Forts, Shelters and Hideouts

Who didn't love making forts as a kid? You'd pull out all the old sheets, steal blankets off everyone's beds and make a special place that somehow seemed way cooler and more secretive than merely sitting on the floor with your siblings or friends. Forts, shelters, hideouts, dens or whatever you'd like to call them are important spaces for a child. By being child-sized, a fort provides a feeling of safety and comfort, often a feeling of being separate from the adult world (though they may invite you into their world) and a place to be imaginative and creative. For toddlers, they often aren't as focused on building and creating the physical space, so much as being inside it and bringing in their favorite things and people to fill up the space and play with, such as stuffed animals, books, parents, and special friends. That's why we spend the time putting the forts up before LEAP- maybe the most fun setup job- so that they can just pick out a book and settle in for a few minutes.

The beauty of a fort is that it can be simple and made from basic household and/or outdoor materials. I will admit that making something like the box forts that we have at LEAP took a bit of work, but they are great because they fold up pretty small when not in use. You can see the instructions for those box forts here. You can also use a big box as is and put a blanket inside.

Whether building inside or outside, classic fort items are still some of the best tools- sheets, chairs, trees, sticks and clothespins. There really isn't a wrong way to make a fort! All you need as the caregiver is to take the time to encourage it, so get outside this fall, pick up some sticks, grab a blanket and build a secret place with your child.

-Becky Lyons


Rainy Day Activities

I’m finally feeling like we’ve made it through another Chicago winter and can embrace the springtime! It’s so exciting to see all the greenery popping up and even the daffodils already blooming around zoo grounds. But feeding that greenery and new growth will be those welcome or sometimes not-so-welcome April showers. As caregivers, we have to have an array of rainy day activities that we can bust out when you stuck inside all day due to rain; I’m especially partial to things like indoor fort-building and reading (our spring break campers last week made an epic fort on one of said rainy days). But a rainy day can also be a great opportunity to get outside and explore nature when everything has a different feel, smell and energy. Here are 5 ways that you and your child can embrace the rain this spring:

1.       Get all decked out and play in the rain! As you may have noticed, many of your LEAPers love to put on bright rain coats and science goggles, even when they are indoors. And it’s even more fun to put all that on- rain coats, boots, goggles, umbrellas, ponchos- and actually go outside and put them to use. Especially on the warmer rainy days, walking in the mud, jumping in puddles, and exploring your neighborhood in the rain are a great time.

2.       Make music with the rain! Set up various hollow containers just outside a door or window and listen to different sounds they make. Things like upside down coffee cans, aluminum pie tins and plastic buckets will all produce different sounds. Listen to the sounds and talk about why they sound different. Or join in on the rain music with your own instruments.

3.       Create art in the rain! Manipulating a familiar material in a new way is always exciting for toddlers, so using rain to change a painting can be a blast. Using tempera paint and thick paper, have your child paint a few big splotches on the paper (which is pretty standard at this age anyway). Then take a lap outside with your child holding their painting flat either out in front of them or over their head. Come back inside and check out how the rain affected the picture and why it might have happened.

4.       Dig in, during or after the rain! Wet dirt and sand create a whole different digging experience that allows for better building and forming. Wet dirt also brings up worms and other insects that are fun to explore. In a light rainshower or right after the rain stops, get outside with shovels, buckets and magnifying glasses to play in the mud.

5.       Search for rainbows! When the rain finally clears, get outside right away to look for rainbows. Bring prisms and binoculars out with you to view the rainbow through a different lens. Talk about how many colors you can see. Then pull out some art supplies and draw rainbows together, whether on paper or on the sidewalk with chalk.

I hope these activities will help you turn those gloomy rainy days into fun opportunities for nature play!

-Becky Lyons

Creating Positive Connections

So the LEAP Spring Series is underway, and it's been great to see everyone jumping into water bead play, getting paint all over themselves, and having some sweet moments with books and blocks. As this series moves along, we will be sharing interesting insights into the social, emotional, and health benefits of nature play, but let's start by reflecting on our own experiences with nature. 

As a child, I spent a lot of time with my sister and brothers in our backyard checking out worms and rollie pollies in the garden and walking over to the park to play monkey it and climb trees, and those memories still stick with me. Those experiences helped me to connect with nature and continue to build on that relationship throughout my life. There is increasing evidence that when children have frequent positive experiences and connections with nature at a young age that they are more likely to want to continue taking part in nature-based activities and in performing environmentally friendly behaviors (Cheng & Monroe).

So bringing your kids to the zoo on a regular basis, and especially having them come week after week to dig, paint, and build with natural materials and connect with the zoo animals at LEAP, is helping them create those positive connections and appreciation for nature. How did you connect with nature as a child? Did you ever go camping or hiking, climb trees in a local park, or explore your backyard?

-Becky Lyons


Cheng, J. C. H., & Monroe, M. C. (2010). Connection to Nature: Children's Affective Attitude Toward Nature. Environment and Behavior.