What is sanctuary? How can we offer it to children and young people in schools and local organizations?

calm by gato-gato-gato | flickr ccbyncnd2 licence
calm by gato-gato-gato | flickr ccbyncnd2 licence

Mark K Smith explores how, in the context of the ‘new normal’, educators, pedagogues and practitioners need to offer sanctuary to children and young people. This article is part of a series: dealing with the new normaloffering sanctuaryoffering communityoffering hope]

contents: introduction • what is sanctuary • sanctuary – space fromsanctuary – space forhospitalitycontainmenttruthconclusion – how do schools and organizations change? • further reading and referencesacknowledgementshow to cite this piece


Churches, schools and community groups have often looked to provide safe, friendly places where children, young people and adults can be with their peers; can broaden horizons and learn; and even organize things for themselves. Many have sought to create sanctuaries – spaces away from the pressures of daily life where children and young people are able to breathe and be themselves (see, for example, McLaughlin, Irby and Langman 1994). A lot of the stories we may hear about significant moments in people’s lives involve experiencing such ‘space’ – being in a place and having time to give room to experience and feelings.

What is sanctuary?

In recent times sanctuary is often used to describe a place of safety and of refuge – a space from. Its older meaning denotes a shrine or sacred place. A sanctuary garden, for example, is a place for retreat in which we can be rejuvenated emotionally and spiritually. It is a place where inner harmony may be reclaimed (Curl and Wilson 2015) – a space for.

Most children and young people do not experience great problems whilst growing up: their relationships with their parents or carers are relatively harmonious and caring, and the transitions that they make are accomplished without vast storm and stress. Yet while some flourish, most just get by. A small but significant group, however, experience serious personal troubles. A growing number suffer a diagnosable mental disorder. All require sanctuary in some form, but a sizeable group require specialist provision in institutions like schools to get away from daily pressures and have time for themselves. They need to be in settings where they are not subjected to constant demands and where they can escape, or at least contain, stress and anxiety. They may want special spaces – times and places – that allow them to feel safe and connected.

To explore sanctuary – to appreciate what it is – we should look at what children and young people need space from, and what they need space for. These questions link to something like the distinction popularized by Isaiah Berlin (1958) between negative liberty – which he initially defined as freedom from – and positive liberty or freedom to. The former involves a relative absence of constraints imposed by others; the latter the ability and opportunity to achieve their goals (as defined by themselves) for themselves. Most need space reasonably clear of interference and compulsion if they are to think and act for themselves (one reason why schools can fail as educational environments). In a similar way, the ability to think critically helps us to recognize why certain forms of freedom are necessary. ‘Space for’ and ‘space from’ are related.

When we ask what different children and young people need space from, and what they need space for, we get contrasting answers. But there is also extensive common ground. In part, this flows from our concerns as pedagogues, workers, and educators. Our convictions take us in certain directions. Elsewhere, we explore two areas that we believe workers should be making space for hope and love (as expressed as community and fellowship).

To start us on this path, we will explore, briefly, what children and young people might need space from.

Sanctuary – space from

Pedagogues, workers, and educators have traditionally been troubled by the negative elements of local cultures, family life, schooling, and work-life. Four areas of escape are worth mentioning here.

Escaping the lowering of horizons. One of the most common worries is the limited understandings of what is possible that many children and young people are socialized into. In their families, peer groups, and schools they are pressured to conform to some picture that others have of them. The result can often be low expectations of what they can hope for from relationships, education, work, and society; and what they can give.

Escaping the criticism and dismissal of difference. Here the worry expressed by many educators, workers and pedagogues is that people fall too easily into disparaging and undermining those, for example, from other cultures, or with different sexual orientations or with ‘disabilities’. Parental attitudes and behaviours are significant but, again, the attitudes and norms of peer groups appear to have a special power.

Escaping serious personal harm in families and peer groups. In the case of the former, the most prominent worry is physical and sexual abuse; in the latter, it is their involvement in risky behaviours around drug and alcohol usage, and sexual activity. We also hear worries about exposure to violence both directly ‘on the street’ and more generally through film, games and the like.

Escaping from a narrow view of social distancing. One of the unfortunate side effects of recent talk of social distancing is that it focuses on the physical – and it has reinforced the idea that meeting via digital means can easily replace meeting face-to-face. This thinking has spread through the conducting of business meeting through Zoom, personal conversations between family and friends via WhatsApp and Skype – and has even entered the conduct of counselling sessions in university services. It has its uses but, as Sherry Turkle (2017) and others have shown, being together in this way is also to be alone. In the end, flourishing requires the experience of co-presence.

