Let’s Play: Special Places

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Clubhouses, Forts, Tents & Hideouts

Two summers ago Forbes Library in Northampton had this incredible wooden house on the front lawn just outside the Children’s Department. The installation was called “Little House to Honor a Request for Poems: A Traveling Writing Hut” and was installed by Plainfield, MA artists/husband/wife team, Gene and Susan Flores. Visitors were encouraged to go in, hide out and write or draw a little something to hang up and share. We made repeat visits over the summer. It was just steps from West Street and the busy intersection at Rt 9 but entering inside transported us to a secret, special place. The size was perfect. The walls were made of horizontal wood slats alternating with branches. Sunlight and shadows made stripes on the floor. You could see out and pedestrians could catch glimpses inside. There was a desk with pencils and paper and a stool facing the entry. Simple furnishings. We talked about that little house for months.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Visiting that house put us on a search for the perfect playhouse. My daughter is always searching for a space of her own to hide out with friends, play out of adult ear shot, read books or draw secretly. Some days that three foot space at the end of the couch hidden in the corner is just perfect. Other days she hides out under the dining room table she asks to have covered with blankets, or she disappears up onto her bunk bed. Last year we added a fabric tent cover over the bed to make a bed cave. The idea of that wooden house at the library kept coming back. Last winter I called my construction minded older brother (He built his own house 20 years ago.) and we made plans over the phone. We have this 4×4 space in the playroom nestled between 2 closets. My dad and I built a free standing loft for my college dorm. I understood the basics. My brother checked and re-checked for safety. “Make sure she can jump up and down without it moving an inch.” That 4×4 space became our indoor, two-level clubhouse complete with trap door. Finally, her own little wooden house.

Summer came and my daughter was seeking that same secret space in the garden. We had been to the North Amherst Community Farm to take a Compost Worms for Kids class. During the break they encouraged kids to explore their children’s garden. The outdoor teepee covered in flowering vines was everyone’s first stop. I put my thinking cap back on for the prefect outdoor playhouse. This spring I made her a teepee from bamboo poles and twine. She asked to plant peas, green beans and flowers. I added in a clematis vine to fill in a shady area over the next few summers. A neighbor offered a tree stump from the October storm for a seat. We did it. The outdoor clubhouse was complete.

This need for a space of her own is strong at our house. I understand. I had this same feeling as a kid. My brother and I would walk back to the woods behind our house to look for spaces to set up camp. I would climb the giant pine trees behind the house to disappear at times. Kids need their own space to be kids. Why not encourage it? My daughter can disappear into her space after a big day at school and pop out 20 minutes later refreshed and ready to go. She fills her clubhouse with favorite toys, books and drawings. There are imaginary games, elaborate toy setups and simple down time. I only go in when invited or to hand off snacks. Whether a temporary blanket tent or a more permanent structure, it is just HER space to play! 

Make a pile of sheets, blankets and pillows in the middle of a room at your house. Help little ones build a fort with chairs as support. Or keep an eye out for a big box, cut a door and a window. Hand them a flashlight and a favorite toy. Walk away. The play is guaranteed to take off. Offer older kids a special corner in the house to make their own with books, a light and decorations of their choice. I wish we had a closet under the stairs like Harry. Ours would be fun and no locks to keep kids in. For a summer vacation outside adventure, head down to Springfield and visit the Stickhouse by Patrick Dougherty at the Springfield Museums. It is free to visit the outdoor structure. You will find it located in the Dr. Seuss garden space. Enjoy.

What to Collect

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. This month add in some soft building supplies such as blankets and pillows along with a flashlight and books.


You can also search these sites for playhouse ideas ideas and to visit the stick house in Springfield, MA.


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.

One Comment on “Let’s Play: Special Places

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: