Creating little outdoor homes in our not so big garden

posted in: Laura Ingalls Wilder | 18

Last month M and I finished reading Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Although I’m sure very many of you will know the book, for those of you that don’t, Little House in the Big Woods is the first book in a series of essentially autobiographical novels about a young girl growing up in rural America in second half of the 19th century.

This first book details her family’s life over the course of a year in the woods of Wisconsin and is full of descriptions of many homesteading skills, such as making butter and maple syrup, preserving food for the winter, and hunting. Such a synopsis does not do the book justice! The fact that Little House in the Big Woods came in at no. 23 in Fuse 8’s Top 100 Children’s Novel Poll should tell you that this is a special book that is definitely worth reading!

Photo: Resedabear

I was thrilled to be able to read Little House in the Big Woods to M as it was one of my favourite books as a child. To my great delight she was as inspired and enthusiastic about it as I was (and still am!). As we read the book together there were lots of new words for M – some new because of the American setting, some new because of the historical setting – and because of this, combined with the fact that she clearly loved the story and wanted to listen to it again straight away, we treated ourselves to the audiobook version of Little House in the Big Woods.

To my surprise there seems to be only version of Little House in the Big Woods available. It is an unabridged recording, comprising 4 CDs, read by Cherry Jones, an American actress who was in Erin Brockovich among other films and also starred in the TV series 24. Cherry Jones reads the novel with great conviction and her American accent certainly helped set the scene for us as we listened along.

Occasionally she is accompanied by Paul Woodiel on the violin, playing short excerpts of the fiddle music that appears throughout the novel, as played by Pa, the head of the family. What there is of the fiddle music is wonderful – adding another layer of authenticity to the story, but time and time again I felt that the producers of this audiobook had missed a trick by not letting the fiddle music really shine. For example, when there is a jig competition between two family members the dancing and the music are vividly described in the book and yet there is no music at all at this point in the CD. I don’t think this bothered M at all, but I’m sure these CDs are listened to by almost as many adults as children, and for us a bit more wonderful music would not have gone amiss!

Photo: Mhowry

I wondered if M might be surprised by the American accent, especially as some words are pronounced so differently as to be somewhat confusing (eg “herbs”), but she didn’t bat an eyelid! One aspect of the recording she particularly liked was that on the CDs each chapter of the book is given its own, single track (rather than multiple, shorter tracks), making it very easy for her to locate the point in the book she wanted to listen to again.

All in all, even though I personally would have enjoyed more fiddle music, this audiobook was a good buy, a lovely book to listen to.

One of M’s favourite passages in the (audio)book is the description of the playhouses Laura and Mary have outside their log cabin

They had playhouses under the two big oak trees in front of the house. Mary’s playhouse was under Mary’s tree, and Laura’s playhouse was under Laura’s tree. The soft grass made a green carpet for them.
The green leaves were the roofs, and through them they could see bits of the blue sky […] Mary had a cracked saucer to play with, and Laura had a beautiful cup with only one big piece broken out of it. Charlotte and Nettie, and the two little wooden men Pa had made, lived in the playhouse with them. Every day they made fresh leaf hats for Charlotte and Nettie, and they made little leaf cups and saucers to set on their table. The table was a a nice, smooth rock.

M really wanted her own little playhouse in the garden after reading this (to my surprise she wanted to play at being Mary, not Laura) and so of the past couple of weeks, since the weather has turned spring like, we’ve been working on creating two little houses for M and J in little corners of our garden.

I gained a lot of inspiration from an amazing series of posts about how to create an irresistible outdoor play space for children by Jenny at a wonderful Australian blog called Let the children play. The two posts that were particularly pertinent to creating our little playhouses were Just Add Stones, Logs, Stumps and Mounds and Just Add Places to Pause, Places to Hide, Places to Rest.

Armed with some logs liberated from the felling of some trees in a nearby park (we collected them in our wheelbarrow! – walking back and forth to our house raised many a smile from passers by 🙂 ), a couple of pieces of crockery from a charity shop, and a few pieces of material from my rag collection we set about creating our houses. Here are the results:

These places are already much loved – and I’ve been amazed to see that adults who visit us are also drawn to these spots – everyone, it seems, likes a little place to escape to their dreams and the stories inside their heads!

When we’re not out playing in our houses, or inside listening to the Little House in the Big Woods audiobook we’re listening to a lot of fiddle and other folk music at the moment, in honour of Pa and his music making. Things like…

  • Pop Goes the Weasel by Vivian Williams, Phil Williams, Howard Marshall, John Williams, from the Album Fiddle Tunes of the Lewis & Clark Era
  • Buffalo Girls, sung here by Pete Seeger
  • Oh Susannah, sung here by The Funky Mamas

  • There is also a CD called Happy Land: Musical Tributes to Laura Ingalls Wilder but we haven’t been able to get hold of this – if any of you have listened to it, please let us know what you thought of it. There is also a songbook available – The Laura Ingalls Wilder Songbook: Favorite Songs from the Little House Books – but again we haven’t been able to see a copy for ourselves.