The situation has been exacerbated in recent years by several further factors but here we focus on two: the sheer level of routine surveillance that children and young people experience in many countries; and impact of materialism and secularization. Taken together these can depress the spirit, stunt development, and get in the way of children and young people being at home with themselves and others.


There has been a significant increase in the formal surveillance and monitoring of children and young people in many countries in recent years. One of the most visible signs in many societies has been the deployment of close circuit television systems. However, it is the way state surveillance has expanded within everyday life that is a worrying aspect. Mundane activities such as course work, the use of school libraries, involvement in after-school activities and youth groups, and conversations with teachers and mentors are now routinely recorded and entered on data systems. With the interlinking of databases, this information can, and has, become available to a range of other professionals including social workers, and support workers. The growth in surveillance and monitoring by state institutions is a significant compromising of the civil rights of children and young people. Their privacy is being routinely invaded by state agencies.

It is also difficult to escape from surveillance by commercial organizations anxious to increase their profits. Organizations like Facebook, Google/Alphabet Inc, and Apple collect vast amounts of data about individual children and young people every day. This is then aggregated and used or sold on to target them to take up other services or acquire attitudes and goods. They, and we, are experiencing the full force of surveillance capitalism. Our experiences are claimed ‘as free raw material for translation into behavioral data’ (Zuboff 2019: 20). This, in turn, is used to ‘nudge, coax, tune, and herd behavior toward profitable outcomes’ (op. cit.). Automated machine processes ‘not only know our behavior but also shape our behavior at scale’ (op. cit.).

Unfortunately, it does not stop there. Children and young people are also subject to surveillance by their peers online. We have known for some time that frequent use of social media leads to feelings of depression and social anxiety – and with difficulty reading human emotions, including our own (Turkle 2015: 27). We have also known about detrimental effects on sleep patterns and body image of social media usage, and how cyberbullying, grooming and ‘sexting’ can be informed by online peer surveillance and amplified by it (House of Commons 2019).

For understandable reasons, many parents too, have increased the level of routine monitoring of their children. Alongside all the established means, new technologies allow parents and carers, for example, to keep in touch via mobile devices, and check where young people are through positioning systems using the same devices. In addition, many children and young people are both spending more time in the home and living with their parents for longer periods. As a result, they can be overseen directly.

Some children and young people may barely notice this level of surveillance; many others experience it as intrusive and even suffocating. They have much less space to disconnect. As William Davis (2005: 32) has put it, ‘In a highly-interconnected society, privacy is the right to disconnect, to be anonymous and to be alone should one wish’.

Consumption and material achievement

While many societies have become richer and more prosperous, there has not been a corresponding growth in individual happiness and feelings of social well-being. Indeed, depression has risen significantly over the last 50 years in ‘developed’ countries and indices of ‘life satisfaction’ have remained where they were in the UK. Once a certain level of material well-being is achieved, having more wealth and possessions bring little or no increase in our feelings of well-being. Relationship and companionship – in families and with friends – are what seems to count, followed by having the chance to make a worthwhile contribution to society and reasonable health. Yet many consistently choose higher income and having more possessions over these things. People are not, according to Robert E Lane (2000: 9), good judges ‘of how, even within the private spheres of their own lives, to increase, let along maximize, their happiness’.

The position has been made worse by our tendency to compare our position with that of others, especially around matters of income and possessions. There is also the problem of habit. Once we have a certain experience, for example, having and being able to use washer-dryer or a smartphone, we need to have more of it to sustain our happiness. We get on what Richard Layard (2011) has called a ‘hedonic treadmill’, where we must keep running in order that our happiness stands still.

To this mix, we can add the process of secularization. When we lose a feeling for the sacred and begin to view the world through reductive rationalism rather than with awe and sense of mystery, then it is likely to result in our wanting to have more and more things rather than simply being in the world (see, for example, Tillich 1952). We try to fill the vacuum caused by a lack of true connection by linking our identity to the possession of certain brands and objects. We can begin to define ourselves by what we wear, the car we drive, where we shop and so on. Nike, Levi, Coca Cola and other major companies spend huge sums of money in promoting and sustaining their brands by seeking to make them an integral part of the way we understand or would like to see, ourselves (Klein 2000). This has had a major impact on children and young people.

