In the home this may be no more than a barrier constructed from nearby furniture or a clothes horse covered with fabric. Some parents buy tent-like constructions, completely enclosed and having a roof. These are very limiting, dark, claustrophobic and in at least one extreme case proved fatally dangerous.
In the nursery group thehouse is a permanent part of the activities offered even if everything has to be cleared away at the end of the session. It is necessary, therefore, to plan a rather more robust and stable method of delineating the ‘home’ area. Ten years ago there were relatively few al suppliers, offering only a limited number and type of screen. Today there are many types of varying quality and cost to choose from. It is still cheaper to make screens and often it is necessary to make them fit a particular space or, more important, to fit into available storage space. The tremendous rise in the cost of wood and other materials means that only truly competent woodworkers will embark on such a project. They probably need no advice on how to design and make a stable screen which will be safe and stand up to inevitable wear and tear. It might be more useful, therefore, to suggest basic rules and principles rather than possible designs. The following ideas arise from a decade of trial and error, watching and wondering, and discussion with other people doing the same thing.
In the early days ofgroups many had to operate in vast church halls. In order to break down the space visually and to cut down some of the noise it was usual to use screens tall enough to block a child’s view but just low enough for an adult to see over – about four and a half feet high. In fact many screens were used, not just those for the play house. In similar premises it may still be necessary to do this but in groups which have smaller halls or rooms even adults can get an impression of being in a maze if there are too many, too high barriers. Certainly it is useful to delineate specific areas but a much lower barrier could be used or even a large carpet would serve the same purpose. Another reason for considering the height of screens carefully is the behaviour of the younger children in a group. The three-year- old spends a great deal of his time watching. He will not go into an enclosed space because by doing so he is committing himself to being part of the group and the activity in there without knowing what it is. If there can be a barrier over which he can see and observe the activity he gains a great deal just from watching. He may even go inside if he feels he can get out easily.
For the play house it is useful to have one low side or a large window space even if the remainder of the sides are high enough to give the occupants the necessary feeling of privacy. The height of the average three-year-old varies but a barrier one and a half to two feet high should be about right. If this barrier is a low chest or storage unit it could well be a useful part of the activity. Castors fitted to the bottom will make for easy removal to the storage area or when, as sometimes happens, a larger group of children want to play there this ‘barrier’ can be moved out to give them the extra space they need. The drawers or shelves would be invaluable for storing dolls, dolls’ beds and clothes, bedding, cutlery, crockery, pans and the necessary supply of towels and tea towels. In fact this same chest could be converted to a high screen by adding a robust but light frame to the back of it which will carry a lightweight curtain. This can be either fixed firmly or simply slotted into strong brackets fitted to the two sides .
Instead of having a play-house screen perhaps the back of a bookshelf or other dual-purpose units could be used. This then leaves the problem of the door. A door is very desirable but there are very few either commercial or home-designed screens which have successfully included one. Reports of trapped fingers, jammed catches, coming off at the hinges, being too heavy for the rest of the construction are commonplace. There are one or two firms which have given a lot of attention to these details but there can be no doubt that if any part of a screen is going to get heavy wear or be maltreated this is where it happens. Unless a really strong, safe door can be provided it might be better to make do with a curtained or plastic strip-screened opening and a knocker attached near to the door space on the main screen. A letter box, which is also an attractive feature, could equally well be incorporated into the main screen.
Improvisation of screens is less common now there is more money available to most groups. The ring of adult-sized chairs covered with a bedspread stitched to form pockets to fit o^er the chair backs may still be a useful idea for a group in temporary difficulties. Cheap screens can still be made quickly and easily from hardboard strengthened with a batten frame and where necessary (that is, any width of hardboard more than four feet) with extra batten pieces placed parallel to the frame. Some kind of movable arm is necessary to hold two sections of screen firmly at right angles when it is in use.