    There are masses and masses of resources out there for Laura Ingalls Wilder fans. Here are some that we’ve enjoyed:

  • We love the prairie primer – a homeschooling family using a book based on the Laura Ingalls Wilder series as the basis for their curriculum
  • A tutorial for how to make a corn husk doll from Acorn Pies
  • This recent post on Make and Takes about making butter

  • I’ve read of some parents editing aspects of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books when reading them to their children – to remove the passages describing encounters with Native Americans (the language used is often racist by today’s definitions). I would never do this – but would rather start a conversation with my children about the language and history – but what are your feelings about this?

    Do let us know about any little dens or magic outdoor spaces you and your kids enjoy! And if you haven’t got one yet, please do read Jenny’s posts at Let the children play – you’ll be inspired and looking for the nearest logs and boulders before you know it!

    This review will be part of the next AudioSynced carnival – a round up of audiobook reviews in the blogosphere. If you enjoy audiobooks with your kids, why not consider submitting a review yourself next month 🙂

    18 Responses

    1. Natalie

      I love your special spaces in the garden – they look very inviting. I have not been raised on Little House books, but we read several stories adapted for younger children – they are called My First Little House books. Anna enjoyed them, but I had mixed feelings about how the family is presented. I know, it’s a different time, but it would be unimaginable now that my husband comes home one day and announces that he decided to move the family to completely new place. I am still looking forward to reading a full version with Anna one day.

    2. Kristine

      This series was one of my favourites too. I read it during the short period that we lived in America (between the ages 4 – 8.)
      The play space looks great. I look forward to reading the links you included. One of the great things about this type of ‘equipment’ is the kids can rearrange on a whim for another purpose. If they wanted to create a school, a cinema, a restaurant Or perhaps add wooden planks to drive cars down or balance on. Though with a wooden framed house I’d be a little scared of attracting termites here! Do you have termites?
      As for editing while you read. Ohh that’s a tricky one. I agree it provides teachable moments and maintains the integrity of the story but I guess perhaps it depends on the age of the child. We have a book called “Bunyips Don’t”. In it the Big Bunyip calls the little one all sorts of names “Bucket Head”, “Hammer Nose”…. When my husband reads it he skips this part. I’m not so sure. I think sometimes books enable us to have an insight in to something with out having to experience it first hand.
      Actually I was just thinking I gave a friends child a series of 4 books with CD that my daughter enjoys “When I feel happy / kind / jealous / angry?” They are quite good (for that type of book). They normalise the feelings and talk about how you can deal with them at a really little child level. The child’s father decided the last two were not appropriate and were ‘put away’. I’m looking forward to reading what your other readers have to say on ‘editing or not editing.”

    3. Choxbox

      I am constantly amzed by your enthissiam an creativity!

      This series was gifted by ana American friend to my daughter when she was about 7. She lapped up the entire set – reading it over and over. It is still one of her favourites 🙂 One of her things-to-do-in-life is to visit the real house in the US some time!

      About ‘sensitive’ issues.. hmm. I would probably do a bit of editing for the little one if I thought it was not appropriate for her age. But issues like Indians and stuff – no way.

      And oh we have a cardboard puppet set of the The Little House series. Your girls will love it – it was also gifted by the same friend, am not sure where it was got from.

    4. Zoe @ Playing by the book

      Hi Natalie,
      I haven’t read the versions for the youngest of children but I understand what you’re saying about how the family is presented. The roles are definitely not ones that I want to present to my girls as the only ones open to them in the sense that Pa goes out to work and to provide and Ma stays at home and cooks, tidies, mends. BUT there is lots of good stuff in there too – about making do, about respecting what you do have, about understanding that when things get broken you can’t just go to a shop and get a new one, about learning where food comes from. It’s a real eye opener!
      Is there a Russian book/series that you did devour as a kid that is about family life? Even if it’s not been translated, I’d love to hear about it.

    5. Zoe @ Playing by the book

      Hi Kristine,

      Yes, the open-endedness of the natural building blocks is wonderful. I love watching and am always amazed by J’s love of plain old stones – they can be anything for her and little piles are always materialising across the garden! We don’t have termites so I don’t have to worry about that but one of the logs was heaving with millipedes which are not great for all my veggie seedlings, but I’ll live and let live!
      Very interesting about the emotions book. I think you’re absolutely right about normalising “bad” feelings too – and I suppose that’s what I also feel about language and words (maybe because of my background in linguistics) and why “rude” words aren’t ones that we often edit out (well, at least not those in kiddie books). I DO make an effort not to swear in front of the kids!

