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What to Build…

Age: 3 to 8+ Time: Under 1 hour
Materials: twine, notecard
Skills: Communication, Creativity, Teamwork, Persistence & Grit

As if meant to be, this activity was born when I stumbled on three, tidy bundles of sticks left out on someone’s stoop. One man's trash became my treasure. "Oh, what the kids could make with these!" I thought. To make good and sure kids would feel engaged and in charge of the making, I decided to shroud the whole business in mystery. First, I attached a cryptic, yet inspiring note to the stick bundles. Then, I hid them under some trees in the park. Once we were outside, we “stumbled” on them, read the note, and the kids naturally started talking about what to build with them.

Ultimately, the kids produced a long set of train tracks and chug-a-lugged up and down the line. After a few round trips, some defected with part of the tracks to build anew. It could have gone on and on, and we've repeated this activity with kids as old as 10, inspiring shelters, bird's nests and even a swing to be shared equally by fairies and ninjas (a compromise which reflects the split interests among the building team). It has yet to fall flat, and, thankfully, both sticks and kids’ ideas are in virtually limitless supply.

The Guide

  1. Make a bundle of sticks: Gather enough long sticks (i.e. 2-3 feet) to inspire building (~20+ sticks). Bundle the sticks with rope or twine. Remember, kids can always gather more sticks outside!
  2. Add a note and hide the sticks: Attach a note. Ours read, “Dear explorers, Enjoy these sticks. Use them to build [note torn off]" It worked like a charm!
  3. ”Discover” the sticks: Once you are walking with the kids, say, “Hey! What’s in those bushes/behind that tree/etc?” Then, walk over and allow them to “discover” the hidden sticks. Read the note (or have kids read if they can) and ask them, “Who do you think left these sticks for us?” and “What do you think they wanted us to build with them?” Then, let the playing, imagining and discussing begin.
  4. Guide and support: Bear in mind, your job is to support, not to lead. Some kids may dive right into building and imagining. If not, let them play with the sticks for a while. The chance to mess around with new materials makes for great making. After a while, remind them about the note and the building. For example, ask, “What do you think we should build?” Once kids start making something, support them at points of frustration or stagnation by asking questions and making suggestions. Good makers may change their design and vision multiple times, so follow even a meandering lead. If you have a group, we suggest you let kids play, then call everyone together to share ideas and agree on one idea to try to build first. Assure kids who have other ideas that you can build many different things. If two camps emerge, suggest that the kids split up the sticks and make teams to build two different things.
  5. Celebrate and keep on building: Celebrate whatever kids build by playing with it, looking at it, taking a photo to share with grandpa, and, ideally, listening to them describe it. Be sure to praise their effort too. If they seem to have energy, encourage them to start over or build something new. We hope they realize that this activity can be fun to do again and again.

Why is this activity great for kids?

By inviting kids to take on this open-ended challenge, giving them access to nature's endless materials, and granting them the freedom to design, test, redesign and build, you give them the perfect chance to develop creativity. Once they are inspired, kids also have to practice persistence in order to actually make something out of a pile of sticks. Whether you have a group or it's just you and your child, this activity invites kids to share their thinking. Nurture communication skill development and imagination as you discuss juicy topics like how these sticks got there, what they could make and how, and what to do when they hit a roadblock.

Do This Activity In A Class

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Do It Yourself

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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