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Intimate Immensity in the Preschool Playroom: A Topo-analysis of Children’s Play

Rodney Teague

Teague is a doctoral student in Psychology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He originally wrote this essay for a seminar in the phenomenology of human development taught by Duquesne Psychology professor Eva-Maria Simms. The essay was presented as a paper in a special session, “The Lived-Space of Childhood,” held at the International Human Research Science Conference, 5-8 August 2004, Brock University, St. Catherine’s, Ontario. teaguer@duq.edu © 2005 Rodney Teague. 

This essay describes a project in which I observed and interpreted children’s experiences of their classroom through the lens of The Poetics of Space, the 1958 work of French scientist, philosopher, phenomenologist and poet Gaston Bachelard (1964).

Bachelard’s conception of space is very different from the way people typically think of space. He interrogates space not as mathematical, geometric, scientific, infinite or empty, but rather as imaginal and poetic. He describes his method as a “recourse to the phenomenology of the imagination... understood as a study of the phenomenon of the poetic image when it emerges into the consciousness as a direct product of the heart, soul and being of [the person]” (p. xiv).

Applied to space, this method yields space “seized upon by the imagination [that] cannot remain indifferent space subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyor.” He continues, “It has been lived in, not in its positivity, but with all the particularity of the imagination. Particularly, it nearly always exercises an attraction. For it concentrates being within limits that protect” (p. xxxii).

This notion of lived space reverses our typical notions of space as an empty medium in which we act and live our lives. In this typical view, space is a kind of three-dimensional canvas on which our actions are inscribed. Space, in itself, isn't really anything at all—only an abstraction. In Bachelard's view, on the other hand, space constituted by the imagination is bounded and real.

To the extent I conceive of and am aware of my being at all, I constitute its boundaries. These are fluid, mutable, and permeable, but they are necessary exigents of being. Bachelard argues that in the absence of such limits, the person “would be a dispersed being” (p. 7). Such a condition is opposed by the attraction and concentration of imagined space within “limits that protect” (p. xxxii). He speaks of the poetic image and of being, within its imaginal boundaries, as reverberative and resonant (pp. xii-xx). Bounded imaginal space provides feedback that intensifies and continually reconstitutes being itself.

Imaginal space is real and bounded; not simply a container for our actions and our lives but created by and constitutive of them. We may analyze or explore imaginal space, not through psychoanalysis, but through what Bachelard terms “topo-analysis” (xxxii), a process Ed Casey (1997) describes as the “systematic psychological study of the localities of our intimate lives” (p. 288).

As a “direct product” of heart mind and soul, imaginal space eludes causality. It is not symbolic space, referring to some psychic antecedent. Its discovery is thus projective rather than deterministic. It is the investigation of a realm of “pure sublimation” (Bachelard, p. xxv). We must take the lived poetry of imagined space “in its being.”

Falling back to the Geometrical
I must confess that, even given Bachelard's framework for imaginal space, my initial response on ascending to the observation booth above the classroom was—to draw a map. Partaking fully in the typical conception of the space as geometrical or “indifferent,” I took the role of surveyor, carefully sketching a scaled representation of the classroom. I imagined I might want to “locate” certain activities or behaviors within the parameters of the room as they were laid out before me in my perch: table here, bookcase there, and a squat row of cubbyholes in between.

It was some time before I realized that this flat representation had nothing to do with the imaginal space I wished to observe. Martinus Langeveld (1983a) comments on the tendency of adults to “insist on the priority… for systematization, formulation, explicitness, and order” (p. 13).

Adult rationalization of the world makes everything “more available to the adult” through determination of space. In contrast, space that is poetically lived and imagined will be open to possibilities, still available, but able to be “worked out” according to its possibilities (p. 13).

My initial reaction highlights this unreflective adult tendency as well as providing appropriate juxtaposition for the intended method of study. I never did return to that map.