All this is worrying especially given what we know about the sources of happiness. Unfortunately, we often fail to challenge the focus on consumption and branding and to focus on economic ends. Schools have increasingly come to resemble businesses, turning education into a commodity and parents and students into consumers. Branding and advertising now have an insidious presence, and, overall, schools strongly emphasize achievement and qualification so that people can advance themselves economically. Some work has also unhelpfully played into the peer status systems associated with consumption.

Sanctuary – space for

In our anxiety to do our best, we can sometimes do too much. It is easy for us as educators, workers, and pedagogues to start acting upon people rather than being in relation with, and to create space for, them. People need room to connect with, and think about, their feelings and experiences – and to work at the questions that arise. They need time to build community and feel hope. In this situation, there is often nothing worse than trying to give answers or provide solutions. Aside from the fact that we may well have addressed the wrong question, our ‘solutions’ can get in the way. People may well be tempted to take them on as ‘quick fixes or be diverted from attending to their feelings and experiences. The emotions involved and the possible repercussions of any changes may well be troubling and painful, or uplifting and liberating, or all these things. We need to be working so that people are welcomed, respected, and able to entertain, to hold in their minds, such doubts – and possibilities.

To ‘have space’ for something is to give room to it. Pedagogues, workers and educators must give proper room to the feelings, ideas, and experiences of children and young people. Too often young people are treated badly by agencies. There can be a tendency, for example, to view them either as problems or investments. In the case of the former, children and young people may well be threatening and troublesome. This can move beyond the obvious issues around sexuality, health, relationships, and education into their apparent rejection of schooling etc.

All of us need space to explore, connect and be. We also need ideas and examples to play with, and a framework within which to do this. Finding a balance between these is not easy and is something that many pedagogues, workers, and educators struggle with. We may work to foster experiences of space in the hope that people come to know themselves, others, and the world around them. But people also often need some help to see what is there. They require frameworks to make sense of things and assistance in reflection and in drawing out meaning and understanding. Here we focus on three aspects of what we do here as pedagogues, workers and educators – offering space to experience hospitality, containment and space for truth.


Hospitality involves being welcoming of people and receptive to new or different ways of thinking and behaving. It entails fostering convivial settings and relationships (See Palmer 1993: 71-5). In some ways, hospitality comes close to what Carl Rogers has described as one of his core conditions for facilitative practice – acceptance.

I think of it as prizing the learner, prizing her feelings, her opinions, her person. It is a caring for the learner, but a non-possessive caring. It is an acceptance of this other individual as a separate person, having worth in her own right. It is a basic trust – a belief that this other person is somehow fundamentally trustworthy… What we are describing is a prizing of the learner.

We can see two important elements at work here. First, hospitality involves a deep respect and concern for others. In order to receive them with genuine openness and care, we have, in Rogers’ (1967: 304) words, to prize an individual ‘as an imperfect human being with many feelings, many potentialities’. (We also need to prize ourselves in a similar way). Second, it requires a readiness to engage with, and learn from, questions and ways of seeing and doing things that contrast with our own. We must be able to give room to doubt and to incline our hearts to understanding (Proverbs 2:2). There are, however, limits to the behaviour we can deal with. Hospitality is a two-way process. If people do not accept our welcome, or abuse it, then there comes a point where we must keep our distance. We may want to keep in contact with them on the chance that they are able to respond in time in a reasonably civil or friendly way, but there are limits. If people are not prepared to engage in dialogue it is difficult for them to become participating members of communities.


People are more likely to talk about, and explore, questions and issues that they find difficult or painful if they are in an environment where they trust others, feel cared about and that allows some security. The spaces that we create need to be both open and bounded. Parker J. Palmer (1993: 72) describes this relationship well:

The openness of a space is created by the firmness of its boundaries. A learning space cannot go on forever; if it did, it would not be a structure for learning but an invitation to confusion and chaos. A space has edges, perimeters, limits. When these boundaries are violated… the quality of the space is destroyed.

