Malleable Landscapes

Many animals are engineers. Beavers build dams, spiders build webs, termites build buildingsmounds, and humans build houses, bridges, log cabins, towers, and monuments. Small humans build snow forts, tree houses, lego castles, and blanket and clothespin hideouts.

I’ve always been fascinated by child-created spaces. I’ve been watching the landscape around my son’s school gradually change over the years and across the seasons and it got me thinking about how important this process is to child development.



In a small forest behind the school, kids constructed a large dirt half-pipe in order to do tricks on their bmx bikes. This was not sanctioned by the city, but the city is aware of it, and (somewhat to my surprise) decided to let it stay.

In the warmer seasons, the sand beneath the play structure in the schoolyard becomes pitted with giant holes dug by the students. Interestingly, (or vexingly, to this laundry-weary mom) my young son is far more drawn to these muddy holes than he is to the play structures.

This winter, as the snow comes and goes, I have been watching the landscape change drastically every day. We’ve seen holes and tunnels, sliding hills, piled up ice bricks and sculpted fortresses. There was a fabulous ice patch going down a hill that the kids loved to slide down, until some grown-up discovered this and put salt down (I get it…. head injuries, lawyers, yadda yadda. Sigh. Grown-ups are no fun.)

Doesn’t a freshly plowed giant pile of snow make for the most spectacular malleable landscape though? New materials arriving at no cost all the time! Unfortunately, as the temperature creeps up to 10 degrees Celsius today, we have little to no snow left. What? It’s February! Come ON!

It isn’t just the joy of creating something though. When given the opportunity, children love to find ways to hide away from disapproving parental eyes (where they are free to lick icicles and make bathroom jokes). Perhaps it stems from our perch-547294_640evolutionary history, when our biggest threat came in the form of human-eating carnivores rather than “mom’s angry face,” but humans instinctively like to have places to hide.

I’ve spoken before about the idea of “adventure playgrounds” which host an abundance of loose materials and tools to build with, experiment and explore. They have caught on in many places around the world. Natural playgrounds that employ naturally occurring land features and materials for playing, climbing and building are also gaining in popularity. In the summer, when it is complete, I’m going to post about a new natural playground in my community that I’m very excited about. Unfortunately these ideas are tricky to balance (and often to gain approval) in our increasingly litigious society, where no one wants to take personal responsibility for safety.

But, if we can create more opportunities for children to build their own challenging environments, they will learn skills that cross so many domains. Think of the possibilities: social skills and cooperation, coordination and balance, engineering and math (just to name a few). They’re also spending time outside, and getting physical activity. If you follow my blog, you may have heard about a few advantages of those two things.

Allowing children to fully engage with environments is so important in their development of self-efficacy, as well as their ability to learn about appropriate risks. Once in a while I still have to remind myself to take a step back, and just watch what my children are capable of creating.

For further reading, check out David Sobel’s book called: “Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood.”

Photo Sources: Me, and

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