An Ecstatic Outburst
A four-year-old child walked into his preschool classroom and stood looking about the room, watching other children play. When his teacher suggested that he sit at a nearby table to work on an art project, he hesitated a moment and then indicated to her that he would be back to take her suggestion, but that he needed to do something first.

The child then proceeded to go running, jumping, spinning, skipping and dancing throughout the room, following its contours, in an extended and ecstatic outburst. He shook his head, kicked out his legs and feet, shaking them wildly. He thrust out his arms and hands in what looked like punches to the air but also flailed them over his head as he skipped and spun and twirled. He laughed as he went, but there was purpose, seriousness, to his actions. After a few minutes he had been all throughout the room. He quietly returned to the suggested table and began his art project.

Several ways to conceptualize his actions appear. One is to say that he simply had a lot of energy and was “burning it off.” Another is to think of him as “measuring” the room in some way—perhaps testing its limits. I could have traced his course through the room on a two dimensional map.

Or, using digital imaging technology, I could have recorded his locomotions as data points and then plotted them in a three-dimensional, digital representation. But these methods partake of a notion of the classroom as empty, indifferent space: a simple canvas. As such they violate the spirit of an imaginal rendering of the child's activity.

Langeveld (1983a) emphasizes the importance of the child's body, his corporeal self, as the absolute center of his spatiality. It is through intentional movements of his body that the child shapes the space of his world. The lived experience of space is thus dynamic, and space is “created” personally (pp. 188-9).

Any imagination of the child's classroom experience must not be from my perspective as the unwatched watcher but, rather, from inside the child's own corporeal viewpoint. Only the projective power of imagination affords us such a vantage.

A Geometry of Inside & Outside
So that's the perspective, but what exactly is the child doing? That he had a project was indicated by his asking the teacher to wait while he performed his movements. He seemed to respond to some kind of call. Langeveld (ibid.) goes on to indicate that the child “perpetually escapes its body and thus creates its space” (p. 188).

Here is implied a relationship of inner and outer realms to which Bachelard's poetics speak. Ed Casey (1997) uses the concept of “place” or “emplacement” in opposition to our typical notion of space as empty, as “the void.” Our sense of emplacement corresponds to an internal and corporeal sense of self. Casey then employs Bachelard's notion of “intimate immensity” to illuminate the relationship of the inner and the outer and of place to space (pp. 293-5).

In two related chapters, “Intimate Immensity” and “The Dialectics of Outside and Inside,” Bachelard (1964) discusses the dynamic and intricate relationship of internal and external. We cannot escape the implicit geometry of inside and outside—expressed here as the difference between a child's sense of his corporeal self (inside) and the external sense of the classroom space (outside). This geometry confers spatiality on thought and, with it, aggression and opposition (p. 212).

The child's movements through the classroom had an aggressive quality that highlights Bachelard's point. This aggression is a way of placing opposites in tension, of calling their boundaries into question. For Bachelard, inside is associated with intimacy and outside with immensity, but their dichotomy is characterized by dynamism. Bachelard describes the threshold which separates them as “painful on both sides.” The two are, he says, “always ready to be reversed, to exchange their hostility” (p. 218).

According to Casey (1997), there exists an “osmotic, two-way flow” between intimate and immense space (p. 293). For Bachelard (1964), the union of intimacy and immensity yields intensity, or concentration, of being. Through “correspondences” of these antinomies, he claims that we “receive the immensity of the world” which is then transformed “into intensity of our intimate being” (p. 193). Casey then offers a concise explication of the activity of the child: “Thanks to intimate immensity, I…connect place with space. The beguiling and bedeviling dichotomy... is overcome.... I enter space from place itself” (p. 294).

The child is sensitive to the tension between place and space as he enters the room. He hears antagonistic inner and outer spaces calling across a painful threshold for Bachelard's reversal. They cannot be kept apart. He will accomplish their union by physically and ecstatically thrusting the intimacy of his personal presence into every corner of the immensity of the classroom.

