Meet the world’s leading expert on why kids build forts. What he’s learned is both fascinating and inspiring.

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.

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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.

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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.”

Oh, yeah, it’s really fun too…

 Along with satisfying these strong developmental needs, kids get plenty of other fort-building benefits:

  • 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).

Fort support—what we can do:

Just like you did once, your kid might grab a few sticks—or whatever is handy—and start building. If not, there are easy ways to kickstart things.

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Introduce fort play early. Blanket-forts—as simple as throwing a blanket over a table to create a cozy cave—are an early form of fort play that even preschoolers love. “It starts indoors and then moves outside, and then further and further out,” as kids grow, Sobel told me.

stick-lets-sqSupply materials. Anything can spark a kid’s imagination, from duct tape and cardboard boxes to cast-off construction materials. Or start a building project together. A cool tool for outdoor builders: Stick-lets are plastic devices that join sticks together. Designer Christina Kazakia was inspired to create them when, as a Rhode Island School of Design student, she heard her friends reminisce about how much fun they had building forts.

Make sure they have some room to explore. “Kids need access to the natural world; it’s part of the process,” Sobel says. “And for that, parents need to tolerate a little bit of free-range freedom.”

Consider more formalized fort play too. Classic summer camps, with lots of free play in the woods, are another way to keep the fort-impulse going. Some camps even build their curriculum around fort-building. Sobel points to European summer camp programs where kids construct whole villages that they live in. (“A bit like Burning Man,” he notes.) Increasingly, independent schools are encouraging fort-building in their play spaces because they see its value, says Sobel, who’s also written a book called Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens.

Private! Keep out!

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I don’t know about you, but after hearing from Sobel that fort-building is a bona-fide thing, I couldn’t stop reminiscing: About the “house” my sister and I made by the lake every summer. About the stick forts my daughter and her friends set up just beyond the school playground. So many adventures! Out of virtually nothing!

As moms and dads, we just barely need to nudge ’em…and turn ’em loose. They know what to do next.

Photos from top: fort egwards/Flickr, Build a little tree fort in your yard/Flickr, Fort Builder/Flickr, Stick-lets, Cousins Fort/Flickr

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