Imaginary Spaces: Designing a Play Space

By Susan Miller, June 22, 2007

Grade Level

  • PreK-1


  • Architecture

Subject Area

  • Arts
  • Mathematics

Lesson Time

One to two fifty-minute class periods


Drawing upon young children's enthusiasm for imaginary play and creating structure and space with blocks, this lesson will introduce young students (and older ones, with some tweaking) to architecture and space design. Students will use various Foam Core shapes and glue them to a base, to create an imaginary play space.

National Standards

visual/spatial reasoning
Visual Arts
Students use different media, techniques and processes to communicate ideas.
Students use art materials and tools in a safe and responsible manner.


This lesson will help students become aware of their own understanding of structure, space, and balance. It will also give them the opportunity to explore the aspects of building on a small scale, utilizing new materials.


  • Foamcore Board (1/4 " or 3/16") or pieces of Styrofoam
  • Elmer's glue
  • cutting tools (X-acto knife, Olfa blade, etc.)
  • a large piece of cardboard to cut on, or if available and within your budget, a self-healing cutting matt to protect the table and keep blades sharp
  • a straight edge, ruler, or T-square


Balance and Support-how shapes are put together so that they will be able to remain standing.
Imaginary Space-a representation of a larger space. Example: "If you were this small, how would this space feel to you?"



1. Cut foamcore board into a variety of small shapes (triangular, rectilinear, trapezoid, etc...) that range in size from 1/4" wide to 6" wide. The shapes can be long, short, thin, wide, etc. There should be a wide variety and enough shapes so that each child can use as many as they feel necessary (a range of 8-25 shapes per student). The angle of the cut should be as close to perpendicular as possible, which will allow for the edge of the shape to adhere easily when it is glued to another shape/surface.

2. Cut out a foamcore base for each student. They can be the same or different sizes. Bases that range in size from 4" x 4" to 10" x 4" work well and those sizes can be cut down with an X-acto knife if necessary.

3. Have glue ready in cups, along with glue brushes or toothpicks.

Presentation and handing out materials (5-10 minutes)

1. Motivational questions/comments to establish understanding of support and balance:
I've noticed that you have a lot of experience building with blocks. How many of you like to build with blocks? What do you need to do in order for them to stay standing? How do you know if they are balanced?

2. We are going to use these same ideas to create an imaginary play space. Even though it's small, we can imagine what it would be like if it were bigger. Ask if students can think of any toys they play with like this (Lego, Polly Pocket, doll houses) and list examples on the board.

3. Have students voice aloud what they like about certain play spaces, what they dislike, what they look for in an area to play, etc. Hold a class discussion about positive and negative opinions students have about play spaces.

4. Demonstrate how to glue the edges of the foamcore board so that the pieces can be glued to the surface of the base, and then to each other. For the most part, shapes should be glued on the edge, so that they can stand up, and not on the surface of the board. You might want to demonstrate adding a support when necessary (e.g., a t-shape), building up too tall, both off and on balance, cantilevering, etc. *Hint: Try not to use too much glue, to avoid slipping. It is also helpful to gently place the glued board to the surface, without applying a lot of pressure.

5. Pass out materials. Ask each student to choose a base and about 6-8 shapes to begin with. Remind them that they can always come back for more. Ask them not to lift their work up, as it may be fragile until the glue dries.

6. Have each student brainstorm how they would want their imaginary play space to be set up. Encourage them to use their imagination in order to visualize their play space. There should be few to no restrictions on the students’ ideas. Each student should sketch out a small plan of their play space. Each student could also describe their ideas aloud to the class. The teacher should look over each student’s idea before they begin gluing their pieces.

Work Time (30 minutes)

Clean up and Wrap-up

1. Collect unused shapes, put glue away.

2. Have students walk around the room to look at the work of their fellow students and comment on the range of strategies and ideas used to create space.


While walking around the room, notice the different approaches of the students, and note if they understand the concept of creating space. Some will easily glue the pieces onto the surface of the base, and others will apply too much pressure. In some cases, with students this age, a few might just stack up the shapes horizontally, one on top of the other, gluing surface to surface, rather than using the edges. I would note to myself if the student is creating space, or stacking and leaving it at that. There will be a range of understanding and ability, but the goal is that this assignment will be accessible to all.

Enrichment Extension Activities

The project could be extended to create plans, more detailed sketches, and models of the students' play space.

Teacher Reflection

In developing this lesson I drew upon my own experience in architecture school, beginning with early spatial explorations and later, model building. I think that this material and this approach is not often used in an Art curriculum, and that it could be easily transferred to classroom teachers in Social Studies units. Overall, the lesson was very successful. The students, with all of their experience with blocks, understood the concepts of support and balance, although some were more sophisticated in their intuitive understanding. They created imaginary spaces in many different ways, and understood the concept of using shapes to create space. The children were very excited about this work, as it presented a very different idea about what could be done in Art class. It really helped to integrate their knowledge of toys like doll houses, and their ideas of balance. There were several students who did not manipulate materials as easily and needed some help to get the pieces to stick. Usually this was a matter of using too much glue or applying to much pressure, pushing down on the shape rather than letting it touch down and rest upon the adjacent surface. In the future, I would remind students about this in the presentation. Otherwise, I would leave the lesson as is, and build upon it throughout the grades. I think that it is a great introduction, and merits a place in our curriculum that could even begin in a high school setting, if it is not integrated earlier.
  1. I love the idea of creating a play “space”! My Kindergartners, at the end of the year, are still working on seeing the way individual objects relate in a space. They love creating the objects, but have trouble seeing how they relate to other objects in the environment. A lesson like this could have been a great introduction to the concept.
    My school has lots of old wooden pattern blocks left over from generations of Math classrooms and I inherited them. We used them to model building vertically with shapes. If you could find a few bins of pattern blocks, you could use them for a shape building dry-run, to get students exploring vertical, 3-D creations instead of the layered, horizontally stacked assemblies.

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