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-2-2-1.
Bond, Michael Harris. “Social Psychologists Grapple with the COVID‐19 Pandemic: How Are We in Asia Distinctive?” Asian Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 24, no. 1, 2021, pp. 18–22., https://doi.org/10.1111/ajsp.12462.
Bowen, Zazie, and Jessica Hinchy. “Introduction: Children and Knowledge in India.” South Asian History and Culture, vol. 6, no. 3, 2015, pp. 317–329., https://doi.org/10.1080/19472498.2015.1030875.
Bowen, Zazie. “Play on the Mother-Ground: Children’s Games in Rural Odisha.” South Asian History and Culture, vol. 6, no. 3, 2015, pp. 330–347., https://doi.org/10.1080/19472498.2015.1030871.
Chatterjee, Sudeshna. “Children's Friendship with Place: A Conceptual Inquiry.” Children, Youth and Environments, vol. 15, no. 1, 2005, pp. 1–26.
Holloway, Sarah L and Gill Valentine. “ Spatiality and the New Social Studies of Childhood.” Sociology, vol 34, no. 4, 2000, pp. 763-783. doi: 10.1177/S0038038500000468
Rohini Dikshit is a third-year integrated MA student majoring in Development Studies at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. Her research interests include gender and queer studies, pedagogy, and environmental studies.
Neha Cherian is a third-year integrated MA student majoring in Development Studies at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. Her research interests include gender studies and international relations.