Let’s Play: Books and Creative Free Play

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Debut Column: This is the first of a new monthly post encouraging all to add more and more creative play into our families’ lives and into the local community. Each month I will present ideas to jump start your creative thinking with variations between family interactions at home and ways to get families playing out in the area to “bomb” the community with fresh ideas for play. I will present a monthly focus around a particular idea such as—books, art, puppets, music, food, etc… with additional resources to spark ideas and options for different ages groups. Enjoy. Play. Unplug.

Going on a Bear Hunt

The book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Micheal Rosen and Helen Oxenbury is a huge hit here with my preK family care. We read this book many, many times each week. The page with the muddy feet always provides giggles, and the anticipation when the family enters the cave never lessens. Each time we read this book, many of our other activities revolve around the story: trying to scare each other and run to hide inside and out; playing with gak as mud for toy animals; and splashing in puddles for the family’s water adventure…

What else could we do inside on a chilly winter’s day that further develops our love of this book? Why not make an indoor obstacle course?!! That’s it!

Over the next few days, with just a bit of adult insight and suggestions, we gathered supplies, talked about materials, planned and even made a few samples to test. It always amazes me how well a 3 year old can plan, develop ideas and have the patience to wait for the results. Even my 7 year old daughter, who was feeling a bit left out being home during school vacation week while we did this, dove right in with ideas to make it even better. A team effort!

Here it is:

My goal was to make it fun, have it up in the playroom for the week as a winter, gray day boredom buster and keep our budget low. (Click to see larger image)

  • We made a plan for each stage in the book. For long wavy grass, we attached 14 inch plastic zip ties to long tube style shipping boxes. It had motion and made noise as we walked through.
  • We gathered up and cut a big pile of yarn, fabric scraps and ribbons for the water. This was great cutting practice for the preK set.
  • A large, brown fluffy pillow in a box became our mud to jump into—soft to land in and this added a bit of physical jumping to our indoor rain day.
  • We attached various plastic wires, zip ties and massive homemade pom poms to tall boxes for the forest trees. There were just tall enough for a 3 year old to walk through. A little short for me.
  • We hung a large white sheet on the wall with a wire suspended in front for our snow storm. Many, many strands of white yarn with smaller bits tied for flakes hung from the wire to make the storm something to run through.
  • We tapes and tied various brown shipping boxes together to make the cave. Inside we hung a brown sheet and hid the tiny bear in the layers to seek out.
  • After his discovery, the kids had to run back through all the stages and land back at home in the comfort of pillows and blankets to hide from the bear.

I lost count of the number of bear hunts we had that week. The play changed a bit each time and turned into games with all sorts of hidden animals, helpers and new adventures. A fun craft-book-physical-group activity!

Ideas for Using Books to Inspire Creative Free Play with Your Family

  • What is the current favorite book at your house? How could it be turned into a rainy day play project?  Here are a few ideas:
  • Older children could make large, paper murals, find music to add, make simple puppets from paper or old socks.
  • Maybe the Sneezy Snowman gets made out of playdough, mushed and rebuilt time and time again with new additions to keep that guy warm on a cold winter’s day.
  • Maybe you could act out a scene of the ninjas climbing and hiding from the Magic Tree House series. Creeping up the stairs at home in costume undetected. Scaling the couch and chairs in search of Jack and Annie?
  • Maybe you get get the older kids chatting in the car about Harry Potter. What would change if Harry was really Henrietta? What would she look like? What if he/she was raised by a kind, caring extended family instead of the infamous aunt and uncle? Make Harry/Henrietta puppets when you get home?
  • Maybe just have drawing time taking turns adding new details to the story.


  • Amanda Blake Soule: Handmade Home, The Creative Family, The Rhythm of Family — Amanda Blake Soule’s website and books are are a great resource to get your creative family making and playing. You don’t need to be a maker yourself. Knitting, sewing and cooking are not requirements. Her thoughts and ideas will get you thinking up ways to enjoy your family and creative play experiences without being plugged in. www.soulemama.com
  • Forbes Library — A great place to read books, borrow books and hear books. They also have a great craft resource section in the Children’s Department that includes books on play ideas, making things and exploring the out of doors. We love it there. 413-587-1011. 20 West Street. Northampton, MA. www.forbeslibrary.org
  • Broadside Bookshop — A great local source for children’s books, family titles and project ideas. Knowledgeable, friendly and happy to place orders for requested titles. 413-586-4235. 247 Main Street. Northampton, MA. www.broadsidebooks.com


We are always collecting and saving items in bins for creative projects and play. Keep a few bins within your child’s reach that have:

  • Fabric — Outgrown clothing, Freecycle finds or yard sale.  Even a 12-inch square of fabric can become a play cloth or mini hero cape for a stuffed animal.
  • Yarn, String or Rope — Who doesn’t need that foot or two of rope to string up a toy swing or hammock or tight rope walk for tiny animals or figures.
  • Empty Boxes & Food Containers — These easily become doll beds, mini houses and places to collect more things.


Carrie St. JohnCarrie St. John

Carrie was born, raised and attended university in Michigan. As a child she rode bikes and explored her rural neighborhood freely with siblings and neighbor kids. Mom and Dad never worried. The kids always made it home after hours wading in the creek and climbing trees in the woods. After college she moved to Kyoto, Japan to study traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In 1995, she began a career at a small Chicago firm designing maps and information graphics. Life brought a move to Northampton in 2001. Carrie completed her MFA at UMass in 2004. Her little love, Sophia, was born in 2005. The two live in downtown Northampton where they constantly make things, look forward to morning walks to school and plan each spring for additions to their plot at the community garden. Carrie is a licensed family care provider and continues to do freelance work for clients in Chicago.

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