Building Forts

Meet the world’s leading expert on why kids build forts. What he’s learned is both fascinating and inspiring.

By Paula Spencer Scott

Has your kid ever built a fort out of sofa cushions and blankets? Or made a secret den from branches and bushes? A snow fort? Maybe you used to do it too. Remember how great it felt to make up your own rules and have your own secret space?

You were probably having too much fun to know how much good it was doing you.20160225_125442

Creating secret forts, dens, hideouts, and playhouses isn’t just any random kind of play. It’s a universal drive that’s rooted in kids’ healthy development, says educator David Sobel of Antioch University New England—the man who’s studied this behavior more than anyone.

Children all over the world organize these “special places.” He’s found them in woods, canyons, deserts, riverbanks, hedges, snowfields, crawl spaces, and yes, suburban backyards and basements—all private little worlds-within-the-world.

“It used to just happen, and the best thing to do was mostly stay out of the way,” he told me. “Now the impulse is still there in kids, but opportunities to act on that impulse have diminished some.” Kids play outside less, and they’re online more, says Sobel, who’s the author of Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood. Younger ones are less likely to copy fort-building alongside bigger kids—an important way all kinds of play (hide-and-seek, freeze tag) get passed from generation to generation.

Why forts are so great…

The itch to create your own special spaces, Sobel says, starts around ages 5 or 6 (“around when they stop believing in Santa Claus”) and ends by 12 or 13 (“when they start looking in the mirror”).

At first, the play is mostly inside—making pillow fortresses, say, or walled off corners built with blocks. Around age 9, kids begin to want to branch out farther from parents’ view. A clubhouse in the bushes out back? Just the thing!

Developmentally, two big things are happening during these middle-childhood years to drive this play:

20160122_1708561) They’re figuring out their nearby world. Kids want to learn how all the pieces in their life fit together—the landscapes, roads, neighborhood, home…and their place in it. “They want to piece it all together, like a puzzle,” Sobel says.

2) They’re becoming more independent. Kids are also starting to create a separate self from the one defined by their family and their parents. They crave their own separate place in the world.

“The special place outside serves to symbolize the special place inside,” Sobel says. “It’s their own private chrysalis.”

Oh, yeah, it’s really fun too…

Along with satisfying these strong developmental needs, kids get plenty of other fort-building benefits:

  • Maturity, independence, and confidence
  • Cognitive skills, like problem solving, planning, and imagination running wild
  • Social skills, like cooperating and negotiating
  • Practical skills; it’s like construction 101
  • Lots of exercise, from all that building and play
  • A love of the outdoors, and learning about the natural world
  • Stress-release: A fort is, literally and figuratively, a defense against all the forces of the outside world (and a primo place to daydream).

Fort support—what we can do:

Just like you did once, your kid might grab a few sticks—or whatever is handy—and start building. If not, there are easy ways to kickstart things.

Introduce fort play early. Blanket-forts—as simple as throwing a blanket over a table to create a cozy cave—are an early form of fort play that even preschoolers love. “It starts indoors and then moves outside, and then further and further out,” as kids grow, Sobel told me.

Supply materials. Anything can spark a kid’s imagination, from duct tape and cardboard boxes to cast-off construction materials. Or start a building project together. A cool tool for outdoor builders: Stick-lets are plastic devices that join sticks together. Designer Christina Kazakia was inspired to create them when, as a Rhode Island School of Design student, she heard her friends reminisce about how much fun they had building forts.

Make sure they have some room to explore. “Kids need access to the natural world; it’s part of the process,” Sobel says. “And for that, parents need to tolerate a little bit of free-range freedom.”

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Consider more formalized fort play too. Classic summer camps, with lots of free play in the woods, are another way to keep the fort-impulse going. Some camps even build their curriculum around fort-building. Sobel points to European summer camp programs where kids construct whole villages that they live in. (“A bit like Burning Man,” he notes.) Increasingly, independent schools are encouraging fort-building in their play spaces because they see its value, says Sobel, who’s also written a book called Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens.

