Why building a fort can keep your child happy and calm during lockdown

Kid's play in their fort. (Photo: Getty Images)
Kid's play in their fort. (Photo: Getty Images)

WE HAD lists – lots of lists. 

There was the 30-Day Lego Challenge list, the garden scavenger hunt list, the Easter egg hunt clue list, the DIY project list, the reading list, the sneakily educational YouTube channel list… the list (of lists) went on, and on. 

We made our way through most of them, but as the first term school holidays dragged into the lockdown, the extended lockdown and into cabin fever, our eight-year-old’s outdoor activities suddenly became more elaborate. 

In the last of the mild, sunny autumn days, a picnic blanket would be dragged into the garden and Alyssa would settle there for most of the day, reading, watching Netflix or YouTube and playing with the neighbour’s cats.

Then out went dining room chairs, comforters, her duvet and a curtain wrestled out of her cupboard. The washing line was stripped of clothes pegs and construction began on an elaborate project in the driveway. 

I say elaborate because it had a reading nook, a gaming centre, an invention corner, an art corner and a Lego building section.

“Welcome to my castle,” she declared proudly, and invited us for a tour, as she explained the building process, and the correct ratio of pegs to blanket.

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So maybe the iPad wasn’t the best resting place for a hammer and a plank with dozens of nails poking through it. And there were a few too many Lego pieces and bits of stationery ready to disappear into the garden.

But still. It worked for her.

Her teddy bears and other stuffed animals were invited to the castle too, and a camping chair and table were set up outside it. She ate in there, played in there, shot TikTok videos and made video calls to friends and family. 

Turns out she’s not the only one. All around the world kids have been cooped up for weeks and months, and fort-building is one way for them to create a safe, comforting haven for themselves as the world around them feels increasingly out of control.

A safe space

A quick search online uncovered a series of fort-building manuals, posted online recently by Ikea Russia, which offered instructions for six different kinds of blanket forts: house, castle, tent, cave, fort and wigwam. All made using household objects.

Our daughter’s driveway castle was pretty close to the Russian castle guide, despite being constructed weeks before we came across theirs. 

That’s because forts are universal, according to psychologist David Sobel, author of  Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood.

Sobel has been researching children’s forts around the world since the 1970s.

“From ages seven to 11, it is the child’s chance to create a home away from home that is secret, and becomes a manifestation of who they are.”

All forts share common traits, he says. “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.”

Kids fort
Dubbed “the cave”, this sleeping fort does double duty as the dining room table during daylight hours. (Photo: Supplied)

Build it anywhere

As the days became cooler, and rainier, the castle was disassembled, and in its place, a fort was built in Alyssa’s bedroom. 

It was similar to her castle, but required fewer chairs, as the “roof” was attached to a chest of drawers and a chair pushed up against her bed was declared “the relaxinator”.

The key difference though, was that because it was in her bedroom, she insisted on sleeping in it, despite my protests that the hard floor was roughly a thousand times less comfortable than her perfectly good bed.

Her bed was stripped and carefully made up on the floor. A menagerie of stuffed animals joined her, along with her alarm clock and nightlight, and she actually slept there. For a bit. 

There were frequent trips to our bedroom as she debated the merits of #FloorVsBed, and eventually settled back into her bed. 

Let them grow

Children usually start constructing indoor forts from around age four, and when they’re a bit older, they do the same outside, often continuing into their tweens.

The activity promotes creativity, as well as mirroring their growth “as individuals,” writes Sobel, “and they create a home away from home, free from parental control”. 

In this strange and stressful time play and fort-building help children make sense of the world, especially in lockdown, “when all our needs are amplified,” child psychologist Emily King told the Washington Post.

“Everything is different,” King says. “They’re facing uncertainty with not knowing how long we’re going to be doing this.

“They’re feeling what we’re all feeling – great loss.”

Give them comfort

The cave was the third addition to our house. A combination of Ikea’s House and Cave options, it saw the dining room table draped in My Little Pony blankets, with small dumbbells and books keeping them in place.

Yoga mats were laid on the floor underneath the table, and covered with bedding from the Castle, which was left in ruins in her bedroom. 

The cave (aka The Sleeping Fort) did not have a relaxinator, or invention or play areas. It was simply designed to be a dark, quiet and private place to stretch out and nap (or so she claimed), read or to watch high-pitched YouTubers screech incessantly at each other.

The comfort and solitude of forts can help children reset their stressed bodies and brains, says Carol Stock Kranowitz, author of The Out-of-Sync-Child, and an enclosed, dark space with buffered sound can help them regulate their emotions.

This can also be therapeutic for children on the autism spectrum, or those who have attention-deficit and sensory processing disorders or anxiety.

“It’s a primal need,” says Kranowitz, explaining that in this pandemic, our minds and bodies are on high alert. “And we’re wired to defend ourselves,” which can feel even more intense for children with sensory issues.

Kid's fort
Kid's playing in their fort at home. (Photo: Getty Images)

Let them do it their way

Fort building is also a way to bond with your kids, but it has to be on their terms, the experts say. 

Swedish architect Maria Kylin, who has researched forts from an urban planner’s perspective, says the way children and adults perceive their physical environment are very different.

“Adults have a visual aesthetic. They want a space to be functional, beautiful and, generally, clean, that to a child's eye is barren. Kids don’t experience a space primarily through visuals. They are interested in what they can do in it. They like bushes. They like hidden corners.”

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Parents can help build it, or come into it if they’re invited, psychologist Emily King says.

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

Too much fort time, could be cause for concern, King adds, particularly if a child withdraws for long periods. That’s a sign, she said, that they need connection, not more alone time.

For us, lockdown continues, along with Zoom classes, exams on Google Classroom, and no clear idea when, or if, anything resembling our old normality will be back.

There really is no better time to work on our fort-building. 

Additional sources: washingtonpost.com, cnn.com, guardian.com