Fort-Building Time!

Take a moment to think of your favorite place. Where is it? What makes it special? Do you share this favorite place with anyone else? There are places we go to feel safe and places we go to have fun. Forts and hideouts can be a little bit of both!

Our LEAP forts might be easy to spot! They’re usually bright and colorful, filled with soft pillows and silly books. We love setting up the fort before the LEAPers arrive! It’s a challenge to make it cozy and inviting, while also stirring up creativity. You may have noticed that we like to hang sheets and cloth to create entrances or that we leave rope low enough for toddler hands. You are always welcome to add to our fort or mix it up!

Fort-building is fun! And spending time in your fort can be relaxing, while providing time for you to bond with your little one. There are many benefits to fort-building that can go unnoticed. This week, we’re going to share some of those benefits with you!

  • Problem Solving: Forts fall apart… often! It can feel like you are constantly pinning pieces back up or tightening ropes, but these moments offer a chance for your toddler to try new ideas. Their brains are growing rapidly, and providing problem-solving opportunities can help them develop creatively and logically.

  • Teamwork and Cooperation: It’s tough to build a magnificent fort all on your own! Toddlers, especially, may need help securing pieces or reaching spots. If they’re building with a friend, even better! Fort-building provides time for you to bond with your toddler, while offering your little one opportunities to ask for help and to learn to trust others.

  • Fine and Gross Motor Development: Reaching for a clothesline, throwing a sheet over a chair, clipping decorations up, and traveling through your fort are all physical activities that benefit your child’s fine and gross motor development. Even if you are busy tying knots, your toddler may be watching – what a perfect time to practice those tricky loops! Creating a special hideout requires a lot of energy!

  • Creative, Imaginative, Child-Directed Play: The best part about forts? They can be anything! Maybe you’re pretending to camp in the woods, or cook a meal in your cozy home. Maybe your fort is a submarine that’s traveling deep underwater. Or maybe your fort is actually the inside of a turtle’s shell – who knew a turtle could store so much in there?! Forts and hideouts can be randomly built or planned out in detail. Either way, they are the perfect environment for your child to build, play, and imagine however they choose!

  • Calming and Regulating: There is something very soothing about breezy sheets overhead and a special, comfy nook. Fort-building provides a safe, quiet space to simply hangout or decompress. The act of beginning an activity and using the finished product can provide a sense of accomplishment and self-regulation for toddlers. Feeling especially nervous during a thunderstorm? Build a fort!

  • Year-Round: Snow day? Need suntan lotion? Whatever the weather, forts are doable! Forts can be built inside, safe from bad weather – or outside, with bugs nearby. With so much flexibility, you and your toddler can test out different building materials and spaces, and hopefully experience nature while you build! Which type of day do you think is perfect for fort-building?

Forts are pretty magical! It’s wonderful to have a special place that is all yours – a place you built, designed, and can use. Not only will you and your toddler have fun in your fort, now you can watch for these benefits as you play. Fort-building is one more way to help your toddler be happier, healthier, and smarter. We hope to see you building and burrowing at our next LEAP class!

Looking for a great book to share inside your fort? Check out “Fort Building Time” and some of our other favorites on our Books & Resources page.

Written by Nicole Hodur

Visiting Small Worlds

LEAP Winter Desert Thursday 161 (5).JPG

Have you trekked through the desert lately? Or trudged through the arctic? How about a quick dip in the ocean? We really enjoy using various materials to create small worlds for play. Scarves, gems, pine cones, sand, rocks, seashells, herbs, corn… The list goes on and on! During this LEAP session, you’ll likely seen these miniature worlds in action. These setups are engaging for toddlers and provide benefits to their growth.

What are small worlds?

Small worlds involve using miniature items such as toys, found objects, or replicas to act out scenes or ideas from real life, stories, or books. They often include sensory elements which add an even more in-depth experience and create more opportunities for stimulation of language and creativity.

These tiny setups can be as simple or elaborate as you and your toddler choose. We love using light tables to represent the arctic, but filling our sensory bin with sand and water definitely feels like a trip to the ocean. Most of our small worlds include animals (we can’t help it… we’re zoo people!), but we always aim for a nature connection. Sometimes it’s as simple as providing dirt and clay pots to mimic a garden.

We suggest keeping your miniature world as simple as possible. Why? The simplicity offers toddlers a multitude of options. They can play and interact with the materials however they choose, offering opportunities to experience preferences and stimulate their creativity.


The worlds may be small, but the benefits sure aren’t! When you set up a small world, you are offering your toddler an opportunity to explore and…

  • Develop language – Language is essentially a bunch of symbols that have a shared meaning for us. When your toddler uses items to represent real life objects, he or she is practicing assigning meaning to symbols. It may seem simple, but the benefits are long-term. Small world play also offers time for you to engage in conversation with your toddler. Ask them to explain their world or narrate your actions as you play.

  • Practice cooperation – If you, or another toddler, is joining in small world play, it’s a wonderful opportunity to practice cooperation. From sharing materials to “living” in the small world with others, this play time helps toddlers understand body awareness and expression of feelings.

  • Stimulate creativity – Thinking back on the simplicity suggestion, there is truly no wrong way to use a small world. Maybe snakes eat veggies in your toddler’s world or seals climb mountains – that’s a-okay! Creativity is abundant at this young age, and having outlets to express it helps strengthen problem solving skills and logical reasoning. Plus it’s fun!

  • Work those fine motor muscles – Small worlds are tiny! Manipulating them requires dexterity and fine motor movement. From “feeding” otters to digging dens for wolves, using small worlds allows your child to use those fine motor muscles.

Where have you travelled with your toddler? We’d love to hear about the small worlds you’ve tried. As you enjoy the remaining weeks of LEAP, keep an eye out for our small world set ups. Feel free to make them your own!

Looking for more inspiration? Click the button below to download a handout of our favorite small worlds.

Written by Nicole Hodur

Oh, The Weather Outside is Frightful


We are in the heart of Chicago winter, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. Spring is still weeks away, but we’ve been lucky to have some unseasonably warm weather. Have you been outside to play?

While the weather has been mild overall, it’s dark when we wake up and the thermometer is dipping lower each day. Snow is in our forecast and our winter jackets aren’t ready to be packed away. Here are a few ideas for making the most of winter:

  • Too cold outside? Bring it inside! Freeze loose parts in ice cube trays and start exploring. You can add small rocks, pinecones, buttons, or whatever you have around the house. Children will be able to explore texture, light, solids, and liquids – all while being cozy inside!

  • Paint the snow! Bring squirt bottles filled with water and food coloring with you as you play in the snow. Children can make colorful masterpieces while working their fine motor skills. For additional fun, add a Kool-Aid packet to your squirt bottle instead. The colors will be vibrant, the smells will be delicious, and you might even get to taste your very own sno-cone.

  • Use pine needles for a multi-sensory experience! If you have leftover winter decorations or evergreen trees near your home, strip the needles from their branches to use during play. You can fill a sensory bin with them, or use them to create nature art. When you’re finished, stored them in sealable containers to keep the smell of winter all year round!

  • Find new places to play! If the weather outside is too frightful, Chicago is full of indoor play spaces. Check out some of our favorites. If you’re feeling adventurous, Wild Sapling Play Forest at Lincoln Park Zoo is open year round. Come visit your favorite animals and breathe in the fresh winter air!

When you’re done playing, don’t forget to warm up a mug of hot cocoa and snuggle under a blanket with a good book. Looking for some cozy winter reads? Check out our blog post on some of our favorite winter-themed children’s books! Stay warm out there!

Written by Nicole Hodur