Why Kids Build Forts
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?
You were probably having too much fun to know how much good it was doing you.
Creating secret forts, dens, hideouts, and playhouses isn’t just any random kind of play. It’s a universal drive that’s rooted in kids’ healthy development, says educator David Sobel of Antioch University New England—the man who’s studied this behavior more than anyone.
Children all over the world organize these “special places.” He’s found them in woods, canyons, deserts, riverbanks, hedges, snowfields, crawl spaces, and yes, suburban backyards and basements—all private little worlds-within-the-world.
“It used to just happen, and the best thing to do was mostly stay out of the way,” he told me. “Now the impulse is still there in kids, but opportunities to act on that impulse have diminished some.” Kids play outside less, and they’re online more, says Sobel, who’s the author of Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood. Younger ones are less likely to copy fort-building alongside bigger kids—an important way all kinds of play (hide-and-seek, freeze tag) get passed from generation to generation.
Why forts are so great…
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.”
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