The little heritage building beside the river in Whitehorse might be sardine-packed with kids if the sign out front said Free Fun Centre instead of Family Literacy Centre.

The centre has activities scheduled from noon to 5:30 p.m. every day — free activities to make cool stuff. Last Monday participants could made cultural crafts such as beadwork bracelets. On Tuesday they made drawings using little pieces of felt. On Wednesday they created art used pieces of white fabric and natural dyes made from beets and curry. Thursday was make-a-board-game day. And every Friday is olde tyme photo booth day — photos are printed in sepia tone for the suggested donation of $1.

“We have a room full of costumes from the Frantic Follies and The Guild — they graciously loaned them to us for the summer,” says Khristiane Woods.

Woods is one of five family literacy coordinators who welcome and support guests at the centre. She has a master’s degree in education and Montessori training, and like the other facilitators, she is serious about learning.

But the vibe at their space in the Pioneer Hotel is relaxed and ready for spontaneous fun.

The idea is that literacy is not just knowing how to read. It’s about understanding the world around you and engaging with it.

“If you have previous knowledge of what a natural dye is, and then you read a historical story about natural dyes and they’re cooking up beets, then all of that falls into place for you,” Woods says.

The centre also uses the theory that tactile activities that enable kids to try out ideas and engage with people of all ages helps them learn about the world.

Woods calls it myelinating. And she loves to see the connections being made.

“It’s a worldview, a schema, that learning is something that kids want, and (that teaching is) not just discipline.”

Five-year-old Margaret Ross spends the afternoon moving from colouring, to making a natural dye flag, to reading, to having a snack, and back. She has been coming to the Family Literacy Centre since she was two years old. Her grandmother, Barb Carty, says the centre has had a big impact on Margaret’s socialization and self-confidence.

“It’s been a godsend,” Carty says. “Every child is brilliant, but some are brilliant and difficult – and she’s brilliant and difficult.”

Margaret already knew how to read when she first came but Woods and the other facilitators helped Margaret expand past her fixations to become more involved with people.

“Literacy is so much more than just reading,” Carty says. “It’s understanding context, and if you don’t get the social interaction, you don’t get what you’re reading.”

Margaret says one of her favourite activities is reading out on the lawn.

The centre hosts Literacy on the Lawn Monday through to Saturday over noon-hour lunch. This activity generally attracts two to seven kids.

It only takes two hands to count up to seven — would there be more if more parents knew what a tickle trunk of activities this place is?

And everyone at any age is welcome.

Vancouver flight attendant Harinderjit Kang spent a creative afternoon at the centre last week. On a stopover, she wandered down to the park and saw the sign inviting people to make art with natural dyes.

“I thought, ‘Wow, there’s a place like this and anyone can come in and be creative and express themselves?'” Kang says. “It’s awesome that it’s here — and in such a beautiful location. And I felt so welcomed right away… I just felt at home.”

Through the summer the Family Literacy Centre is located in the Pioneer Hotel in Shipyards Park. The centre is open Monday to Saturday from noon to 5:30 p.m., with hours extended to 8 p.m. on Thursdays.

The centre re-opens in the Canada Games Centre during the winter. For more information look for “Yukon Family Literacy Centre” on Facebook.