I am often confronted with the struggle between being outside and spending time in nature versus the myriad of indoor activities and distractions of modern living. We have countless manners of indoor entertainment–from internet surfing (which seems to involve its own special form of temporal black hole), to computer games, to on-demand movies–available in our living rooms. With more to do on our couches than ever before—how could the outside world compete? And what, after all, can you actually do in nature?

One answer is that there is always something new to discover outdoors.  It is ever-changing and dynamic.  I am reminded of the wise words of Kristina Menuyes, the landscape architect in Stockholm, whom we interviewed for the documentary film The Nature of Cities. She was describing how area school kids play daily in the ancient oak forest preserved as a part of the impressive green neighborhood Hammarby Sjöstad. The kids get tired on of the usual playgrounds, she explained, which are boring to them, while in the forest there are infinite forms of engagement.  They are never bored: in the forest “you can find something new behind every tree and rock.”

This point was clearly demonstrated to me during a recent Sunday when my family made an impromptu stop at Belle Isle, in Richmond, Virginia. Belle Isle is one of Richmond’s most precious assets, a gem of a natural setting and extraordinary beauty.  The island, comprised of 54 acres in the middle of the James River, offers immense opportunities for playing, exploring, running, climbing, and jumping, poking under rocks, all within sight (and an easy walk) of Richmond’s skyline.

In our first few minutes on the island, my daughters began to notice little built structures on the ground, made of leaves and branches and stones. They were fascinating to see, clearly the result of considerable thought and on–the-spot human design, (though no discernible architectural style–organic perhaps?) and they seemed to be increasingly clever and interesting with every one we happened upon. Intrigued, my 8- and 12- year old daughters quickly dubbed them “fairy houses”. We took pictures of these huts and palaces, some simple others with amazing elaboration and detail and ornamentation.

Where had these fairy houses creations come from? Who designed them and applied such loving and thoughtful touches? Who had cleverly scoured the forest and pasture and shoreline stock room for the perfect stick or stone or large piece of bark?

We learned later, through a little Google sleuthing, that what we were seeing was the result of the work of a group of elementary students who had visited Belle Isle the day before. That Saturday, Belle Isle had been the setting for the 2nd Annual Fox Family Gnome Home Build, organized by the William Fox Elementary School in Richmond. My daughters were not far off in their early identification of the mini-houses as fairy abodes, as it turns out.

The program is the brainchild of art teacher Julie Crowder, inspired by the work of Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy. I caught up with Julie by email to learn more about this terrific event. Crowder explained the main intentions behind the event and talks passionately about the value of taking kids into natural spaces like Belle Isle, exploring and using the materials around them:

“This event had a couple of goals: to bring a sense of magic and wonder to my students and Belle Isle, and also to create an event and environment where they were participating with their parents in a nature centered activity. It was beautiful to watch them talk to their parents and siblings about design and ideas, and then implement them. As they worked they spontaneously thought of other materials, other ways of building that would make their homes even better than they already were. I was escorted through many of the homes, and some had moats, some had two floors, they thought very hard about what was soft enough to sleep on, and gathered feathery items themselves for beds and chairs. It was awesome, just a beautiful experience.”

Crowder notes the value of creating opportunities for kids to see and learn and experience the natural world in ways that might not be predictable ahead of time:

“My favorite thing about the event was the unexpected discoveries they made about nature that day, what was blooming even in fall, how small a frog could be, that there were seashells even here at the river. I loved seeing the fairy wings the little girls opted to wear (I made that a choice, dress up or don’t) and the things they brought with them. One family brought huge leaves from the alley behind their house, one family brought the red fruits of the kusa dogwood, and one father son group wore matching overalls and brought shovels.”

And as the event unfolded that Saturday on Belle Isle, Crowder tells me that others not associated with the school—including college kids and adults without children—also joined in! It is just something irresistible (and my kids have been building their own versions of the fairy houses ever since our visit).

Crowder provided little instruction ahead of the event, but did the week before build several houses around the school. For other schools planning a similar event, Crowder has developed a set of helpful guidelines below, and found on the Fox school’s art webpage:

Gnome and Fairy Home building Guidelines:

1. Houses should be no taller than 18 inches, but can be as small as you like.

2. Do not use any glue or adhesive.

3. Use only materials that you find in nature (for ex: moss, leaves, stones, and sticks)

4. Choose a theme or a title for your tiny home.

5. You can build in groups, but please bring a parent.

6. After you build your house, feel free to stay and relax by the river with your family.

Source: Fox Elementary School Art Room Page:  http://fromtheartroom.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/2012-gnome-home-build/

There are also extensive tips on the School’s webpage on how to make a gnome or fairy house, like this advice:

“Start stacking your rocks and twigs with the larger things towards the bottom of your house to support the weight of your roof. You could have an opening for a door, or find something like a leaf or piece of wood to act as a door. You could make a roof from a large piece of moss, from bark, from carefully laid sticks…almost any natural material would work.”

It was wondrous to see how many variations and creative solutions to design and building these small houses embodied. However, that should not be a surprise to us, given the amazing natural beauty, diversity and variation of the raw materials all around in a setting such as Belle Isle. No branch or stone or square inch of moss is exactly the same, and the combinations of their assemblage are infinite.

One thing I am sure of about the Gnome Home Build—the kids who participate in it (and the adults as well) had a great deal of fun. The kids were undoubtedly proud of what they had created that day. I cannot imagine a more productive, more fulfilling way to spend a couple of hours of one’s day: building, designing, creating, exploring, sharing, all in the heart a city.

Post by Dr. Tim Beatley, Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities, University of Virginia School of Architecture