    6. Zoe @ Playing by the book

      Hi Choxbox,

      Yes I did something very similar to your daughter – I remember saving up my pocket money to be able to buy the next one and then devouring them in playtime, lunchtime, after school and not taking my nose out of them until I was finished. The cardboard puppet set does sound fun!

    7. Katie Fries

      I love your blog! My boys and have have also been reading and having fun with the Little House books. It’s fun to see how you have made them come alive in your home. We’ve made johnny-cakes (mentioned in Big Woods) but this summer, when my boys are out of school, I am thinking of having a “pioneer day” where we incorporate more of the Ingalls’ activities into our day.

      • Zoe

        Hi Katie,
        Welcome to Playing by the book! I’ve already added you to my blogroll 🙂
        A pioneer day sounds like lots of fun (also a lot to prepare for you, but no doubt worth it!) The Prairie Primer seems to be very expensive but if you could get a copy through your library system I think that would have lots of ideas and resources that would help planning such a day.

    8. Stephanie

      I too loved these books as a girl and plan to read them with both of my kids. I just came across this article about Laura Ingalls Wilder that was absolutely fascinating from an adult perspective (I’m a bibliophile and English teacher… can’t help it!) Thought you might find it interesting. And if you have older kids, it might be a starting point for a discussion about how we can recast the world through literature.

    9. Zoe @ Playing by the book

      Hi Stephanie,

      Thanks very much indeed for the New Yorker article – it’s fascinating. I knew there was some debate over the role Rose played in rewriting/editing the stories, but I hadn’t realised what a character Rose was. I wonder if a biography has been written of her – her life sounds like it was full of adventures. At the end of the article I was stopped in my tracks – the paragraph about the Wilders’ influence on American political culture. “…Wilder’s image of a poster family for Republican “value voters”: a devoted couple of Christian patriots and their unspoiled children; the father a heroic provider and benign disciplinarian, the mother a pious homemaker and an example of feminine self-sacrifice” – put so starkly it’s made me think what it precisely is about the books I love, as (if I were American) Republican is about the last thing I would vote. I guess this links up to what Natalie was saying in the first comment.

    10. Jen

      Your little outdoor space is magical! What a wonderful post and book suggestion. I think that it would make a great night time read-aloud for my girls and there is so much that you could do to extend this book/theme.

      Creative and Curious Kids!

    11. Victoria

      I loved these books as a child too, and have read some of them to my daughter. Your little spaces in the garden are brilliant! We made an indoor cabin in winter a couple of years ago using a really cheap pop up tent that I bought at Halfords and has been played with endlessly ever since. We put sheepskins inside the tent for beds and made a pretent campfire. We also made real butter which was surprisingly easy and fun.

    12. Beth

      I’m a US-born bibliophile, a LIW fan, and a mom to four older kids, so I thought it might be helpful to give a point of view on the subject at hand.
      The Laura Ingalls Wilder series does indeed present some role-models and even opinions that are not “politically correct” according to today’s modern standards. But I don’t think that the answer is to suppress the books or the information about the past they provide. The key word here is “past”. In my opinion, the books present a great opportunity to talk to children about the fact that how people thought and acted in the past is in some ways very, very different from now. Ma’s traditional role in the family, for example, can serve as an interesting illustration of how much life has changed for women.
      Another good topic is the treatment of Native Americans in the book.

      Also- if you’ve read through the LIW series and just can’t get enough- or if you are curious about Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder, you should try the Roger Lea MacBride series that begins with “Little House on Rocky Ridge”. I’m reading it now to my youngest girls and they love it!

      • Zoe

        Hi Beth, Thanks for this comment. I’m with you on using the original as a basis for discussion rather than editing out whatever we may disagree with. I also think that it’s fine to read the books without any explicit discussion – it’s not the only thing the kids read/listen to and they get plenty of other ideas about family life / ways to behave from all around them and to some extent they work out for themselves what is “good” or “bad”. My M is quite young for us to have long or detailed discussions about the role of women or racism, so some of the opinions / expectations put forward in the book weren’t commented upon. And I’m relaxed about that.
        Thanks for the tip about Roger Lea MacBride – I’ve never heard of the books you mention but I’m off to find out more now!

    13. Christy

      Loved your ideas for creating fun spaces outside for kids to play in!

      Thank you for linking to my Prairie Primer blog! Glad to know folks are able to use it!

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