I recently read an article about exploring wild spaces with young children. In it, the author posed the question, “What draws children to build forts, seek and create hideouts, and make out-of -the-play places to play?” Excellent question. It is true that children all over love to create their own spaces out of whatever materials are available be it snow, moss, sticks, sheets or a corner of a closet. I tried googling the question. “Children and forts”, “Why children love forts”, “Forts and kids”, etc. My searches kept bringing up results for kits to buy for parents to build forts. I’m not sure if this is true for all parent constructed forts, but it seems to me that the forts the kids love to play in the most are the ones the kids make themselves. And I don’t think this is because children don’t appreciate our expert use of tools or the colors we chose to paint it. I think it is because the joy of forts comes not only in playing in them, but largely in the process of planning, designing and building them. As a mom of 4 addicted fort builders, I’ve had lots of opportunity to observe the process. As toddlers, the forts were mostly just pillows propped up that the kids would wiggle under. As they got older, the designs became increasingly complex but the concept has always been the same. Create a space of their own using nothing but the skills and materials immediately available to them.
Research in child development tells us that building offers children a way to control their world, often cooperatively. This has certainly been my observation. Younger and elder children work together to create a final product. No hands are ever idle. Fort construction also lends to a greater understanding of science. How better to learn about levers and arches and balance than by building? How better to polish spatial skills than by working on full scale models? (Kids with strong spatial skills score much higher on standardized tests. Typically, boys do better on these tests. Why? Boys get more building time. Why? Building is seen more as a boy activity than a girl one. So get your daughters out their building!)
Leave No Trace says to leave the space as you found it. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the principles of LNT. But fort building in the woods is such a natural activity for children to engage in. I know my kids have built forts using tons of moss to chink the gaps in between sticks. I know they have piled up hundreds of rocks to make a wind break. And I couldn’t tell you how many sticks and branches they have collected to use as building materials. And I know LNT would have a complete coronary if I ever showed them pictures of their constructions. But I also know that by building all these forts, these kids are completely invested in the natural world. I know they will work to protect the land throughout their lives. Isn’t that the ultimate goal of LNT anyway?
Conclusion, let them build forts. All by themselves.