Through the dialectic of inner and outer, two preexisting spaces—the child’s internal space and the vastness of the room—give birth to a new place, the one in which he will spend his day, a space now characterized by his own intimacy and intensity; a space that has conferred on him the immensity of its possibilities.

Martin Heidegger (1975) writes in his essay “Building Dwelling Thinking” that the nature of space as individuals relate to it is “not strictly mathematical” but such that “I am shot through” space. “When I go toward the door,” he writes, “I am already there... I am never here only, as this encapsulated body; rather I am there, that is I already pervade the room, and only thus can I go through it” (pp. 56-7).

The child's physical movement through the room is the accomplishment of this pervading the room. As Langeveld (1983a) writes, “In the schoolyard, place and movement call each other forth” (p. 190). The same holds for the playroom as well.

Hidden, Inner Spaces
The other observation I’d like to relay involves creation of hidden, inner spaces. One child spent the better part of a morning's free time playing with a few blocks and a few small figures. I believe they were pigs. In an out-of-the-way spot on the floor she built a small enclosure using four blocks and one more single block as a cover or lid.

When construction was complete, the child squatted next to the structure, looking at it for a few minutes. Then she lifted the roof, peering into and then placing a pig inside the enclosure and carefully replacing the top. After looking for another moment, she walked away toward one of her teachers.

After trying unsuccessfully to gain the full attention of that teacher, she sought out one of the other adults in the room and, taking him by the hand, led him to her building. Both now on the floor, they appeared to talk about the structure.  She showed him how it worked—removing and replacing the top. Eventually, all four adults in the classroom were summoned. She showed off her handiwork and appeared to talk at some length with each about what she had been doing.

After her involvement with the adults, this child continued to play with and around her enclosure, occasionally walking away and becoming momentarily involved with some other activity. She never went more than five minutes or so, however, without returning to replay the same scenario with her block building—opening carefully, looking inside, emptying or filling, carefully closing. Once free time was over, she dismantled her buildings and put the blocks away but carried the pigs with her the rest of the day.

I do not know what this child might tell us about her play. Her buildings might have been houses, beds, stables or they could have been indeterminate. Much of what happened, however, involved the inner spaces created by her enclosures.

Intimate Immensity
This child's studied involvement with these spaces addresses two related themes of Bachelard's poetics of space: miniaturization and the importance of hiding places. The reality of miniatures, of toys, for children is vital to miniaturization for Bachelard (p. 149). The experience of “what is large in what is small” means that whatever is reduced to diminutive size retains its qualities in imagination. The result returns us to condensation and intensification.

Bachelard's notion of “intimate immensity” is recapitulated here: “values become condensed and enriched in miniature” (p. 150). Miniatures bring adults back to childhood because they recall our ability to defy logic and recognize the intense being of the tiny thing. How much more intensity there must be in the experience of the child!

Beyond intensity, Bachelard notes a “metaphysics of miniature” that draws us imaginally into itself. The miniscule is a narrow gate opening up an entire world (p.155). Another reversal takes place in the imagination as large issues from small, thanks, says Bachelard, to “liberation from all obligations of dimensions, a liberation that is a special characteristic of the activity of the imagination” (p. 154).

In play with miniatures, we become small, ourselves intensified and enriched. Elizabeth Goodenough (2003) illustrates this activity of imagination in her “Peering into Childhood's Secret Spaces.” She tells of creating, on a beach with her six-year-old son, a tiny world of palm fronds, moss and bark.

Later on, she writes, “something strange occurred. Suddenly my sense of large and small, inner and outer merged. I felt myself recessed on the porch and yet magically encircled by the shaded interior of our tiny fern palace at the lake.” She became miniaturized and concentrated within limits that protect.

