Cort Ruddy questions why constructing forts has endured as such a universal rite of childhood
Four walls made of pillows, or cardboard, or plywood, or snow; a roof of blankets, or branches, or open to the clouds; a secret entrance. There’s something about a fort that brings joy to every child.
In recent days, I found myself at home on a Friday night with just the boy. My wife and his older sisters were headed to the local high school drama club’s production of Alice in Wonderland, and my three year old was deemed too young to attend. Thank goodness.
The second the door of the house swung shut—before my wife even put the van in reverse—he was asking to watch a show.
“Can we watch Chuggington?”
For those without a male toddler at home, Chuggington is a hipper version of Thomas the Tank Engine. Wikipedia describes it as an animated show that “follows the adventures of six young novice railway anthropomorphic locomotives.” While it sounds riveting, I had little interest in spending a boys’ night at home watching talking trains—adventurous ones or otherwise.
As I thought what else we could watch, I went to the corner of our living room where the computer desk settles up against the built-in window bench to grab a couple of couch blankets from the blanket basket. The boy saw me lift and open a blanket, and an idea was born.
“Dad, can we make a fort?” He asked.
Like any dad worth their salt, I’m something of a master fort builder. I should be, anyway, I’ve been studying the craft since I was about eight years old myself. That’s … well, a lot of years, and a lot of forts. Tree forts, snow forts, indoor blanket forts. I was so into fort-building when I was twelve that I wanted to be an architect—long before George Costanza made wanting to be an architect cool. It was a dream given up when math got in the way, but I never stopped building.
As a dad, I make mostly temporary indoor forts. But we have a tree fort, of sorts, connected to the swing set. And each winter I always make a snow fort. My five-year-old and seven-year-old daughters have been known to spend whole days out in the bitter cold, between their walls of snow, just pretending. We’ve had our share of frozen tea parties.
This latest fort was far easier than most. All the boy and I had to do was move the basket from the nook between the window seat and the computer desk, drape a few blankets over it, put a chair at the entrance with another blanket to connect to the roof, and, viola, instantly happy child.
There’s just something about a fort that captivates a kid’s mind, lightens their heart, and unleashes their imagination. I’ve seen a fort brighten the darkest room, tame the scariest woods, or bring warmth to the coldest day. As I sat watching my boy revel in his new abode, I wondered why forts held such power for young children? Is it the feeling of ownership? The sense of security? The isolation?
Is it some primal reaction, rooted in our days as cave dwellers? Do forts make kids and the rest of us feel safe, separate from the danger of the world? Or is it the same instinct that drives us to seek our own apartment, or own our own home, or build a cottage, or to live in a cabin in the woods? Or maybe there is some deep psychological underpinnings, like a fort subconsciously reminds the child of the womb, the last dark, warm place where they felt fully secure. Or maybe a few couch cushions turned on their side with a blanket over the top just satisfies enough of Pavlov’s hierarchy to bring a kid to a higher level of contentment.
My son played in his corner fort the entire evening. By the next morning, he and two of his sisters had created a club associated with the collection of chairs and blankets, while their oldest sister slept in. The three of them made signs that read, “Welcome to the Hotdog Club,” and “Only Seven and Under Allowed.”
They didn’t ask to watch a show once. And when their ten-year-old sister awoke and joined the fun, the one sign mysteriously changed to read, “Only Ten and Under Allowed.” I was waiting for my wife to join the club and put up a sign that read, “No One Over 39 Allowed.”
Maybe it’s not as simple as isolation. Maybe forts can also create a way for kids to work together, to bond with each other, inspiring secret passwords, and handshakes, and rituals. It seems to hold true for adults, too. What would the Dead Poets’ Society have been without a cave to call their own, after all? Just a bunch of squirrelly guys at a prep school, that’s what. They needed a place to become something. Just like the Hotdog Club, with a slightly more creative name.
With access to so many kids who had a new fort, I decided to stop wondering about why forts cause joy in kids and start asking—for science, of course.
Their answers touched on all the things I guessed at. The seven year old said she liked “the quiet” most. Not surprising, knowing her. Her ten-year-old sister’s reply went a little deeper.
“I kind of feel like I’m separated from the rest of the world. Almost. And I like it,” she said. She described it as a cave—without prompting—and a “little secure area.”
When asked why she liked feeling separated from the world, her response made me think of that cabin in the woods.
“It’s kind of nice to get away from all the more stressful stuff,” she said. “There’s a lot of stuff we have to remember. We have to remember to do our homework, to get dressed, to go to bed. There’s a lot of stuff.”
Just wait, kid.
One surprising thing about forts they all touched on came to light most in my five year old’s response.
“It’s fun because it’s dark,” she said, clearly referring to indoor blanket forts, in particular.
Reminded that darkness often made her scared, she replied, “It’s not dark like at night time. If it’s too dark, you can make it less dark.”
Maybe that’s it. Maybe the answer is in the control. Not control of others, but control of their little world. We often forget that kids have almost no control over their lives; we decide where they go, what they do, what they eat, when they sleep—at least when they are supposed to sleep. Maybe, when that fort becomes four walls, that world is suddenly theirs to control, to decide, to pretend, and to do whatever it is they want.
When I asked my three-year-old boy why he liked forts, he gave the answer I was looking for all along.
“Because. Forts are fun,” he said.
There’s no doubt, for a kid, to have a fort is to be a master of a corner of the world, away from the danger, and the uncertainty, and the chores. And, there’s also no debating it, forts are fun.
Now, who wants to build a fort?