Historically, humans have divided their space into two realms: an inner realm of the conscience, and an outer realm of the physical world. However, in D. W. Winnicott’s Play and Reality, he discusses the importance of a third space that all human beings possess, whether or not they are conscious of this space. Even though it is a third space, demarcated from the other two realms, Winnicott says that the inner and external realities both contribute to it (2). Experience is the basis of this third space (ibid). Winnicott characterizes the third space as a paradox: In the third space, separation occurs but the space is not that of separation rather a space of creative playing and cultural experiences (108).
In order to understand Winnicott’s concept of a third space, one must first comprehend transitional phenomena. According to Winnicott, a newborn experiences the world as his/her own creation, e.g., a breast appears every time he/she expresses hunger (11). There comes a time when the mother realizes that she needs to wean her child and begins adapting less and less to the needs of the child (ibid). The child experiences and shifts his/her understanding of their autonomous magical power, and begins to realize an objective world. At its center, this process includes a transitional object that helps the child transition into a more complete understanding of the world. Yet, as this transitional object begins losing its importance and reliance of the child, the transitional phenomenon associated with the objects begins to diffuse itself into the third space (5). Nevertheless, the development of the third space relies heavily on a trusting relationship between the child and mother.
Trust and reliability are two of the major players that factor into the third space. Winnicott says, “[W]here there is trust and reliability is a potential space” (108). This potential space that he speaks of is synonymous to the third space. Prior to the realization of the third space, the child must have a healthy relationship with the mother. The child must trust that the mother is reliable, because these attributes he associates with his mother become the same attributes that he uses to separate himself and realize the “not-me” (109). In other words, a healthy relationship with the mother creates a seamless transition, whereas a dysfunctional relationship creates scenarios wherein the child never fully separates and suffers from anxiety, as in the case-scenarios that Winnicott outlines (41-6). In a healthy relationship, the question of separation never makes an appearance “because in the potential space between the baby and the mother there appears the creative playing that arises naturally out of the relaxed state” (108-9). A trusting relationship with the mother allows the child to be confident in others, and results in a successful separation of the not-me from the me (109). A successful transition requires the confidence of the child that the mother is reliable. A lack of this confidence results in a diminished play-capacity and consequently a limited third space (ibid).
During this transition, the mother is finding herself adapting less and less to the child, which the child then realizes as a not-me experience. In this mode of thinking, Winnicott points to the importance of experience as the heart and soul of the third space rather than “inherited tendencies” (108). The child experiences a break from his previous magical world of creation, and slowly begins to realize the objective world. The third space becomes a space once the child experiences this break. The creation of the potential space completely relies on the child’s body experiences as opposed to his/her body functions (101). The child’s experience of a gap between him/herself and the mother when he/she expresses hunger or the need for affection but does not receive it becomes an internalized experience and reaction to an external not-me. The third space is a result of the child’s internal conflict as a resultant of an external change. Thus, the inner and external realities contribute to the third space (2).
The third space becomes a generative space, where creative playing happens. As one matures, the third space is “trained in the intense experiencing that belongs to the arts and to religion and to imaginative living, and to creative scientific work” (14). This discussion may remind one of Turner’s description of the liminoid. For Turner, in the contemporary world characterized by an internalized duality of work and leisure, the liminoid is the product of creative space (Turner 33). Using Turner as an aid, one can better understand the products of the third space. Essentially, the third space, once matured, is able to produce the liminoid. It is the space where societal changes are espoused. The third space is a sacred space where an individual is able to participate in “creative living” (102).
In conclusion, the third space is a necessary component to a healthy life. It offers human beings the space to generate new ideas and relate with the world in a non-dualistic manner. As a space of transition and creation, the third space is critical in the proper development as a human being. The third space stores the unique qualities that characterize human beings.