The child I observed entered into her miniature-block world but maintained her usual stature. She established a correspondence between worlds that abolished neither. It also must be said that the miniature world is not, for Bachelard, representative of the child or any aspect of her psyche. Child psychologists have done important work with symbolic play, but it is not relevant here. In Bachelard's realm of pure sublimation, the miniature is an “absolute image that is self-accomplishing” (p. 153).

Hiding Places
Beyond intensification of being and the “correspondence” of miniaturization, the child's play with the enclosed space of her blocks relates to the imaginal importance of hiding places. Drawers, wardrobes, chests, and the like are organs of the secret psychological life and models of our intimacy (p. 78) that speak to what Bachelard terms “an intuitive sense of hiding places” (p. 81).

He uses the metaphor of an “absolute casket” with which we surround recollections of our inner selves, and he suggests that there are secrets to be found in every person (p. 85). The gift of a decorative casket or box implies permission to conceal one's secrets. For the child, such an object holds a correspondence with her own sense of inner secrecy. The child I observed created such an item, giving herself such permission and then seeking approval from nearby adults.

A defining characteristic of Bachelard’s hiding place is that it is an enclosure that opens. A closed box participates in the dialectics of open and closed, but once it is opened, “an atmosphere of novelty and surprise reigns.... a new dimension—the dimension of intimacy—has just opened up” (p. 85).

Then again, Bachelard refers to a passage in which the poet Rilke describes the way a box top has no other desire than to be on its box (p. 83). Closing calls for opening and vice versa.

Opening & Closing
This characteristic of boxes was demonstrated during one of my fellow graduate student’s presentation on toys. One of the items she brought in for us to play with was a small, cardboard box that seemed to have a lid placed on its underside.

On inspection, however, the “lid” proved to be glued to the box bottom—not a lid at all—and a discovery that met with universal disapproval from all of us present. The thing plummeted in value. Why? The possibilities that exist in the contemplation and imagination of a closed box were suddenly stripped from the object.

The dialectics of intimate immensity call for the box to be (able to be) closed. Any one of us, had we been able, would have closed that box. And any one of us (every one of us) would have opened it right back up again. The tension is unbearable—the threshold painful on both sides.

The boxes and intimate spaces of which Bachelard writes are pre-existent. That the child I observed created her intimate enclosure deepens the intensification and the tensions embodied within. It was called, built, into existence by a child responding to a call for its creation. The space was already there in a scientific sense. The molecules and particles that occupy the area bounded by the child's enclosure remain largely the same after its creation. But something more happens with the creation of enclosed space.

In “Building Dwelling Thinking,” Heidegger (1975) explains the Greek understanding of “space” as something that has been made room for or “that which has been let into its bounds.” Its boundaries are that from which something “begins its presencing” (p. 154). In “The Thing,” he describes the creation of a jug (another bounded empty space) as its standing forth “into the unconcealedness of what is already present” (p. 168).

The jug and the enclosure’s boundaries do not merely contain the air that was already there. Rather, the boundaries of space are called to be by the already existent space that is brought forth, un-concealed, with the thing's creation. The child was called by sensitivity to the tension of dialectical forces to concentrate being by bounding the space within her enclosures.

The Intensity of Emptiness
We have created the space by bounding it, and we have ensured its capacity for opening and closing. We now must confront one final tension—we must fill the box. Langeveld (1984) writes that a box given to a child is much more than “a cleverly folded piece of cardboard.” It is in fact “a request, a problem to solve: what belongs in that box? The emptiness silently stares at us. It just can't remain that way” (p. 219).

The intensity of that emptiness is, again, unbearable. It calls for filling, for dissipation. Bachelard focuses on the box as an imaginal object. He notes that “there will always be more things in a closed, than in an open box” (p. 88), for verification destroys imagination. Interestingly, however, he claims that “an empty drawer is unimaginable. It can only be thought of” (xxiii). Intimate, imaginal spaces, even if they are factually empty, are always filled by possibility and by hope.

