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Fairy Houses And The Importance Of Self-Directed Play

girl making fairy house Lil spent the better part of Monday and Tuesday last week building a fairy house. Crouched below a tree, she collected and arranged equal-sized pieces of bark into walls and a roof. She lined up tiny branches to form a path to the house, keeping an eye on little hound Hawise at the same time. Or was Hawise keeping an eye on her? 

fairy house built from bark

Lil decided the house should be more than just a structure. The fairies would enjoy a garden. Lil carefully transplanted spring beauty wildflowers and mosses outside a 'window' in the house with a scrap of glass as a gazing pond. With laborious effort, she tied grass to sticks and a piece of bark to make a swing.

swing and garden in fairy house

Decorations continued with a little stick to hold acorn-top hats and a hand-written welcome mat. After this photo session, she transplanted a radish for more green space. Rain damaged some of the walls to fall and she repaired them at the next dry opportunity.

adjusting fairy house

Initially I was thankful for the hours of uninterrupted time I was afforded by Lil's interest in building the house. I layered and planted some garden beds, tended the hoop house, and cared for the chickens and dogs.

But upon reflection, I thought about all the benefits Lil earned:

  • practice with laws of physics as walls fell down
  • approximation and measurement to build even wall and roof members
  • classification and identification of natural species
  • awareness of surroundings
  • responsibility for others (the little dog Hawise)
  • persistence when building and rebuilding the swing
  • large and fine motor exercise
  • imagination and story-telling
  • satisfaction of carrying out a vision to completion

girl and dog with fairy house

I suppose I could have construed a home school lesson to teach these things. But I didn't know her brain was craving them. Assigning her to build a fairy house would have changed the whole dynamic - instead of time for my own chores I would have to monitor whether she was carrying out my vision and she likely would not have freely expressed her creativity or felt satisfaction.

Self-directed play is the heart of our unschool philosophy. It is allowing Lil to choose projects to consume her time, meeting her own needs leisurely. Sometimes Lil's chosen activities require our support in gathering materials or learning alongside her. Often, like with the fairy house, Lil is completely independent.

Lil excitedly shared her fairy house with us when it was completed. Conversation about the fairy house inspired talks about construction and resilience in the face of difficult problems. Building a swing the size for a make-believe character the size of a quarter might not seem like a real problem to us but for Lil it was - and she created a solution.

Self-directed play is work of the best kind, something to be experienced by children and adults alike. Play is fun and empowering. It draws people together.

While Lil exhausts herself playing by building homes for mythical creatures, Alex and I tire from playing outside planting, digging, chopping and moving wood. These are all self-chosen chores that fulfill our spirit while creating the homestead we envision.

How are you playing these days?