I don’t know about you, but after hearing from Sobel that fort-building is a bona-fide thing, I couldn’t stop reminiscing: About the “house” my sister and I made by the lake every summer. About the stick forts my daughter and her friends set up just beyond the school playground. So many adventures! Out of virtually nothing!

As moms and dads, we just barely need to nudge ’em…and turn ’em loose. They know what to do next.

This article originally appeared on Kinstantly

Richard Louv Visit

Richard Louv came to Journey School last week to see what he has inspired here in New Mexico. The JMS children were thrilled to welcome him into their wild, open space. After showing off their forts and nature creations, the children sang their favorite outdoor song to Mr. Louv: Wild One!  We are so lucky that our wild ones have access to these opportunities.

Photos by Marc Romanelli

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Have you ever wondered whose hands drew the first pictures on earth?  Have you ever thought about what your life would be like if we didn’t have an alphabet?   Each year, children are mesmerized by a story called Communication in Signs, one of Maria Montessori’s five Great Lessons.  The tale begins with early human cave paintings and pictographs, emphasizing human’s amazing ability to put their thoughts into forms on rocks, clay, bones, and paper.  It takes the children’s imagination on a trip through history, visiting ancient cultures that either created their own system of writing or contributed to the development of the alphabet we use today.

New Mexico offers ample opportunities to walk the ancient footpaths of the Pueblo people who lived here centuries ago.  Here, Journey children visit Tsankawi, a detached and unexcavated portion of Bandalier National Monument in search of petroglyphs.  Deep grooves in the soft volcanic tuff reveal  obvious trails, steps and hand holds from long ago.  The children excitedly climb and explore the small caves (cavates) carved by ancient hands.  Blackened ceilings ignite their imaginations while shards of pottery call out to them.

This language lesson and outdoor exploration leads the children into many areas of study including the origin of spoken language,  structure of language, word study, elements of style, drama, literature, and poetry.

Plaza Blanca and Abiquiu Lake

Photos © 2015 Marc Romanelli

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Our final camping adventure of the school year took students and their families through the majestic Georgia O’Keeffe landscape in Abiquiu, New Mexico, where our very own professional photographer, Marc Romanelli, introduced us to one of his favorite places on earth: Plaza Blanca, or The White Place.   The rapidly eroding landscape at Plaza Blanca is part of the Abiquiu Formation, which consists of re-deposited volcanic ash and other sedimentary rocks that are about 20 million years old – and seems to be Tent Rock’s northern cousin! After a short introduction and a bit of  history, Marc talked about the various aspects of lighting used in the composition of photography and challenged the group to pay attention to the sun’s location and the shadows in the landscape.  Armed with their own cameras, the students set off to create a photographic journal and personal interpretation of the hoodoos, spires and serpentine ridges of this magical place.

Following the hike and photo shoot, we all rendezvoused at the Riana Campground at Abiquiu Lake, to set up camp, relax,  share dinner and roast marshmallows around a campfire. However, by the time we arrived in late afternoon, dark rain shadowed clouds were sweeping across the Lake from the west whipped up by a solid 40 mile per hour wind! Several tents first creaked and groaned, then a pole or two snapped as each family rushed to their site to ‘batten down the hatches!’ We all thought for a moment that perhaps we would see a couple of the smaller folk  swirling up in the air Dorothy and Toto-like!   When all was secured, we gathered under the picnic shelter bundled up in every garment we’d brought as rain skittered on the metal roof above. Ahh…New Mexico spring weather!

Every so often the setting sun would burst from between the inky rain swollen clouds to illuminate one of the Southwest’s most beautiful lakes with a pure golden light that created a frenzy of activity lead by Marc as cameras popped from every pocket and tent! The white caps on the midnight blue water caught the last sparkles of the fading sun creating an almost dizzying effect as we all stared into the west, mesmerized by this landscape. Meanwhile, the students explored the juniper covered terrain, seemingly unhindered by the down right cold wind and short rain squalls, scampering down near the lake and onto small ridges. As darkness approached, the children gathered with all of us under the shelter and each family served up dinner amongst a constant din of laughing, talking and the metal enhanced sound of rain.

