Let’s Play: Miniature Playhouses & Creative Free Play

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Tiny Playhouses

There are playhouses we imagine and run to gather supplies for. Some are played with for hours and hours. Some made and forgotten by afternoon. Some re-emerge weeks later.

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The Smurf cottage made from an empty oatmeal container and paper bowls gets mixed with horse barns and Rapunzel’s tower. They can all be neighbors. Some we never actually play with like the fairy houses in the woods. Those are left for nature’s creatures and other kids to stumble upon. I have been told that every garden needs a tiny house for gnomes. There are playhouses we dream of having after reading a book. A tiny, tiny house under the floor boards with multiple rooms and all of life’s necessities for the three inch tall people to inhabit it. Chapter books create amazing daydreams. There are miniature playhouses we acquire over the years from wooden castles to a plastic replica of the Hall of Justice.

So much story creation and play comes with these tiny houses. I wonder if my maternal grandfather knew how much my sisters and I used the doll house he made from a spare bookcase. Three girls over a span of ten years. He added room dividers, wallpaper, paint, trims and magazine images cut out for framed pictures on the walls. Fisher Price people, Thumbelina and the Sunshine Family (My mom did not allow Barbies. She was not fond of the enhanced figures.) could all fit. Why didn’t we ever take pictures of that house? Our current version is a bit more modern and simple but I think he would have approved.

A leftover box from a delivery can be just right to get play started. Draw a window, cut a door or string a curtain. Tiny playhouses offer a place to escape. A spot that can instantly be altered. Maybe a familiar house that is comforting with the same tiny animals and people day after day or multiple cereal boxes for houses, barns or castles can become a village, city or town to altered overtime. A small, empty box turned bad guy hideout can be carried along for a summer camping trip. A square of gray print fabric transforms a table top into the moon.

Leave out some supplies. Older kids can make a house to match a current favorite book or movie. Try new materials. Create a paper clay igloo formed over a bowl for an Arctic adventure. Cut triangles of cardboard and tape together for an Egyptian model. Introduce your favorite toddler to playhouses by cutting a door in an empty shoe box and adding a paper roof.


Web sites like madebyjoel.com and thetoymaker.com have some great readymade templates to just print, cut and tape for instant lodging. Have fun.


  • We are always collecting and saving items in bins for creative projects and play. Try to keep a few bins of supplies within your child’s reach.
  • Empty food boxes—cereal, oats, cans that those preformed, salty chips come in, paper or plastic picnic bowls and cups


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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