Why do children love building forts - and why do they need them right now?

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

Building forts and cubby houses is not just about imaginative play, it's also a way for kids to feel safe, particularly when things get tough.

And as we slowly come out of isolation, kids feeling the stress of the past few months have been bunkering down in their homemade hideaways all over the world.

Seaway Counselling and Psychotherapy clinical psychotherapist Julie Sweet said building forts and cubby houses was about safety and control.

"Kids generally begin making forts/cubby houses from around four-to-five years of age and it's a sense of security that a fort symbolises for a child that provides them with much comfort. It can be a child's safe space and not only hugely beneficial for them, also a wonderful source of solace," Ms Sweet said.

"Kids can recharge their brains, restart their bodies and shut everything out to find the inner peace they need to be fulfilled by their custom-made cubby house. 

"Forts are also an exceptional tool for kids who may experience anxiety, or sensory processing or attention deficit disorders, as being in the confines of a safe and protected space, with minimal light and exposure to sound, utilising various different sensations can be very nourishing for many children."

At times of upheaval and change, particularly during the past few months when households have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, kids have been turning to their own private and magical hideaways.

"As we all know kids love routine, even if at times boundaries are pushed and objections are made, children thrive in a predictable and structured environment. So, it's only natural that when times of uncertainty present, like now in the current climate, children yearn for dependency," she said.

"It's their opportunity to process their ever-changing days in their own subjective way, making sense of things for themselves. A fort can give them something they've created that becomes a safety net, their default that is a go-to when the landscape around them changes. 

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"A fort though is something that won't change and if it does, it's changed by them, therefore they are in control of any changes they get to decide they'd like to make. That in itself gives them a strong sense of self."

And while kids have a knack of building forts in the most inconvenient places its important parents think twice before pulling them down, and perhaps step-in when their child decides to build a hideaway and encourage them to do so somewhere more convenient.

"Often parents may not be aware of the impact dismantling a child's fort can have upon kids and therefore do so with little insight into the ramifications," she said.

"It can feel like a loss to the child, even a betrayal that their private sanctuary has been destroyed. The protective factor a fort can be to a child isn't to be underestimated, especially in lockdown, for if that's taken away from them, they can be left feeling like they've nowhere to go, when their options are already limited to them and have been reduced due to Covid-19. 

"The fear for some kids of no longer having a safe haven to decompress within, or the ability to have a place to retreat to where they can freely lose themselves in their imagination can be destabilising."

Occupational therapist and author of Teaching Kids to Manage Anxiety: Superstar Practical Strategies Deb Hooper said like adults, kids need to be calm and safe during times of change.

"When children are in a fort or a cubbyhouse, they have built clear boundaries around themselves, which helps them feel protected," Ms Hooper said.

"Kids playing in cubby houses and forts is a way of them helping to make sense of so many changes. 

"Also, from a sensory processing perspective, which is intricately linked to a trauma response, being in a confined small space, often decorated with lovely sensory, snugly accessories such as pillows and bean bags, children can find a safe and cosy space in which to de-stress and relax in."

She said parents can help children to create a safe space by:

  • Suggesting their child make a fort or cubby house. 
  • Guiding the child to pick a safe place to build a hideaway in a convenient spot for the whole family.
  • Providing access and ideas for what can be used in construction and stored inside, including blankets, pillows, books, a torch and other special items. 
  • Allowing them to leave the structure up for a longer period, and not have to take it down every day. 
  • Encouraging children to go and use their safe space if they feel upset, angry or anxious.