Teach Kids About Architecture

Exploring architecture with kids is a brilliant way to get them interested in engineering, art, and geography (and is a good reason to talk about skyscrapers). Here, I used animal building and nests as an introduction to architecture and then moved to critical thinking about buildings and the ADA, dwellings throughout history, sustainable architecture, kid favorites like castles and skyscrapers, architects, and even architectural design for animals. Many activities are listed below, but consider adding in unstructured playtime with various building materials: wooden blocks, Magnatiles, log cabin toys, and Legos, for instance. You can even try building with playing cards or making bricks out of kinetic sand, or you could try building a shelter out of twigs. What techniques help you make a stable building? For whom was this built, and how do you know that?

What Kids Will Do

In these explorations, kids might…

  • make a house out of cookies
  • go on a walk to identify elements in their neighborhoods made possible by the ADA
  • try to make a tall tower with just marshmallows and spaghetti
  • build a sugar cube castle
  • make ojos de Dios
  • build a tall skyscraper
  • design a home for animals
  • and more

(Designed for preschool and elementary school-aged students.)

Read On

  • The Homes We Build: A World of Houses and Habitats, Anne Jonas [Amazon | Bookshop] — This book is more thematic than If You Lived Here, so you’ll find spreads about eco-friendly houses, for example, or skyscrapers, or nomadic homes.
  • If You Lived Here: Houses of the World, Giles Laroche [Amazon | Bookshop] — Beautiful and informative book featuring all sorts of houses. Each house example has its own spread.
  • Curious Constructions: A Peculiar Portfolio of Fifty Fascinating Structures, Michael Hearst and Matt Johnstone [Amazon | Bookshop] — An eclectic book featuring some of the weirder and most amazing buildings and constructions. It has plenty of buildings but also things like rollercoasters and statues.
  • The Ultimate Book of Cities, Anne-Sophie Baumann and Didier Balicevic [Amazon | Bookshop] — An extremely detailed examination of cities, with loads of peeks into the inner workings of buildings and roads. Filled with flaps and movable elements.
  • Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building, Christy Hale [Amazon | Bookshop] — A gently paced picture book that cleverly compares the kinds of homemade buildings children often make at home with famous structures throughout the world. It’s perfect for preschoolers, but there’s also information at the back about the featured buildings, so curious kids can look them up later.
  • Iggy Peck, Architect, Andrea Beaty and David Roberts [Amazon | Bookshop] — The picture books in the Questioneers series are all enjoyable, and this one, about a boy who wants to become an architect, is a light and enjoyable way to learn about the kinds of problems architects can tackle.
  • The World Is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid, Jeanette Winter [Amazon | Bookshop] — Of the two books about Zaha Hadid here, this poetic one, with gracefully curving lines of text, is the most suited for preschool audiences and up. (There is also a Little People, Big Dreams book about Hadid, and that one, too, would work well with preschoolers.) The book features quite a few of Hadid’s buildings, and children may want to look up photographs of them later.
  • Building Zaha: The Story of Architect Zaha Hadid, Victoria Tentler-Krylov [Amazon | Bookshop] — This more detailed biography of Hadid would work best for kindergarten+.
  • Animal Architects, Libby Romero [Amazon | Bookshop] — From National Geographic, a simple guide for young children to various animals who build, like bees, ants, birds, and spiders (but curiously little information about beavers!).

Other Resources

  • TinyBop Skyscrapers app — This app lets kids customize skyscrapers, see how they’re impacted by weather, and watch sewage and water move through pipes (amongst other things).
  • Paul Farrell’s Build a Castle [Amazon | Bookshop] — From a graphic designer, extremely beautiful slot-together paper cards, with loads of interesting design elements. Build a Skyscraper [Amazon] is also wonderful.


Notes: Every day during these activities, you might ask children to pick a building that intrigues them from one of these books: If You Lived Here, The Homes We Build, or Curious Constructions (see above). This activity lets them have some control over what interests them (you might end up learning about roller coasters or treehouses), and often this reading time leads to group research (look it up!).

