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The Great Wall

Age: 3 to 8 Time: 1 hour+
Materials: Dowells, Tarp
Skills: Communication, Problem Solving, Persistence & Grit, Teamwork, Naturalist
We have a teenage cousin who’s really cool -- a camping minimalist who loves old-timey survival skills, he can make something out of virtually nothing, wherever he goes. One skill he recently shared with us is wattling -- an old fence-building technique connecting upright rods (sticks) together by interlacing twigs and vines -- and it turns out, with a slight adjustment, it’s actually a very accessible, kid-friendly building method. This project gives children multiple ways to participate -- gathering sticks, breaking materials down to size, weaving/building, supervising, you name it. This is a great activity for a mix of ages -- with at least one preschooler (or older) in the mix, as younger siblings will have fun and benefit from following along. And once they’ve learned how to do it, kids will be able to apply this skill to lots of other outdoor projects. You never know when a good fence (or great wall) is going to come in handy!

The Guide

  1. Prep the stage: Take 10 dowels and stick them 8 to 12 inches into the ground, about 6 inches apart. If you don't have dowels, you can use long, strong sticks. Stagger them slightly so they look almost like a slalom course -- this will allow young kids to weave more easily between them. (Real wattling, which uses a straight line of stakes, requires more strength and dexterity.) Then begin interlacing: Lay sticks on top of each other between the staggered, upright dowels. As the sticks pile up, you’ll see a wall develop; stop when it reaches about a foot high. This is enough to demonstrate the technique, but leaves plenty to be done.
  2. Gather your builders and whet their curiosity: “I found something interesting in the woods -- let’s go look!” As they think about what this might be, share with them that it reminds you of a wall. Discuss what a person might be trying to build here, and how you and your group might be able to keep it going.
  3. Let the kids direct the show: Many kids will figure out the technique quickly, so work as a team to figure out how to fill up and complete the wall. Encourage everyone to take a job that they feel good about -- supervisor? stick gatherer? weaver/wall builder? Some kids may switch between jobs, giving many of them a try. Acknowledge roles and contributions (“Sadie is working hard at breaking sticks. If you need a stick broken, Sadie is your girl!”), and ask questions about the jobs along the way, allowing kids to arrive at answers by thinking, talking, and collaborating.
  4. Wonder together about what’s next: Encourage kids to consider what to do with leftover dowels and sticks. They could extend the current wall or even build a new wall at a right angle, creating a corner. If you have a tarp handy, you could make a small hideout. The possibilities are endless -- and empowering. What should the wall become? Support children, but let them lead the planning as they attempt to add on, beautify or transform the wall, and you’ll allow them to see their visions through.

Why is this activity great for kids?

Kids are doing a lot more here than simply building a structure. Gathering materials and working outdoors is an opportunity to build gross motor skills and helps promote an active lifestyle. Since you left it to the kids to decide how to handle this mysterious set of dowels and sticks, you presented an ambiguous problem, wide open and perfectly appropriate for young problem solvers. When kids discuss how to handle it with you and each other, they engage in rich dialogue, the underpinning of collaboration and communication skills -- kids must listen to others and articulate their own thoughts aloud. Most of all, consider this: you started the wall, but then turned it over to them unfinished, which put them in the role of creative directors. The outcome of the project truly is uncertain, and children really do have to think, plan, gather, haul, and arrange their materials and plans until they come up with a result that satisfies them. Of course, this also builds persistence, giving children a first-hand understanding of the value of hard work. For one small wall, that’s pretty great.

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We think all families should be learning outside. Try this activity with your child and begin to see the power in outdoor, play-based learning. Have fun!

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