It is the fort of his son, who erected the first day of school online. Now it is his reading corner when he leaves the lessons online. He sleeps there too.
Being locked up inside is difficult. So in our living rooms, bedrooms and basements, children are turning to building forts to create safe havens while the covid-19 world seems out of their control.
In Farmington, Michigan, 9-year-old Malia Mitchell has not left her two-bedroom flat for weeks, except for family travel. She understands why, but she also cares about the health of her grandparents and great-grandparents.
So Malia built a fort behind the sofa that she calls “my little flat”, equipped with snacks, stuffed animals, blankets and an iPad charger. It is her place to go for FaceTime friends, relax away from her parents and little sister, eat and sleep. “It occupies the living room, but I leave it there,” says her mother, Kenita Ware. “We don’t have a big space, but I feel she needs her own little place, maybe just to work out what’s going on or to be alone.
Forts have always been part of childhood, says David Sobel, professor emeritus at the Department of Education at the University of Antioch and author of “Special Places for Children: Exploring the role of forts, Dense and Bush House in middle childhood”. Sobel studied the developmental function that the strong play in children’s lives through cultures. They are universal, he says, guided by “biological genetic disposition” as children develop a “sense of self”, separate from their parents.
Children start building fortresses indoors around the age of 4, discovered Sobel, then start venturing outside around the age of 6 or 7 to build dens, tree houses and other fortress-like structures more independently, a practice that continues in their interpolations. Metaphorically and physically, building forts reflects the growth of children as individuals, Sobel says; they create a “home away from home”, free from parental control. Forts also promote creativity. “There is a lot of magic inside,” he adds.
All the forts, according to Sobel, share common traits: they are handmade, a bit secret and “you can look outside, but the others can’t see inside”. They are safe, physically and emotionally. “It’s your place where you want to be just you, watching but not being seen,” he says.
Inside, the forts are private and safe worlds for children.
“I feel like I’m in a safe place, your bubble of intimacy,” says 11-year-old Grayson Drewry from Port Townsend, Wash. “There are no other things about you – you’re stuck out in the world.”
“It’s all wrong at the moment, but it’s a safe space where no one cares about you,” he adds. “If you locked yourself in your room, people would worry, but if you hide in your fort all day, don’t worry.”
Grayson’s mother, Tiffany Drewry, agrees, saying that a school fortress-building competition lifted Grayson’s spirits. Drewry says that distance learning has burdened Grayson, who she says is “wired differently” and learns better through doing, particularly touch. Grayson has always sought comfort in the “nests” and the forts – often when he is stressed. For the school competition, Grayson has transformed her room into a pastel pink tent built with sheets and pillows resting on a broom. He decorated it with photos, created a welcome video and spent most of his day inside. “I needed it!” Grayson said to his mother.
Children have more time to be creative right now, says Sobel. Their developing brains crave a break from computers (even if they protest). The forts also encourage play, which is good for children, especially now. But are quarantine forts different from rainy days or weekend forts?
“It is the same, but intensified,” says Emily King, child psychologist in Raleigh, N.C. “Children have a sense of the world through play. In quarantine, all our needs are amplified.” Building forts can help children work out this nerve-wracking new reality on their own terms – through imagination and, above all, through control.
“Everything is different,” says King. “They are facing uncertainty, not knowing how long we will continue to do so.” With so much disruption, “They’re feeling what we’re all feeling: a great loss”.
Without family routines, children must feel in control of something, he adds. “Whatever children create in their imaginary world, they feel safe and predictable for them. It’s like “Every time I walk into this fort, it will be just the way I left it.”
The forts can also help children regulate their bodies and emotions. Being in an enclosed, dark space with buffered sounds and tactile sensations can be particularly therapeutic for children in the autistic spectrum or for those with attention deficit and sensory process disorders or anxiety.
The forts help children to restore their stressed bodies and brains, says Carol Stock Kranowitz, educator and author of “The Out-of-Sync-Child”. The darkness inside a fort removes the stimuli they don’t need and intensifies what they need, such as physical well-being and loneliness.
In the covid-19 world, our nervous systems are on alert. We are ready to defend ourselves against environmental threats, which seem more acute for children with sensory problems. Our brain reacts with “self-therapy” for protection, says Kranowitz.
Self-therapy can also be relaxing and fun, as with the forts. “It’s primordial,” she says. Kranowitz adds that everyone can relate to the impulse to build forts. “It’s about safety and control. We seek comfort. We must restore order. And in the gloomy sphere, we are doing more of these things.” A person who likes chocolate can eat a little more. A walker can go further, longer. A child who builds forts builds more elaborate. And maybe he moves away for a while.
Can a child spend too much time in the forts? King advises parents to monitor time spent as a “symptomatic thermometer” for clues about how a child is facing quarantine. For example, if a child is retiring for long periods of time, he or she needs a connection, not more time alone.
King, Sobel and Kranowitz agree that the forts can nurture parent-child connections, on one condition: the children must be in charge. Parents can help build or enter, but only if invited.
“Don’t mess with their fort,” says King. Don’t replace it, alter it or take it apart. If the fort is tolerable, he adds, “let them go into town to make them feel safe and comfortable. It’s theirs.”
If a child asks for help, “enter the world they create,” Sobel says.
Nacelle Bumford of Forest Hill, Md., six years old, alternates between several quarantined forts – including a curtain calling her “office”, perched in the corner of the sofa near her mother’s workplace.
“We use them as safe places,” says his mother, Linette Bumford. Inside, Nacelle enjoys two minutes of “cuddling”, which is good for both of us. “She calls me into her” office “for meetings that we both plan on her calendar. Makes her feel in control of her day.”
Parents and children feed each other, after all. We absorb and divert the moods of others. This can be true now more than ever.
“If I had to build a fort or lock myself in the bathroom for a while, everyone would think something is wrong,” says Drewry. “But I think a lot of adults are doing the same thing now, whether in the bathroom, laundry room or bedroom. I have to tell you it’s the same impulse. We all need comfort now. ”
Written by Susan C. Margolin