Animal Architects

Read: Animal Architects, Libby Romero [Amazon | Bookshop]


Watch: Why Beavers Are the Smartest Thing in Fur Pants
How Beavers Build Dams
Beaver Lodge Construction Squad
Beaver Dams and Wildfire: A Stop-Motion Demonstration
Also, check out the adventures of Beave, a beaver who was abandoned as a baby and is being rehabilitated.


Different bird species make nests in all sorts of ways:

With woven fibers:
Hummingbird nest building
Hummingbird nest highlights

By sewing:

By weaving and tying:
Weaver birds

With stones:
Gentoo penguins

With mud:
Cliff swallows

Also check out:
Big Bear Bald Eagle cam (live)


Watch: Is a Spider Web Part of Its Mind?
Time-lapse of a spider building a web
Amazing Spider Baffles Scientists With Huge Web

Activity: Make an ojo de Dios spider web
Read about the Huichol’s tradition of making the ojos de Dios and then trying crafting one (instructions included). Bamboo skewers work just fine for this craft, especially if you shorten them. Here’s a guide for a 6-pointed figure (not in English, though with a close-up of the process).

Intro to Houses

Watch: Animated History of Houses

What can we learn from examining architecture?

A good way to talk about what we can learn from looking at buildings (about what the architect and/or client believed the house was for and who would use it) is to talk about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):

Watch: How the ADA Changed the Built World

Watch: How Architecture Changes for the Deaf

Activity: Let’s look at buildings and talk about what the architects and clients believed people needed
You can use the animated history of houses, above, to discuss each type of house (who lived there? what do you think they needed? could everyone use this house?), and you can also discuss where you live or your school.

Activity: ADA walk
Either the next time you’re all out or on a walk specifically for this purpose, try to notice where the ADA has impacted the sidewalks, streets, and buildings. Are there curb cuts? Ramps? Elevators? Sidewalk bumps? Are doorways wide or narrow? Are there buttons to opens doors automatically? You might ask children if they’ve ever found these features useful, and you might note where there are accessibility barriers (does a sidewalk suddenly end, without a curb cut?).


Read: How a House Is Built, Gail Gibbons [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: Time lapse of home constructed start to finish
Activity: Design a paper house
Using a square piece of paper, fold a house. Video instructions here and step-by-step photo instructions here. Kids can design the front and even fold open the back to add interior rooms and furniture.

Watch: Complete process of building an A-frame hut
Constructing pottery and a stove for cooking
This account, Primitive Technology, has many, many instructive videos that many children will love browsing through.

Watch: Building a Wigwam (Time Lapse)

Watch: An 18th-century log hut built without nails
Activity: Build a house with a log cabin construction toy
Log cabin construction toys mimic the construction technique in the video above and present some interesting design challenges for children. There are several varieties, such as this one, some more expensive than others.

Structures Built for Nomadic Lifestyles

Watch: House of Clay: Women Builders of the Namibian Himba Tribe (contains some nudity)
For several minutes, and then you can skip forward to the process of covering the structure.

Watch: Horse Drawn Traveller in Britain

Watch: Warmest Tent on Earth: Pitching in the Siberian Arctic Winter

Activity: Marshmallow and spaghetti structures
A truly great engineering task, despite how simple it seems. You might be tempted to use something other than spaghetti, say, but don’t! The spaghetti is the perfect material for this (slightly fragile, slightly strong, and very easy to customize by breaking if you want shorter lengths). Wonderful demonstration video here and printed instructions here.


Watch: How to Build the Perfect Castle
Activity: Build a sugar cube castle
Although you might be tempted to use icing as the glue here, regular white school glue is best. To build the front and sides of a castle, two 1 lb. boxes of sugar cubes will do. If you want to do something more complex, you might need 4-5 boxes.

