Young children have a natural inclination towards play and construction, which if harnessed can provide a well of creativity in later life. Author and illustrator Christy Hale discusses her new book 'Dreaming Up', and the parallels between iconic buildings and the forts, sandcastles and towers so beloved of children.

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wooden building blocks“That early kindergarten experience with the straight line; the flat plane; the square; the triangle; the circle!. . . These primary forms and figures were the secret of all effects . . . which were ever got into the architecture of the world.”Frank Lloyd Wright

Children are natural builders. As soon as they can toddle, they haul, drop, and pile construction materials. Sensing the weight of those things, they learn about gravity. They stack objects on top of each other haphazardly. Oops! The objects fall down. Their little fingers feel the different sizes and shapes, and with this tactile knowledge, children make their first estimations as they try again and again to solve spatial challenges. At last, they discover balance and can build up.

Frank Lloyd Wright's FallingwaterPlay is the answer to how anything new comes about,” the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget said. A spirit of play and discovery is evident in the work of great architects. Frank Lloyd Wright‘s iconic Fallingwater with its slab balconies and terraces extending in multiple directions resembles a child’s block construction. Wright’s mother planned his future as an architect equipping him at an early age with Froebel blocks. “The maple wood blocks are in my fingers to this day”, Wright claimed in his later years.

Whether it’s outside playing with mud, sand, sticks, or snow, or inside using kitchenware, blankets, pillows, recyclables, or building toys, children will transform their resources into towers and turrets, secret spaces, and shelters for security. There are endless variations for their structures: “. . . if they can dream it, they can build it,” said Madhu Thangavelu.

Inspire your young builders and help them learn more about architecture by visiting or showing them pictures of notable structures that share design and engineering concepts found in building play. Here are a few ideas to start:

  • Look at the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004. See how the towers taper just like stacking cups as they climb higher and higher. Architect César Pelli grew up in Argentina, where the Andes Mountains filled the sky and became his ever-present inspiration. “The desire to reach for the sky runs deep in our human psyche.” Pelli said.
building high

Stacking cups high like César Pelli’s Petronas Twin Towers. (image © the author)


  • Connect a study of Antoni Gaudí‘s La Sagrada Familia with sand castle construction on the beach, then discuss the fluid, organic forms of each structure. “There are no straight lines or sharp corners in nature,” said Gaudí.homemade suspension roof
  • Observe Kenzo Tange‘s Yoyogi National Stadium, world famous for its long, graceful suspension roof, then provide blankets and chairs for children to drape their own fort.
  • Look at pictures of Maya Lin‘s Box House in Telluride, Colorado. Lin was inspired by Asian puzzle box designs with their hidden panels, secret sliding doors, and opening parts. She said, “The process I go through in art and architecture, I actually want it to be almost childlike. Sometimes I think it’s magical.” Recycle a large box and cut out windows. Once inside the box your builder can manipulate the flaps exploring openings and closings, magically appearing and disappearing from view.
  • Notice the soft, tumbling forms of Frank Gehry‘s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao then invite children to drag the cushions off the sofa and pile them to make a pillow fort. Gehry says, “Creativity is about play and a kind of willingness to go with your intuition.”

A pillow fort mimics the playful forms of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

Early childhood is a perfect time to learn about architecture. In my picture book, Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building (Lee & Low Books, 2012) fifteen double page spreads feature illustrations of children building with everyday materials accompanied by concrete poems echoing the shapes of their constructions, juxtaposed with photographs of actual structures from around the world. Children will recognize the similarities in design features between their own play and the work of the architects. Endnotes describe the buildings and provide a brief introduction to the diverse architects who created them.

After receiving his copy of Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building, featured Colombian architect, Simón Vélez wrote, “Con este libro mis nietas descubrieron que yo soy un arquitecto como ellas” – With this book my granddaughters discovered that I am an architect like them.