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.

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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!  Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Play: Tactile Play

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Kid Goop and Tactile Play

Download these Kid Goo Recipes. (Photo credit: Carrie St. John)

Messy. Yes. But icky, goopy, slimey, mucky, slushy, gooey, mushy, sticky, yucky play is so fun.

My favorite part of messy play—it is inexpensive and open ended. We can gather a few simple ingredients, use containers from the recycle bin for storage and work on following a recipe all in the name of fun. There is color mixing, watching what happens when wets are added to drys and experimenting. Kids can make sculptures, build structures, use toy animals with goop and just mush it around. All ages can play. Messy play encourages fine motor skills and uses the senses of sight and touch simultaneously while exploring and discovering different materials. These are educational advantages, but honestly, goopy mess is just great summer fun!  Here are several ideas for tactile play this summer:

  • PLAY DOUGH: Our first homemade messy thing was play dough. I volunteered to make play dough for the Northampton Parents Center when my daughter was little. Swansea (NPC Director) gave us the recipe they use. Great stuff. Soft and smooth. Not the salty, dry stuff I made as a kid. This recipe lasts for weeks. Choosing the color is always fun. Watch out for brown and black. They turn to look quite disgusting after being cooked and cooled. At that age of 2 to 3 years, we played play dough non stop. Cutting it. Rolling it. Squeezing it. Trying to make puppy dogs and snowmen. My daughter was addicted.
  • FACE PAINT: For another event at the parent center we researched non-toxic face paint. My little one has always had sensitive skin so it made sense to make it at home and know all the ingredients. I found a face paint recipe that came off easily. You can make any color you can imagine with a bit of mixing. Though not as stable as the store version, we know what it contains and can wipe it off with no harsh scrubbing.
  • GAK: We acquired our gak recipe at a friend’s 5 year birthday party last spring. They had little puddles of gak out on low tables with chairs for the kids. The kids could not put it down until cake time (Cake always wins!). This was the best gak I had ever used. Great consistency. I had to ask for the recipe. It is easy to make and very kid friendly—no heat required. You can make it and use it within minutes (Thank you to Theo and Karen for the great party and recipe.).
  • BUBBLES: Bubbles. I don’t think I need to explain this any further. Kids like bubbles. They make us all giggle and run to catch them.
  • CHALK AND PAINT: Paints and chalk. I admit store versions are easier. We make them simply because we can. A project to do together on a rainy day or to take outside to work larger than life on the sidewalk and driveway. Watercolors. Finger paints. Liquid tempera paint from the store (A note on tempera paint. It is worth seeking out the good stuff from an art supply store. The colors are bolder and it dries nicer on the paper. But is can be harder to wash out.). — My favorite thing about paint is that you can get a big brush, some paper and go. Nothing needs to be perfect. Make marks. Splatter dots. Thin it down and use paint in a spray bottle. A fun thing to try—draw with chalk on paper first and then paint with watercolors on top. Lay it flat to dry. The chalk repels the paint in some places and mixes in others. Color mixing. Paint is excellent for experimenting with colors.


I’ve created a PDF of recipes for readers to download: Kid Goo Recipes. They are set up four, to a page similar to traditional recipe cards. You can print both pages and cut them into a total of 8 separate cards or leave them as 8.5″ x 11″ size and slide them into a protective sleeve. Store the recipes in a craft binder or your play dough bin. Included are gak, slime, play dough, bubbles, various paints and chalk. We have made them all, altered some a touch, and enjoyed the process from recipe to play. Please help your young ones when heating ingredients. Try some recipes. Sit back and watch the 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. Here are some ideas for your play dough bin.

  • cookie cutters—any seasonal cutters at end of season sales, the small ones meant for play dough, and simple shapes—circles, stars, hearts
  • rolling pins—small sizes to fit kid hands, a 6 to 8 inch piece of one inch wooden dowel works great, maybe a scrap of plastic pipe
  • scissors—have a spare scissor or two set aside with the goop recipes, it is fun to cut play dough and gak


You can also search these sites for more tactile recipes and ideas:


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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