“I miss my students.
I miss putting books directly in kid’s hands.
I am heartbroken
that we don’t get to finish the year together.”
— Liza Gardner Walsh
Liza Gardner Walsh embodies two of my favorite things in one person: no, she’s not peanut butter and jelly. She’s even better. Liza is an author and a children’s librarian. She’s also a certified, fully-authorized, bonafide expert on all things fairies. Liza visits today with some insights about getting kids outdoors, interacting with nature, using their creativity and imaginations, to make learning fun. Let’s meet her.
Liza, it’s nice to connect with you again! Usually we only see each other at the glorious Warwick Children’s Book Festival. I was very happy to come across an article featuring you, “How to Build a Fairy House.” The reporter, Aislinn Sarnacki of the Bangor Daily News, did an excellent job. It inspired me and I hope it might inspire parents, too. Let me quote the intro:
Fairy house building is a creative outdoor activity that can expand the imagination and bring to life the small things in nature that are easy to overlook. All you need is a small outdoor space and a few natural materials. Then — taking as much time as you want — construct a small home, fit for a fairy, frog or any other small creature that comes to mind.
This zero-cost activity is great for kids, families and even adults who are looking for ways to have fun in their own backyards. And right now, as people stay at home and practice social distancing during this stressful time, fairy house building may be just the thing to take people’s minds off the pandemic — even if it’s just for a few minutes.
Why do you think some children are so fascinated by the fairy world?
This is the hardest question of all but I think this fascination with fairies taps into our innate “sense of wonder” as Rachel Carson coined it. There is this immediate flood of curiosity that informs the magic of this hobby. Will the fairies come? Will they leave a surprise? What do they look like? Will they like my house? Do they take care of the world? Are they watching us as we build? Seeing the wide-eyed wonder and amazing willingness of children to take the leap into the imagination and the unknown is so incredibly rejuvenating. It celebrates that part of childhood that we as children’s book writers are so connected to and work so hard to intuit in our writing. And it reinforces all the good, trust, wonder, curiosity, consideration, persistence, patience, and laughter!
I love the idea for that activity, particularly in relation to these times, when schools are closed and the focus has shifted to online learning.
I have been watching kids and families make these little houses and worlds for years now and I am always amazed at how much creativity is unleashed. Every single creation is different. One of the premiere benefits is this sense of open-ended play because there are no step-by-step instructions like Lego kits. The materials that kids collect set the parameters. Another benefit is that it completely captures kids’ imaginations and it isn’t a one and done kind of a thing. You can wake up and check on your house and then go back and add another room or a playground. The next day, you can leave a note for the fairies or make a pathway to your sibling’s house. The possibilities are endless. I also like that kids can do this completely on their own and it becomes a way that they can be engaged safely and create a whole world of their own making.
I like how so many learning opportunities open up naturally. It’s a perfect jumping-off point for interdisciplinary activities: cooking, writing, reading, science (nature studies), engineering . . .
I would say, though, that my all time favorite benefit is patience and perseverance. There are always problems to solve when building things out of materials that aren’t all the same or made with straight lines. Things fall apart when the wind blows or your dog might knock the whole thing down in one fell swoop. But a true fairy house builder will pick up the pieces and start again.
You work as a school librarian. How have you been adjusting to our “lockdown” reality in that capacity?
It’s been way harder than I ever imagined. I miss my students. I miss putting books directly in kid’s hands. I am heartbroken that we don’t get to finish the year together. Thank goodness for technology but zoom meetings are not the same. I do appreciate the creativity that distance learning is forcing on us and I have had some really fun connections with kids through video and zoom but I do spend a lot of my time worrying about our families and the isolation and economic challenges they are facing.
I had a friend complain about her disappointment with “learning-from-home-time” so far, the pile up of schoolwork her girls have received from each class. I’m certainly not here to criticize teachers, who are working very hard to figure out this brave new world. I do feel that our current situation presents new opportunities for creative, explorative, interdisciplinary learning. The idea isn’t so much to recreate what happens in the classroom — we can’t do that, especially on the social level — but maybe in some respects we can do something even better.
Our principle has said the whole time that we are building the plane as we are flying it but I do appreciate the model we are using. We are offering activities, enrichment, and support but not requiring it. We have to keep in mind equity. Sometimes, worksheets are a benign way of making things accessible and easily transmissible through digital means. But I completely agree that this can be an opportunity for a paradigm shift. Kids are always learning. Literacy, math, science, art, movement are all so enmeshed in our everyday lives. I’m hoping that kids are building forts, planting gardens, watching birds, writing letters, and working on engines. Fairy House building is another way that kids can create, engineer, and collaborate. You can write a story about what happens in that house after you leave it. The key is following the curiosity and seeing what emerges. That is something that we don’t often have time to do in the public school day schedule and now is the perfect time to make it happen.
Can you give us a few quick tips? No one wants to build a house that displeases the fairies.
Of course! First, you need to find a good spot that will be safe from dogs, protected from wind, and that has some support. Bases of trees, stumps, and rock walls are all great. Next, grab a bag or a box and gather your materials. Fairy houses should be made from all natural materials. There are so many good things to collect like acorn caps, bark that has fallen off a tree, sticks, rocks, shells, dried beans, dried milkweed husks, the list goes on.
Once you have all your materials, you can begin to assemble your structure. People usually opt for a lean-to or a teepee type structure but the sky is the limit. And once you have a good house built, you can then work on adding some furniture to welcome your small guests. Fairies are very fond of naps so a bed is an essential. Tables and chairs with acorn cap bowls are also a nice way to welcome fairies. The final touches can include pathways, playgrounds, pools, and whatever else you can dream up. After you have built your house, pay attention for signs that the fairies have visited by looking for tiny footprints, fairy dust, and bent or torn leaves. But the most important advice of all is to have fun!
By the way, how tall are fairies, exactly?
I have “heard” they are about 2-3 inches tall, roughly. But some people describe it as a shimmer of light , almost like an orb, or a little puffball hovering by a flower.
So you’ve never . . . ?
No, I have never seen one. And I’m okay with that!
Well, I’m ready to build a fairy house right now. I only wish I still had a six-year-old at home with me. My Maggie, now 19, used to make them long ago. I wonder if she encountered any, I’ll have to ask. Do you have a new book in the works?
I have the last in the seasonal fairy series illustrated by Hazel Mitchell, The Fall Fairy Gathering, which is due out this summer. And I am working on a historical fiction novel but at a snail’s pace!
Thanks so much for stopping by, Liza. Be safe, stay home, and protect the vulnerable.
Thank you, James, for all that you are doing for kids, teachers, and families and for continuing to write such great stories.
Liza Gardner Walsh is a school librarian and an author of more than a dozen books. She’s worked as a preschool teacher and a high school English teacher, writing tutor, and museum educator. Liza lives with her family in Camden, Maine. And, obviously, she’s terrific.