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2018 May

Let Them Build Forts

When I was eight years old, I decided it would be fun to live in a travel trailer. Our family didn’t happen to have one, so I set about building one for myself. I dreamed about parking it on the back of our property and living there, wild and free.

I was a logical child, so I started at the beginning. A trailer stood on wheels—I’d have to make those first. I found an old saw and some plywood and began trying to saw in a circle. It wasn’t easy, but I hacked out some circle-like things and moved on. Next I’d need the floor of the trailer. I found some two by fours, nails, and a hammer and pounded them together in 90° angles. So far, so good.

Then something unimaginable happened. My nasty older cousin came for a visit and found my project. He not only made fun of it, he tore it apart. I had already begun to have some self-doubts about my progress, but this loss sent me into wails of despair.

And here’s the important part for parents: My mom hadn’t known about my project. All she saw was a little heap of wood. She didn’t realize my creative dreams had just gone up in smoke, and she told me to stop making such a fuss.

I was heartbroken.

What’s the lesson here? Ellen Galinsky’s book, Mind in the Making, talks about encouraging children to take on challenges. It’s an essential life skill. She encourages parents to support their children when they want to build a lemonade stand, build a fort on the back forty, or run in a 5K race to raise money for a good cause.

Why? Because whenever a child is willing to step out and try something, our role as parents is to cheer them on. Children don’t always have the words to express the reasons they want to try something big. They just know the dream is there, and they want to give it a go.

Another reason to encourage creative outdoor play is that the planning and the execution of any project is worthwhile in itself. Consider building a fort. The child has to first envision the completed project, gather materials, work and problem solve along the way, and finally either succeed, partially succeed, or fail to complete the project. Sounds a lot like adult work, doesn’t it?

In the famous children’s book The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner, the four siblings are always depicted as independent thinkers, able to take care of themselves. They work to earn money for food, they cooperate in all the tasks necessary to create a home away from home, and they make important decisions based on sound reasoning. Kids love the prospect of that kind of freedom to succeed.

So next time your kids want to build a fort or embark on any other creative project, here are some ways to support their efforts.

• Speak encouraging words.
Whether the project seems doable or not, the effort will be worth your encouragement. Any positive, encouraging words you offer will make a huge difference to your child’s willingness to try.

• Provide materials.
Whether done indoors or out of doors, there are ways parents can encourage creative projects by merely allowing access to “stuff.” Are your children free to use art supplies, blankets, pillows, toys to build a structure? Are they welcome to use found objects, scrap wood, and simple tools to create their projects?

• Allow time and space to do the work without over-managing.
While kids sometimes respond well to suggestions from adults, these creative projects should usually be done on their own. They have a plan in mind. Children are often satisfied with a finished product that looks nothing like the house or barn or spacecraft we might envision. Remember the pretending is a big part of the fun.

• Expect some messes.
Yes, creative play can be messy. There may be rubble to clean up, household items to put away, spilled paints or marks on the floor. There may be a few scrapes and bruises in the midst of creative outdoor projects. As long as there are no major safety issues, the process is worth the cost.

• Praise the finished project, or the lessons learned along the way.
My four little wheel-like pieces and the two-by-fours nailed together as the beginning of my floor didn’t look like much of anything. But they meant the world to me. All my dreams and creative efforts had been invested in them. I would have been thrilled to hear, “Wow, you put a lot of work into that. Tell me about it.”

• Failure is an option (and not the end of the creative process).
Yes, a failed project is a great learning opportunity. And kids need to learn the important lesson that nothing is gained without the willingness to make mistakes. This might be a great time to read a book about inventors or great thinkers and examine all the “failures” they had on the way to success.

Hands-on creative play is worth its weight in gold. It is also hard to find in these days of computer games and screens. So keep your ears open for the creative ideas your children mention. And whatever you do, encourage their plans to take on a challenge.

Jan Pierce, M.Ed., is a freelance writer specializing in education, family life, and parenting topics. She is the author of Homegrown Readers and Homegrown Family Fun. Find Jan at 

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