Has your kid ever built a fort out of sofa cushions and blankets? Or made a secret den from branches and bushes? A snow fort? Maybe you used to do it too. Remember how great it felt to make up your own rules and have your own secret space?
Paula Spencer Scott spoke with an expert on this very topic who says that fort-building is “a universal drive that’s rooted in kids’ healthy development.” It is also an endangered activity among the more sedentary youth of today:
The itch to create your own special spaces, Sobel says, starts around ages 5 or 6 (“around when they stop believing in Santa Claus”) and ends by 12 or 13 (“when they start looking in the mirror”).
At first, the play is mostly inside—making pillow fortresses, say, or walled off corners built with blocks. Around age 9, kids begin to want to branch out farther from parents’ view. A clubhouse in the bushes out back? Just the thing!
Developmentally, two big things are happening during these middle-childhood years to drive this play:
1) They’re figuring out their nearby world. Kids want to learn how all the pieces in their life fit together—the landscapes, roads, neighborhood, home…and their place in it. “They want to piece it all together, like a puzzle,” Sobel says.
2) They’re becoming more independent. Kids are also starting to create a separate self from the one defined by their family and their parents. They crave their own separate place in the world.
“The special place outside serves to symbolize the special place inside,” Sobel says. “It’s their own private chrysalis.”
There are other developmental benefits to fort-building:
- Maturity, independence, and confidence
- Cognitive skills, like problem solving, planning, and imagination running wild
- Social skills, like cooperating and negotiating
- Practical skills; it’s like construction 101
- Lots of exercise, from all that building and play
- A love of the outdoors, and learning about the natural world
- Stress-release: A fort is, literally and figuratively, a defense against all the forces of the outside world (and a primo place to daydream).
Read Paula Spencer Scott’s ideas for how parents can nudge their kids to get started building forts here.
(Back pat: John Duffy)