When Whitney Jenkins’ oldest child, Parker, was just 2, the father and son created their first fort. While the structure may have been little more than blankets and pillows, the sign outside of it announced “Camp P+W” – for Parker and Whitney.
“That’s still one of my favorite pictures,” recalls the Sterling Heights father of four.
Forts may seem little more than a mess that you’ll likely have to clean up later. But for kids, these playhouses become a magical world where they can invent games and use their imaginations to become princesses and knights, zoo animals, monsters, cowboys and just about anything else they can envision. Enjoying this kind of unstructured play has its benefits, and if you’d like some tips on making the most out of unstructured play, check out our interview Dave Byrum of Kids Gotta Play.
A case for forts
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And don’t think this is time wasted. Child development researchers have long lauded the importance of imaginative play in kids’ emotional progression and wellbeing. Among other attributes, pretend play can help children learn to sympathize with others by giving them a chance to see the world from a different perspective.
But just because there is a real, potential developmental boost behind building forts with your child, don’t let that stop you from the more compelling reason to grab a stack of pillows – it’s fun!
One word to the wise to moms and dads: For this activity, you may need to take a few tips from your child and follow her lead to create the “perfect” fort.
Location, location, location
Admittedly, the best place to build a fort would be somewhere out of the way, like in the basement or in your child’s room. But what would be the fun in that?
Jenkins remembers putting together a fort that took up an entire room. Along with his kids, they gathered “all of the couch cushions, pillows, chairs and blankets in the house.” But they didn’t stop there – they added a few small camping tents into the mix. Jenkins even noticed his kids somehow found their dad’s free weights and added them as supports for the fort’s wobbly foundations. For large forts that mom and dad are willing to help engineer, you might agree to sacrifice the family room for a day or two.
For forts that can stay up for weeks at a time, encourage your kids to choose a corner of their room or a side of the basement. I was able to convince my kids to pass up the family room in favor of the basement when I offered them supplies readily available next to the proposed fort locale. At one point, our basement boasted at least 10 small pillows and a couple of large ones. I stocked a few sheets and fleece blankets to add to the mix, too.
Forts wouldn’t be very appealing if they were always constructed of the expected pillows and baby blankets. For safety’s sake, I’ve outlawed metal chairs and two-by-fours for fort building (and other no-nos my kids somehow discovered lurking in our storage closet).
Costco has become our major fort supplier. Whenever I go, I grab a few extra-large boxes. After I cart in the groceries, I let the kids run off to their fort-building center – i.e., the basement – with the materials. Boxes are their favorite, because they can tear them and draw on them to create unique fort designs. And when kids are done enjoying their playhouse, they can rip apart the boxes even more to fashion homes for their small figurines and toys.
Other easy fort additions include laundry baskets, plastic tables and chairs. And for those with advanced engineering skills, we’ve found a yoga ball or two make for an interesting side room!
Fantastic family forts
Your kids may spend hours playing in their forts, but make sure you take the time to join them. Whether for a few minutes helping to fix a saggy spot, or for an afternoon playing pretend, your kids will relish the chance to clown around with mom and dad.
Jenkins has been known to grab his laptop and watch a movie with his children in their fort. He waxes philosophical when he talks about his kids’ extensive fort-building time.
“It’s a great way for kids to express their creativity, and it’s amazing to see what they engineer,” says Jenkins. “They never build the same fort twice; it’s always different. For (me and my wife), it’s better than Wii.”
This story was originally published in 2012 and has been updated for 2016.