Let’s Play: Favorite Reads Inspiring Creative-Free Play

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Favorite Books

I am currently working with a small and energetic group of 2 and 3 year-olds. Our daily routine involves lots of food, group activities and free play with the usual suspects—cars, babies, trains, play food and building toys. We have art time with play dough, paints and simple projects. And, of course, we all (including the 2 adults) need outside time to run and breathe in some fresh air before lunch and nap. The cold, cold days mean less time to run outside. There is only so longthose short legs can trudge through the snow piles and those tiny fingers can keep warm and dry. Everyone loves a snowy day but the frigid temps often take over.

We are constantly seeking new activities to spark play and imagination. We need to keep those minds and bodies engaged through the winter cold. I turn to favorite books to add surprise games. During the fall a train book slowly became a pre-nap favorite—The Goodnight Train by June Sobel. One little one insists upon it before a final heads down, blankets on and “Have a good sleep, everybody.” Like many children with favorite books, they have it memorized. If I skip a word or say the “Choo, Choo, Sleeeeep, Sleeeep” line with different emphasis they catch me. I like to change things up for my interest but not the kids…

I decided the train story needed to spread into our free play time with wooden trains and tracks. We needed a playboard to follow the story that included scenes from the book. I gathered up the parts. A cardboard science fair display, watercolors, markers, crayons and colored pencil blocks (my new favorite kid art material) and the train book. The book gets tricky to usesince one of the kids sleeps with it every afternoon. Nap time is the perfect time for me to work on these things but not when the main visual is tucked under a two-year-old’s arm.

The cardboard panel turned out to be a great size to work with. It folds easily and stores under the sofa. I set up the train tracks with a main loop and bridges and traced the placement of each section so I could replicate it later with the kids. I am not as clever and fast with those train tracks as they are. The tracing allowed me to set the play panel up quickly to show the kids a starting point. I sketched out a few key scenes from the book like the farm with sheep and the city scape. Then I went over all the pencil lines with permanent marker. My daughter loves to help with projects for the little kids I work with so she joined me to watercolor in the blue river and color in a few characters. We left the huge moon and trees for the kids to work on the next day. (You could also trace characters or photocopy and enlarge favorite images to paste onto the board with glue stick or rubber cement.)

The next morning was cold and snowy. I set out the panel. The two oldest kids were more than happy to color, work on the track layout and advise me on missing characters and my drawing accuracy. Then the play started. We can bring the fun out, ready to go on another cold, cold day.

I love special projects that engage the kids from different angles with favorite subjects, books and toys. We drew from art, reading and play. The multi-faceted projects get the kids thinking. While we finished up the train board, I had a chat with a very clever 3 yr old. We now have many ideas for projects from other books using dioramas and toy people. This time there will be a trip to the library for extra copies of favorite books.


  • science fair board
  • watercolors
  • pencils
  • erasers
  • crayons
  • markers
  • inspiration


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 continues to do freelance work for clients here and in Chicago.

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