Children’s Natural Architecture

By Lorrie Otto

Claudia’s Lunch Shed

Part of my property is bordered with a wooded ravine, while the western edge is a deer-ravaged deciduous woodland. Heavy, wet snowstorms in winter or strong, wind-driven thunderstorms in summer scatter branches throughout the area. One can think of all the tiny creatures thriving on such available food and shelter, but at my house I also think of the charming children who come to play there. Almost all of them see the branches and twigs as building materials. Such joy!

On this winter day (January 2000) I look   over the landscape at the naked  structures stripped of the leaves   from shrubs, vines and prairie plantings which hid them in earlier seasons. There are the adult touches such as the Leopold bench adjacent to  the flooded ephemeral pond, the sundial and the birdhouses with their predator guards, as well as the woodpile composed entirely of hollow logs (I ladle cracked corn into these protected   spots for birds, especially during blizzards, and for Deer Mice at night). These are all knit together with paths.

One summer day the little boy from across the street approached me with his sparkling, mischievous eyes and exclaimed, “Oh, this is such a perfect place to play hide-and-seek. Do you mind?” Such a question tickled my 80-year-old heart. We laughed together as he admonished me not to tell his friends as he crawled under a shrub where a Catbird was scolding. However, it is the children’s architecture which I want to write about.

So often parents have approached me at conferences to say, “I’d really like to do this kind of landscaping after my children have grown, but for now they need a place to play.” (My expletive deleted!!)

About 10 years ago the neighbor on the other side of the ravine would pack a lunch for her six-year-old daughter (Claudia)  and a friend. They would climb down the ravine, each with their lunches in bulging   red handkerchiefs at the end of long sticks. On my side of the ravine there was an ancient hawthorn (Crataegus)   with an extended lower branch. Here they would stop and lean their lunches against another tree. For the next half hour they would gather sticks and prop them in a line along the hawthorn until they had constructed quite a wonderful   lean-to. Then they would sit under it, untie their big handkerchiefs and eat lunch while looking across the chasm at Claudia’s house. They did this so often that now I don’t want to give up that view, so I keep Claudia’s hut in good repair as a piece of sculpture in   my yard. Several years ago the family moved to Chicago, but Claudia’s little lunch shed remains behind. On this snowy day I can see it from the dining room window.

The Wigwam.

A few yards to the south, behind a White Pine (Pinus strobus), there is a larger structure. Bob called it a tepee.  George said that it was a wickiup. Whatever it is, it now stands in memory of a summer day when the boys gathered branches from a brushpile and assembled them as a shelter for imaginary Indians.

Another structure began as a sod house, but the garden center ran out of sod, so it became a sod fort. The children have hidden fossils, crystals and their favorite rocks between clumps of growing grass which hangs down on the north side like green hair. It’s an amazing fabrication with the sundial on one side and a young Leatherwood shrub (Dirca palustris) next to the entrance.

One warm summer afternoon an old, dead Red Maple (Acer rubrum) toppled down in the ravine leaving its branches pressing on the young trees near the fort. They needed to be rescued. A helpful neighbor arrived with a power saw intent on cutting up the entire tree.  Fortunately I was there to redirect him to only free the two young Beech trees (Fagus grandifolia) and the Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana). Now when friends come with small sons, they invariably leap out of the car and run down the path to climb the length of that mammoth old tree. Is it just instinct which compels a boy to want to climb a tree or build forts or shelters? They all seem to come so quickly to it!

Ryan made a wigwam. He learned to do this in eighth grade science class. The Heritage Dictionary describes it as a “North American Indian dwelling having an arched or conical framework overlaid with bark, hides or mats.” Ryan’s enchanting structure is woven with wild grape (Vitis spp.), and in summer a living plant hides the   old vines and dried leaves. People come to my yard to photograph prairie flowers, but if they have children, they never leave before getting a photo of Ryan’s wigwam.

In the winter, parents and children turn indoors and often build gingerbread houses.   In 1979 Dick Koel designed a prairie plant house (11″ x 11 “x 12”) using Cupplant (Silphium perfoliatum) stems for the logs. The adjacent fluffy tree is a goldenrod, the bare one is Gray-headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) without its seedhead. A butter churn, made from a Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) gall cut in half, sits near the front door. This was a gift for me from Dick from the Menomonee River Area Chapter of Wild Ones. It is easily one of the most wonderful presents I’ve ever received. And it came from a man who was once a little boy, and now as a parent he is still making houses for play!

Lorrie Otto, upon whose philosophy Wild Ones was founded in 1977, continues to be active in Wild Ones and maintains her membership with the Milwaukee-North Chapter.