July 13, 2016
Atop a hill at the center of our outdoor classroom at the Fiddleheads Forest School in Seattle, Washington, is a sprawling fairy village. Scramble up a looping pathway past a few western red cedars and a bed of native Mahonia and evergreen elderberry and you’re there. It’s a little metropolis, complete with gardens, a town circle (much better than a square, according to the students), a movie theater/restaurant (depending on who’s giving the tour), and even a towering “Space Needle” in honor of our city’s most prominent landmark. The place grows and changes with each passing week. Children collect items from the surrounding area and put them carefully and purposefully around the village. The fairy village has been central to the life of our classroom since it came into existence, and the educational opportunities it affords the children make it worth exploring.
Imaginative Play and Possibility
There is an air of enormous possibility that surrounds the fairy village at our school. According to Tracy Kane, the author of a number of wonderful fairy house books including the laminated, weatherproof one we keep in our classroom, it is the “allure of nature’s enchantment” that can “spark our creativity and nourish our imaginations.” Students comb the grounds looking for signs that the fairies have been there; a displaced shell or a previously undiscovered stone is often enough to send them into a frenzy of discussion and activity: “The fairies came! The fairies came!” reverberates throughout the classroom until the students are all drawn up to the village. They gather together, positively vibrating with excitement, and get right to work assigning tasks: “Okay, Colin and I are going to make more things for the fairies. Charley, do you want to write the letter to them? Who can help Mason dig the hole for the ocean? Let’s see, oh look—that’s a great stick to use! It’s a great stick, the fairies will love it.
I believe the simple joy derived from magical experiences can be traced to the idea that anything is possible. From the perspective of the children, there is a sense that if tiny creatures might arrive and use their magic to effect change on the world, then who knows what other surprises each day has in store? Children want to believe because the act of believing itself is exciting; it offers enormous opportunity for learning and play.
But whether or not the children believe in fairies is often unimportant. Once they have encountered something that is potentially magical, the role the students embody in their imaginative play becomes that of an individual who believes in fairies and is attending to their happiness. Discussions about the existence of fairies can wait for another time, because the game is afoot.
The Child’s Domain: Self-Directed Skill Building
So much of the world is off-limits to children, but the fairy village is their domain. Annie Quest, a social pragmatics teacher who spent years running fairy camps in the green mountains of Vermont, explained the attraction for her as a child: “I felt small, [and] fairies are small, but they’re very powerful. They’re much tinier than people, but they can turn anything in nature into things that are useful for themselves.” In some ways, the most magical element of the fairy village is its ability to give children the sort of control over a whole world that they so often struggle to achieve in their own lives. In the land of fairies, only the children decide when it is bedtime.
Embedded in the act of creation is consideration of the needs and wants of others. The children practice empathy through experiencing caring for this imagined other; it gives substance and purposefulness to their work. “Here, these shells can be a table so they will have a place to eat, and okay, now there is a table so it needs plates, and here these little hemlock cones will be the food—now how are we going to build chairs for them to sit on?” The number and variety of things that need attending to stretches infinitely into the imagination: tiny cradles for baby fairies need blankets to keep the infants warm, roofs are required to protect the inhabitants from wind and rain, new fairies must be built from sticks and cloth so that the others will have friends, even the problem of electricity must be addressed!
The precision required to build these little homes encourages concentration and fine motor development. Because the work is creative and self-directed, the children are likely to engage far longer than they might with a traditional fine motor work. The author Tracy Kane echoed this in her own experience, remembering how “One boy brushed his dog for a week to create a soft floor for the fairies.” Activities such as scooping, pinching, threading, weaving, and tying are inherently a part of construction, and as the children’s skills are refined, so are the finished products that they create.
Over the past two years, the fairy village at our school has mirrored the development of the children around it, transforming from a pile of objects that the children gathered from around the classroom into a true “village” in which the residents are constructed from twigs, twine, and small bits of cloth. For the 3-year-old child, a finished product may look more like a pile of sticks to the untrained eye, whereas an older student of 4 or 5 will regularly take on a more elaborate design, knotting twine and weaving bark through posts for walls. Often the older students will support the younger ones, perhaps by demonstrating how to twist a stick like a drill to get it into the ground properly or helping to dig around a particularly difficult rock.