Being cooped up inside is hard. 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, Mich., 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 that 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,” her mother, Kenita Ware, says. “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 age 6 or 7 to construct dens, treehouses and other fort-like 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, Wash. “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 that an assigned school fort-building competition lifted Grayson’s spirits. Drewry says remote learning has been taxing for Grayson, whom she says is “differently wired” and learns best through doing, especially touch. Grayson has always sought comfort in “nests” and forts — often when stressed. 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, N.C. “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.”
Without familiar routines, children need to feel in control of something, she adds. “Whatever kids create in their imaginative world feels safe and predictable to them. It’s like ‘Every time I go into this fort, it will be just like I left it.’ ”
Forts can also 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 — such as 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 can also be soothing and fun, such as with forts. “It’s primal,” she says.
Kranowitz adds that everyone can relate to the impulse to build forts. “It’s all about safety and control. We seek out comfort. We need to restore order. And in covid, we’re doing more of these things.” A person who likes chocolate may eat a little more. A walker may go further, longer. A child who builds forts constructs more elaborate ones. And maybe moves in for a while.
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.
Six-year-old Nacelle Bumford of Forest Hill, Md., alternates among several forts in quarantine — including a tent she calls her “office,” perched on the couch’s corner, near her mother’s work spot.
“We use them as her safe place,” her mother, Linette Bumford says. Inside, Nacelle savors two minutes of “cuddle time,” which benefits them both. “She calls me into her ‘office’ for meetings that we both schedule on her calendar. It makes her feel in control of her day.”
Parents and children feed off one another, after all. We absorb and deflect one another’s moods. That may be true now more than ever.
“If I were to build a fort or lock myself in the bathroom for time away, everybody would think that something’s wrong,” Drewry says. “But I think that a lot of adults are doing the same thing now, whether it’s in the bathroom, the laundry room or bedroom. I have to tell you it’s the same impulse. We all need comfort now.”
Susan C. Margolin is a writer who helps business leaders tell their stories. She sought solace in many forts as a kid and now shares her workspace with a cardboard city built by her daughter. Follow her on Twitter: @scmargolin.