by Nerea Aller – Philosophy Champion, Chrysalis Group of Early Learning Centres
Creating secret forts, caves, hideouts, dens and playhouses isn’t just any random kind of play. It is common throughout the world and over time to see children build their own huts at home, school, park or in the woods. They love the imagination and security of their own enclosed space where they can defend their place from aliens and monsters, or just have a quiet zoned out space to read books, or entertain and have a picnic in.
An environmental education expert, David Sobel, in his book Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood, says it’s a universal drive that’s rooted in childrens’ healthy development. “In these secret places, children develop and control environments of their own and enjoy freedom from the rules of the adult world “
What development is happening?
I would like to bring this fascinating research to our reality in New Zealand and our tamariki. So, connecting this to Te Whāriki, our early childhood curriculum and our Gaia values, I find hut building satisfies the following strong developmental outcomes:
- Understanding myself: Children are starting to create a separate self from the one defined by their family and whānau. They crave their own separate place in the world and sometimes need to disappear from adults’ eyes. Having their own space allows them to take control of it and find a sense of themselves. This is the same for adults, time alone provides them the privacy necessary to develop imagination and connect with their “internal search voice”. “The special place outside serves to symbolize the special place inside. It’s their own private chrysalis.” David Sobel
- Understanding others: building huts as a social and secret place, gives children the opportunity to build together the place that suit best to them (bakery, house, cave, boat, den and hundreds more). During group construction, in addition to control a physical space with others, it allows children to experience different roles and share different expectations about their construction. Observation of social and communication skills and connecting to learning dispositions such as cooperating and negotiating are common in this kind of play. When children build new spaces for play, they are creating a ‘new world’ to experience, with a different set of social rules (“ You can come in the house if you share your toys”, “ You have to be quiet! we are hiding from the wolf“ Don´t jump in our beds!”). This shows their sense of belonging and understanding of social world, connecting links with the family and the wider world.
- Understanding nature: In this kind of play children are challenging their building skills. They want to learn how to construct their building projects with different resources. They learn the characteristics of nature (gravity, weight, resistance, and balance) and new skills (making knots, lifting heavy objects together, covering with fabric etc). Developing a love of the outdoors, learning about the natural world around them and increasing their dispositional learning like problem solving and planning are growing through providing children opportunities to build huts.
How can we support this learning?
Families and whānau can encourage hut building at home with these simple kickstart ideas:
- Supply materials: Anything can spark a child’s imagination, from duct tape and cardboard boxes to cast-off construction materials. Or start a building project together. A cool tool for outdoor builders:
- Sheets and pillows: Blanket forts are as simple as throwing a blanket over a table to create a cozy cave. The New York Times has even published an article about pillows forts! (see here: “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, Again”
- Sticks: collect sticks, or whatever that is handy and start building. Having twine or string/rope to help bind sticks together if sticks or branches do not lean into one another well.
- Pinterest: Dozens of ideas here.
- Physical space: Make sure children have some room to explore. “Kids need access to the natural world; it’s part of the process,” Sobel says. “And for that, parents need to tolerate a little bit of free-range freedom.”
- Mental space: Help children when they really need it or ask for it. Let them to find their own solutions, but be there if they want to try new ideas.
Our Gaia (Earth) inspired childcare centres
Hut building needs ample space, resources and materials to let children’s imagination run wild and play alongside others. Linen, scarves, blocks, branches and other objects often lead young ones to create these spaces. We designed our Gaia inspired spaces to be large undefined and free areas, ideal for wild imaginations and especially perfect for large hut building. Our spaces are sized to world class areas of:
- Indoors: 1.5X larger than the NZ Ministry of Education regulations of 2.5sqm per child,
- Outdoors: 2X larger, and in our forest kindy (Gaia (Earth) Preschool) 13X larger than the NZ Ministry of Education regulations of 5sqm per child.