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Why kids love building forts – and why experts say they might need them more than ever

UPDATED: Sun., May 24, 2020

Hanging out in a fort can give a child a sense of security. (Shutterstock)
Hanging out in a fort can give a child a sense of security. (Shutterstock)
By Susan C. Margolin Special to the Washington Post

My friend texts a photo from her living room – a mound of yellow- and green-fringed blankets draped over a chair framed by a wall of couch pillows. “I need to go find a dark hole to climb into,” she writes. “Like this.”

It is her son’s fort, which he built on the first day of remote learning. It is now his reading nook when he ditches online classes. He sleeps there, too.

Being cooped up inside is difficult. So in our living rooms, bedrooms and basements, kids are turning to fort-building to create safe havens as the COVID-19 world feels out of their control.

In Farmington, Michigan, 9-year-old Malia Mitchell has not left her two-bedroom apartment for weeks except for family drives. She understands why but also worries about her grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ health.

So Malia built a fort behind the couch she calls “my little apartment” stocked with snacks, stuffed animals, blankets and an iPad charger. It is her go-to-place to FaceTime friends, relax away from her parents and baby sister, eat and sleep.

“It takes up the living room, but I’m leaving it there,” says her mother, Kenita Ware. “We don’t have a large space, but I feel like she needs her own little place – maybe just to process what’s going on or to be alone.”

Forts have always been a part of childhood, says David Sobel, professor emeritus at Antioch University’s education department and author of “Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood.”

Sobel researched the developmental function forts play in children’s lives across cultures. They are universal, he says, driven by “biological genetic disposition” as children develop a “sense of self” separate from parents.

Kids begin to build forts indoors around age 4, Sobel found, then start venturing outside around 6 or 7 to construct dens, treehouses and other fortlike structures more independently, a practice that continues into their tweens.

Metaphorically and physically, building forts reflects children’s growth as individuals, Sobel says – they create a “home away from home,” free from parental control. Forts also foster creativity. “A lot of magic happens inside,” he adds.

All forts, according to Sobel, share common traits: They are handmade, somewhat secretive and “You can look out but others can’t see in.” They are safe – physically and emotionally. “It’s your place where you want to be just you, observing but unseen,” he says.

Inside, forts are kids’ private, secure worlds. “I feel like you’re in a safe place, your own bubble of coziness,” says 11-year-old Grayson Drewry, of Port Townsend, Washington. “There are no other things affecting you – you’re blocked out from the world.

“Everything is wrong right now, but it’s a safe space where no one worries about you,” she adds. “If you locked yourself in your room, people would worry, but if you hide in your fort all day, no worries.”

Grayson’s mother, Tiffany Drewry, agrees, saying an assigned school fort-building competition lifted Grayson’s spirits. Drewry says remote learning has been taxing for Grayson.

For the school competition, Grayson transformed her room into a pastel-pink tent constructed with sheets and pillows propped up by a mop. She decorated it with photos, created a welcome video and spent most of her day inside. “I needed that!” Grayson told her mom.

Children have more time to be creative right now, says Sobel. Their developing brains crave a break from computers (even if they protest). Forts also encourage play, which is beneficial for kids, especially now. But are quarantine forts any different from the archetypal rainy-day or weekend forts?

“It’s the same but intensified,” says Emily King, a child psychologist in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Kids make sense of the world through play. In quarantine, all our needs are amplified.” Fort-building can help kids process this unnerving new reality on their own terms – through imagination and, most importantly, control.

“Everything is different,” King says. “They’re facing uncertainty – not knowing how long we’re going to be doing this.” With so much disruption, “They’re feeling what we’re all feeling – great loss.”

Forts also can help kids regulate their bodies and emotions. Being in an enclosed, dark space with buffered sound and tactile sensations can be especially therapeutic for children on the autism spectrum or those who have attention-deficit and sensory processing disorders or anxiety.

Forts help children reset their stressed bodies and brains, says Carol Stock Kranowitz, educator and author of “The Out-of-Sync-Child.” The darkness inside a fort eliminates the stimulus they do not need and intensifies what they do need – physical comfort and solitude.

In the COVID-19 world, our nervous systems are on high alert. We are wired to defend ourselves from environmental threats – which feel more acute for kids with sensory issues. Our brains react with “self-therapy” for protection, Kranowitz says. Self-therapy also can be soothing and fun, such as with forts. “It’s primal,” she says.

Can a child spend too much time in forts? King advises parents to monitor fort time as a “symptom thermometer” for clues about a how a child is coping with quarantine. For example, if a child withdraws for long periods, they need connection, not more alone time.

King, Sobel and Kranowitz agree that forts can nourish parent-child connections under one condition: Children must be in charge. Parents can help build or enter, but only if invited.

“Don’t mess with their fort,” King says. Do not take over, alter or dismantle it. If the fort is tolerable, she adds, “Let them go to town on making it feel safe and comfortable. It’s theirs.”

If a child asks for help, “Enter whatever world they create,” Sobel says.

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