Anxious Space
In concluding this essay, I must depart slightly from Bachelard's direction (if not from his method). His treatment of the poetics of space is predicated on what he calls “eulogized” or “felicitous space” (p. xxxi). He is concerned with idealized space and not with anxious space.

True, he spends a chapter on shells—those living stones inhabited by fantastic and frightening creatures—actual and imagined alike. He acknowledges the concordance of shells with tombs and, therefore, with the child’s block enclosure. True to his felicitous project, however, Bachelard’s focus remains the (inevitable) outburst from one’s shell or enclosure into which one has withdrawn for the sole purpose of preparing a “way out” (p. 111).

But I am confronted with a child who is compelled to dissipate the real presence of emptiness within her enclosure. She has bounded space that demanded un-concealment. She has concentrated the being of space by engaging the dialectic of inner and outer. Now she is faced with the distilled no-thing-ness of the space within her creation. The situation cannot remain—what belongs in that box?

The thing that does the filling hardly seems to matter. We often find treasures in caskets or boxes, true. But do the things we find there take on their treasured status because they act to dissipate the emptiness? Does the secret thing that resides in Bachelard's imagined box conceal a deeper secret—the reality and inevitability of nothingness that is preliminary to the something in the box?

Existentialist thinkers like Heidegger and Sartre tell us that the unknown or “empty” future and the inevitability of our own death places “nothingness” at the forefront of human concerns. These elements of human life can offer us great possibilities for fulfillment but, more often than not, our anxiety in the face of nothingness sends us running, desperate to fill the emptiness we cannot help but feel and fear. Filling the box seems to be a response to this kind of anxiety.

Bachelard's metaphysics of miniature tells us that there is a correspondence between the child's created space and her sense of her own inner, secret space. Perhaps her concentrated alternation between emptying and filling the space of her enclosures was in some sense an early encounter with the real possibility and positive being of non-being, of nothingness.

Of course, I'm not saying that this anxiety is a thematic aspect of her play. However, “caskets” aren't just for hiding pretty things away, and the block enclosures created by the child resembled tombs more than they did houses or beds.

Even with this last slight departure, I find Bachelard's imaginal poetics an excellent means for explicating the experienced world of the child. The observation of children actively living the modes and images that Bachelard finds in poetic lang
uage validates for me his asserted connection between adult and childlike ways of being.

Bachelard and the other writers to whom I have referred do not write (exclusively) about children. A poetic imagination of one’s lived world is not just for kids either. Casey's project, for example, is to encourage adults to recover a sense of and reverence for lived space that has been mis-placed in our world (Casey 1997).

For Bachelard, poetry, dreams, daydreams and reverie allow us to communicate with the primordial imagination of space that resides in the child. In The Poetics of Reverie, he writes, “Our whole childhood remains to be reimagined. In reimagining it, we have the possibility of recovering in it the very life of our reveries as a solitary child.... [of recognizing] within the human soul the [permanent] nucleus of…an immobile but ever living childhood” (p. 100).


Bachelard, G., 1964. The Poetics of Space (Etienne Gilson, Trans.). New York: Orion [originally 1958].

Bachelard, G., 1969. The Poetics of Reverie (Daniel Russell, Trans.). New York: Orion.

Casey, E. S., 1997. The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Goodenough, E., 2003. Peering into childhood’s secret spaces. Chronicle of Higher Education, 49:43, [On-line].

Heidegger, M., 1975. Poetry, Language, Thought (Albert Hofstadter, Trans.). New York: Harper & Row.

Langeveld, M., 1983a. The secret place in the life of the child. Phenomenology and Pedagogy, 1:2, 181-191.

Langeveld, M., 1983b. The stillness of the secret place. Phenomenology and Pedagogy, 1:2, 11-17.

Langeveld, M., 1984. How does the child experience the world of things? Phenomenology and Pedagogy, 2:3, 215-223.