Soft house

January 09,2009
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

One of T.'s current favorite books is this one, by children's book author Jane Yolen. The book is about the powers of the imagination, and about how two innovative kids take a boring, dreary, rainy day and make it magical by building a huge "soft house" out of blankets and quilts. (Interestingly, when I first googled "soft house" to find the book, I came up with several links to architecture journals and articles. A "soft house" apparently is also an innovative, energy-friendly way of designing homes these days.)

I built soft houses when I was a kid. We would drape a large blanket over the dining room table and crawl underneath (with flashlights, of course). When L. was a little over a year old, I remember helping him build a huge, elaborate soft house in our living room. We had a terrific thunderstorm that evening, and L. was terrified. We dragged all the dining room chairs into the center of the living room and spread blankets across the seats, making a cozy, safe, lair for us to hide out. To this day, L. likes to cram himself into cozy, padded spots, especially when he feels anxious or overloaded; it's therapeutic and calming, this return to the safety of small spaces.

Last week I watched my sister-in-law's two boys for a brief time, while Scott took T. to a faculty luncheon and their mom ran an important errand. (The removal of T. from the equation was an attempt to make life easier on me--four kids running amok around the house on a rainy day can be a bit frazzling, especially when three of them are boys.) The Legos and Tinkertoys occupied everyone for about 11 seconds, and then it became clear that we were headed into a downward spiral if I didn't act quickly. But it was raining, and sending them outdoors was out of the question.

Then I had a brilliant idea: Build a soft house.

Like decorating cookies with sprinkles, and making glittery snowflakes, soft house is not an activity for those who are faint at heart, or deathly afraid of mess and upheaval. If you don't want to see your family room draped in blankets, or find popcorn under the couch for days after your kids build a soft house, or if you shudder at the thought of pillow towers and cushion walls, don't build a soft house. But if you are brave enough to let kids completely take over your room for a few hours, then a soft house is by far one of the best rainy day activities around. All you need for a soft house is:

Blankets, lots of them.

Pillows, lots of them.

Flashlights, one for each kid, or else they will end up bickering over the flashlights and getting tangled up in the blanket roofs while they attempt to wrestle their brother/cousin for the one he has.

Batteries, lots of them, for all the flashlights you find that somehow, mysteriously, no longer work.

Snacks, lots of them. I made popcorn and cut up apples, but I banned drinks from the room--I might be fun, but I'm NOT crazy.

Imagination. L. had the creative idea to print out scenery views from the computer and we taped them up inside the walls of the soft house so the kids could "look out" and see beaches, and mountains, and a city skyline. And the best part of all this was that the kids kept busy (more or less peacefully) for about an hour straight.

The downside: L. didn't want to ever take down the soft house, so we ended up with our family room looking like this:

for much longer than we wanted.

Happy Weekend!