Bellies full, the students gathered fire wood, and with flint and igniter sat patiently trying to start a fire in the blustery wind. After a time, some paper towels and a storm proof match showed up to finish the job and sticks were quickly sharpened to receive the revered white cube of sugar that seems to make the entire trip extremely worthwhile! The fire, made within a large rock-ringed pit on a nice rocky promontory, sent brilliant orange sparks twisting and twirling into the black night sky. The now softer rain allowed us to watch, almost hypnotized, this cascade of orange specks corkscrew upwards and disappear! Several diehards, along with their kids, sat up wind of the fire chatting and smiling until the cold of this early spring storm pushed us not so gently into our tents and warm sleeping bags.

As if to make the trip even more transformative, rain periodically pelted the tent during the night reminding me of much more northern adventures in the Cascades or even Alaska.   And crawling out in the morning to the delicate smell of rain-soaked high desert plants and junipers, the sun low in the east jumping in and out of clouds, topped off nicely the outdoor batteries that all of us hoped would be recharged on this outing.



Ending the Year in Ancient Greece!

“We want to be Greek gods!” they exclaimed as the class discussed the final Journey Montessori School performance.   The children had been studying ancient Greece and reading Greek myths for the past month, so it was no surprise that this was the most popular idea.  And who doesn’t want to be a Greek god every now and again?

“What is the problem you must face as gods?”  their teacher asked, curious how this play would fit the diverse personalities in the classroom.  She listened to their racing ideas of costumes and conflicts, banquets and battles over the next couple of days.  Finally,  the children decided that the setting would be Mount Olympus, the characters would be  various gods from Greek mythology as well as a small boy, and their primary problem would be the waning interest of the human population.  Clearly, the gods were not being worshiped properly anymore.   They would resolve their conflict through a competition:  the gods would each present a gift to the humans, and the small boy,  called forth from the audience by Poseidon, would decide which gift would best serve humanity, much like the story of Athena and Poseidon competing for the noble city of Athens.

The children wrote their own lines with guidance, painted their backdrop, and sewed their own costumes at home.   On a cool evening early in June, the children, dressed as gods, presented to their parents the ideas of democracy, theater, poetry, medicine, various inventions and … chewing gum.    The play included not only research about ancient Greece, but also violin solos, a dance, and a bit of singing.

It was an incredible finale to an incredible year!


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Tremendous Tent Rocks!

We journeyed back in time again to the formation of Tent Rocks National Monument.  Seven million years ago, a time of very active volcanism, about 20 small volcanoes erupted repeatedly to form sedimentary rock layers.  These were then subject to erosion by wind and water to create the hoodoos that are Tent Rocks today.  The students learned about this prior to our outing and were excited to see the cap rocks which helped to protect the “tents” and create these unique formations.

The children stopped to notice and identify birds along our hike, and found many apache tears, also the product of volcanic activity.  They found a small cave where they imagined life during simpler times and all loved hiking through the slot canyon to the top of the mesa to spectacular views.  We started and finished our day by writing in our nature journals and drawing a map of our journey.  It was a wonderful day, a great way to reinforce our learning about the geology of New Mexico.

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January 2014: Four Unique Adventures!

This month we have been on four very different adventures.  Our first adventure took us to The Jacobs’ 150 acre property on Glorieta Mesa.  It is a beautiful place with ruins from Spanish settlers as well as old Native American ruins that are unexcavated.  We hiked to the Spanish ruins, and then up a very deep arroyo to the top of a small mountain.  The ruins on the mountain are buried under the earth, but it is clear that the rocks have been moved in a specific formation to make walls.  We talked about why the people would want to build a settlement on top of a mountain, and were amazed by the number of rooms we could count.  Evidence that this settlement was long ago is clear – the pinon trees had grown up around and close to the walls.  Coach Bob told us stories and we enjoyed imagining life from this great vantage point on the mountain.  Overall, it was a great day of exploration!

