It can be hard to get up the nerve to be outdoors on a windy, rainy or cold day. Just like our fellow animals, if we construct a simple shelter in which to hunker down we can bear the elements. And, to human parents and kids, that very experience is wildly empowering. What’s even better, making and playing in a secret, outdoor shelter takes on a whole new power for kids. When you do it right, this activity is far more than staying dry and warm. The shelter is merely a starting place for out-of-this-world sensory exploration, authentic experimentation, and magical make believe.
Fortunately for us parents, we don’t have to be US Marines to know how to create a well functioning, simple shelter quickly. Although, lucky for us, Brian, Tinkergarten team member and former Marine created a quick how-to video to help anyone turn a tarp, some rope and/or bungee cords and stakes into a solid shelter. If you are in a public park, please check the rules to make sure you can attach things gently to trees. If not, you’ll need to adapt these models, using other objects like picnic tables, boulders, benches, and even tall dads holding umbrellas, in lieu of trees. It’s on us to teach our kids to follow the rules that protect our parks.
- Prepare: Pack materials. Dress for success. Check out our tips for cold days or cool, wet days.
- Gather a group: This activity is magical with just one parent and one child, but it can be really fun to get a group of folks together to pull it off.
- Wee ones: If you have children under the age of 3, try to organize things so that someone can set up the shelter ahead of time, even if that means hiking ahead and doing a quick set up. As you are hiking, you can stumble up on the shelter and act amazed. They will follow suit. Little ones will get plenty from discovering, experiencing and playing with the shelter and will have less language and planning skills to bring to the creation of the shelter.
- Preschoolers +: If you have kids ages 3 and up, include them in the planning and building of your secret shelter. Our favorite way to add some secrecy and put kids in control is to throw all of the materials needed and a note from the Forest Fairies into a large bag (sleeping bag cover, trash bag, etc.), then tuck the bag somewhere in the green space. While hiking, you’ll stumble upon the bag and read the note, which says to use the materials to build a secret shelter so you can find some comfort on this rainy day. Then, involve you child/kids in imagining, planning and directing you to build a shelter using those materials. Try to have them do as much as they can, gently asking questions to guide their process as needed. If all falls apart, you can always suggest one of the simple structures in our video. Make suggestions about how to position your shelter to better block wind or rain.
- Play: Once the shelter is up, let kids have at it. Welcome them to enter/exit/repeat and just play for a while. Watch what they do. Gather ideas. Hang out. Play up the secrecy. Sing in hushed tones about rain. Enjoy.
- Experiment: Once the initial play evens out, make suggestions or ask questions like, “What would happen if we changed the angle of the tarp?” or “How could we change things to fit even more of us in this cozy shelter?”
- Make magic: Ask questions like, "What kind of animals could we be in a shelter like this?" or "What kind of creatures would just love to live in a shelter like ours?" to inspire kids to intensify their imaginary play.
- Snack: Sharing food sweetens the experience and builds social skills. Our favorite? Warm blueberry tea packed in a thermos.
Why is this activity great for kids?
The very act of doing something to make weather more manageable build self-reliance, grit and the mindset that even the wet or windy days are great times to be outdoors. Further, these are the days kids will remember and talk about most—their senses on fire as you sit close together, listen to the rain drops plunk down on the tarp, and sip warm, blueberry tea. When do they get to do things like that? It doesn’t get more memorable to kids.
When you engage older children in the planning of your shelter, they develop creativity, communication and even collaborative skills. Further, young children worldwide get highly engaged in the work of enclosing themselves within small, cozy spaces, and for good reason, as this act has positive physical, psychological and cognitive impact.
As a guide to your child’s play, you also have the powerful opportunity to ask “What if?”, welcoming them to observe what happens when you change your shelter in various ways. Finally, creating this new, super special, secret, outdoor space invites unlimited imaginary play—the shelter can become an animal’s den, a little house, or a rocket ship to the moon.