Cities and Skyscrapers

Read: The Ultimate Book of Cities, Anne-Sophie Baumann and Didier Balicevic [Amazon | Bookshop]
Read: Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building, Christy Hale [Amazon | Bookshop]

Watch: 30-Story Building Built in 15 Days (Time Lapse)

Activity: TinyBop Skyscrapers
A gently paced app that allows kids to discover different elements of skyscrapers. Consider playing alongside younger children especially, as careful observation and experimentation often help to reveal all of the features.

Watch: Burj Khalifa – Tour and View from the 148th floor 
The Physics Behind The Burj Khalifa And Why It Doesn’t Fall Over 
How The Burj Khalifa Is Dubai’s Lighting Rod
Richard Faces His Fear Of Heights To Clean The 828 Metre Tall Burj Khalifa

Activity: Magnatiles skyscraper
Using Magnatiles or whatever blocks you have handy, try to build the tallest skyscraper (and measure it when you finish).

Sustainable and Greener Architecture

Cheap and accessible materials

Look and watch: Shigeru Ban’s Christchurch Transitional Cathedral, “The Cardboard Cathedral”
Information about the cathedral here and a time lapse here.
Look: Take a virtual tour of the cathedral.
For more information, go here.

Local and natural materials

Watch: How Sustainability Is Bringing Architecture Back Down to Earth (about architect Kengo Kuma)
Sustainable SuperAdobe Homes Built with Sandbags


Watch: Plastic Bottle Village (Panama)
Look: Slideshow of the plastic bottle castle

Buildings that incorporate greenery

Watch: Green Architecture Saving the World

Buildings that preserve

Watch: Exploring the Arctic’s Global Seed Vault

Unusual Structures

Watch: James May’s Toy Stories episode on the Lego House (season 1, episode 6)
(To skip to the house tour, go to 38:00)

Read: “Nautilus House,” Curious Constructions 64
Watch: Nautilus House (Mexico)

Read: “Krzywy Domek,” Curious Constructions 48
Look: Krzywy Domek (Poland)

Activity: Cookie architecture (adapted from Okido magazine)
Using a selection of cookies of various sizes and weights, try building a house. Who lives there? How does the house meet their needs? I found that these cookie combinations provided a lot of construction options: sugar wafers, graham crackers, Pirouettes (or another tube-like cookie), Verona biscuits (cookies with jam in the middle), and Kedem tea biscuits (lightweight rectangular biscuits). Candy melts are probably preferable to chocolate for the glue.


Read: Iggy Peck, Architect, Andrea Beaty and David Roberts [Amazon | Bookshop]

Zaha Hadid

Read: The World Is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid, Jeanette Winter [Amazon | Bookshop]
Building Zaha: The Story of Architect Zaha Hadid, Victoria Tentler-Krylov [Amazon | Bookshop]
After reading the above books, children might be intrigued to see real photographs of Hadid’s buildings. You can take a virtual tour of some her buildings here and many more large images here.

Look: Virtual tour for the Architecture for Dogs exhibition at Japan House in London
As you click around this exhibition, you can select the informational text under each piece, and often that leads to a video that demonstrates how the dogs use these structures. Children might be inspired to build something for a pet after touring this!

Activity: Design a home for an animal
Kids can do this activity simply by drawing, or they could make a structure out of play dough or boxes and recycling materials. Encourage them to take into consideration where their animal client lives, how it moves, and how it might protect itself with its home.

Read On, Grown-Ups

  • What Can A Body Do?: How We Meet the Built World, Sara Hendren [Amazon | Bookshop] — Hendren’s book considers design for disability, in small contexts (inexpensive and even homemade devices or solutions) and large ones (city planning), but the book is also an exercise in social imagination: what could the world become if we think “of things as if they could be otherwise” and rebuild? The book is filled with wonderful details, like the DeafSpace designs at Gallaudet University. And while it might seem like niche reading for designers only, it’s written for a wide audience — most of us, after all, will experience disability at some point in our lives — and has so many useful, beautiful thoughts about the value of slowness under/despite capitalism, social justice, and the human body.

This site uses affiliate links. I might earn a small commission if you click through on these links to buy a book. I only recommend books I have used and love.

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