We create these boundaries by the sorts of people we are, the way we help others to think about task and focus, and through helping them to work on their relationships and processes in the setting. The openness of space, the possibilities of talking about doubts and issues can be frightening – and this can both confuse and put people off. Clear boundaries can help contain anxieties and allow people to work together. They work in two directions – they hold those within to a set of tasks and relationships and keep other people, tasks and relationships at bay. There comes a point where they can begin to oppress people and limit exploration. They may also act to exclude the very ideas, behaviours and people that we need to grow as communities. Containment goes hand in hand with hospitality.

Pedagogues, workers and educators need to be able to contain (or make safe) and animate (breathe life into) situations and to recognise when others do this so that people can express and explore doubt. Sometimes the doubts and questions are such that they frighten and incapacitate. One way out is to look for certainty: to find those who give leadership and answers so that we do not have to experience the pain. There is a triple danger here. First, these powerful emotions may well lead us to project capacities and thinking onto groups and leaders that they do not possess. Second, the desire to rid ourselves of doubts and worries can push us into turning away from our responsibilities. It is much more comfortable if someone else can take on the worries. Third, we can overlook the extent to which we contribute to the situation. It may be our actions, or our opinions that are helping to make the problem.


Our task also involves, in Parker J. Palmer’s (1993: 89) words, fostering spaces ‘in which obedience to truth is practised’. We must listen ‘with a discerning ear and respond faithfully to the personal implications of what one has heard’. This entails recognizing that we have much to learn and knowing that truth entails fidelity rather than conformity. It also involves entertaining doubt. As Palmer put it:

[W]e must allow the other to speak back to us, not in conformity to what we want to hear, but in fidelity to the other’s truth. The truth we are seeking, the truth that seeks us, lies ultimately in the community of being where we not only know but are known. (op. cit.)

For many pedagogues, workers and educators a call to create spaces where obedience to truth can be practised is easily understandable. However, for some, the authoritarian connotations of the word ‘obedience’ may be difficult. As a result, Parker J. Palmer later has used the notion of a ‘community of truth’ instead. He has described this community as ‘a rich and complex network of relationships in which we must both speak and listen, and make claims on others, and make ourselves accountable’. We stay here with the struggle around ‘obedience’ in the hope that it encourages us to engage with the full implications of what the call to commit to truth makes upon us.


Elsewhere we discuss some of the practical steps forward, and the way that sanctuary connects with community and hope. To finish it is worth highlighting that these cannot flourish within schools and community organizations unless we attend to the orientation of educators, workers and managers. For these things to be valued, we have to move beyond a narrow view of what schooling or local organization involves.

We must recognize the central role of pedagogy as against the inculcation of understanding (what is often talked about as didactics in continental discussions of teaching). Pedagogy, which can be viewed as a process of accompanying people, and:

  • bringing flourishing and relationship to life (animation)
  • caring for, and about, people (caring); and
  • drawing out learning (education) (Smith 2012; 2019a).


See Animate, care, educate – the core processes of pedagogy

In other words, schools and local organizations need to focus more on the flourishing or well-being of children and young people, than on their ability to undertake certain tasks or tests, or on their worth to the organization.

Further reading and references

This article is part of a series. The other three are:

Dealing with the ‘new normal’. Offering sanctuary, community and hope to children and young people in schools and local organizations. This provides an overview of the context, and an outline of the way forward for schools and local organizations.

Offering community to children and young people in schools and local organizations.

What is hope? How can we offer it to children and young people in schools and local organizations.

You might also like to read some more about Parker J. Palmer:

Parker J. Palmer: community, knowing and spirituality in education


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Davies, W. (2005) Modernising with Purpose. A Manifesto for a Digital Britain, London: Institute for Public Policy Research.

Doyle, M. E. and Smith, M. K. (1999). Born and Bred? Leadership, heart and informal education. London: YMCA George Williams College/Rank Foundation.

House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (2019). Impact of social media and screen-use on young people’s health. Fourteenth Report of Session 2017-19. [https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmsctech/822/822.pdf. Retrieved February 12, 2020].

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Acknowledgements: The material here on sanctuary grew out of some work undertaken by Michele Erina Doyle and myself on Christian youth work for the Joseph Rank Trust some years back (see Doyle and Smith 1999) – and from recent work with Giles Barrow and others on the development of the role of the pedagogue within specialist education.

How to cite this piece: Smith, M. K. (2020). What is sanctuary? How can we offer it to children and young people in schools and local organizations? The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/what-is-sanctuary-how-can-we-offer-it-to-children-and-young-people-in-schools-and-local-organizations/. Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K Smith 2020