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Our second adventure of the month took us first to Fort Marcy where Owen led us through a few soccer drills and then a game. It was fun to get everyone playing, even those who had never played before!

Afterward, we walked to the New Mexico History Museum where we enjoyed the many artifacts in permanent exhibit of New Mexico history, as well as the current Cowboy exhibit.  Dressing up and pretending to be cowboys and girls was a blast!

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Our third adventure this month took us to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History in Albuquerque.  Everyone loved seeing the exhibit about the formation of the universe and the dinosaurs.  We watched the movie “Ice Age 3D” which was a perfect complement to our study of the ice age including sabre tooth tigers and wooly mammoths.

We ate lunch at the park across the street where we noticed a pigeon that had a wire ring attached to it’s foot. Sadly, it was trash and seemed to prevent him from flying (very far).  He was able to fly far enough to get away from us, a lot!!  We finally outsmarted him. Clayton put a stick through the ring attached to his foot so he could not fly off.  Ms. Katie then held him while Ms. Beth removed the offending trash.  It was a big relief to finally get him and deeply satisfying to see him fly off freely  – up and away!

We finished our day at the Grossology exhibit where we learned all sorts of interesting and gross facts about the human body. We got to climb on our largest organ, the skin, make unmentionable noises and learn all sorts of facts from Mr. Nose Faucet, among other fun things!

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Our final adventure in January was in two parts.  After some park time at Fort Marcy, we spent the rest of the morning at Carlos Gilbert in Mrs. Porterfield’s second grade class.  Esha Chiocchio from Got Sol came and showed us a great PowerPoint presentation on Renewable Energy and Biomimicry.  Journey students Clayton and Owen, shared our class science experiment which demonstrated three types of energy: heat, light and motion using primarily candles, a foil pan, and a bottle.  This all tied in perfectly with our study of the needs of early humans.  Fire, still a source of much of our energy today, was an important discovery to humans.

We spent the afternoon on our land in Chupadero learning and practicing fire making skills. Fire making is a powerful and important skill for wilderness survival and nature connection, and certainly proved to be a hit with all the kids!

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A Symphony of Birds: The Bosque del Apache

We spent the day at the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge.  It was an incredible experience when a gaggle of snow geese took flight right in front of us.

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Some of the children wrote poems while we were there:


pink and deliket

flutters, swaying, dancing

drinking the sweet nectar

Beautiful.   – Clayton



fierce, fast

soar, glide, fly

keeping down rodent population

accipiter.  – Owen


I saw snow geese.

There were 100 snow geese. – Angelica


Sandhill Crane

Graceful, elegant

Eating, Dancing, Mating

Do we share a common thread?

Migrator. – Katie



Ghost Ranch: Dragon Casting and Chimney Rock!

Today was a perfect combination of academic stimulation and outdoor inspiration!  Alex the Paleontologist entertained and informed us in the museum after we cast our dragon skull fossils and raptor claws.  Afterward we hiked toward Chimney Rock.  It was a summer-like, stunning day!  Everyone did their thing: some looked for fossils, some explored the wonderland of rocks, some made art, and some made a run for the top!  Yes, we call this school, Journey School.  🙂

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Journey to Bandelier via the Frey Trail!

We had a unique vantage point of Bandelier National Monument today as we hiked from the Juniper Campground down to the Main Loop today via the Frey Trail.  It was stunning looking down into Frijoles Canyon at the peaking yellow cottonwoods below.  What a treat!  We began our day with a ride in the awe-inspiring adventure van – singing songs while learning the 50 states!  Before our hike we heard the Dine (Navajo) Creation story, and then took off on our big hike, all eager to have a turn leading the group!  Once down in the canyon, we explored several caves and the main ruins.  We tried to imagine life in this canyon several centuries years ago and each did a journal entry to this effect. We stopped to look at and learn several of our common New Mexico conifers using a dichotomous key (learning some fancy words as we did so!)  Overall, a beautiful, refreshingly cloudy and uplifting day!  Thanks to Katie Cutter and Zachary for extra hands (and little legs!) on our adventure!

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