A fort of your own

Kids have been making forts for centuries, all over the globe.

A fence. A cozy spot behind some trees. A pile of scrap lumber. What would you do with these?

The Jones kids of Grass Valley, Calif., decided to build a fort. They put some old wooden fence posts in the ground a little way out from the fence in their backyard. Then they lay plywood between the tops of the posts and the fence. That was the roof. It even has a "skylight"! They built walls with other plywood scraps.

Over the top of the door, the siblings spray-painted "FORT SHEP" (named after a dog they had). Finally, they made a flag for their fort from some cardboard tubes and a paper-bag painted blue and green. They had a lot of fun building Fort Shep and are very proud of it!

Maybe you have built your own fort, too. If not, this story will help you get started.

Some kids make forts from sticks they find on the school playground. But don't let your imagination stop there. Forts can be made from many kinds of materials. (See sidebar, right.) One boy I know is building a huge castle-fort out of Styrofoam. And Seth and Silas Eastman in North Chatham, N.H., build forts in their family's vegetable garden. The walls are made of pea vines growing tall on chicken wire.

A world of good ideas

Children have been making forts for hundreds of years, all over the world. A guide at Plimoth Plantation, in Plymouth, Mass, once told me that colonial children built "tree houses" on the ground. They would start with a group of saplings (small, skinny trees) in a circle. Then they'd weave flexible branches in and out of the saplings.

Forts can look very different in other countries. A college teacher of mine went to Devon, England to see what children there built. The kids called their forts "dens." Some of these were hollowed out areas inside clumps of bushes. One girl had pruned out a tunnel down the middle of a big old hedge. The leafy branches allowed her to peek out and see people going by. But if she was very still, no one could see her. Cool, huh?

My teacher, David Sobel, also went to an island named Carriacou, in the West Indies (in the Caribbean Sea.) The Carriacou children, whose customs come from their African ancestors, called their forts "bush houses."

Mr. Sobel watched three boys build a "bush house." First, they dug four holes in the ground and planted four long, straight sticks that had V's at the top. Then they rested the ends of horizontal poles in the V's and tied them with strips of bark. They criss-crossed thinner poles on top for the roof. To make the walls, the boys stuck upright poles along the sides, and then wove leafy branches through them horizontally. They also put leafy branches on the roof.

Let the building begin

So, what kind of fort might you build? Would you build it all by yourself?

You may find it fun to keep your fort secret - a place only you know about. But Tom Birdseye, author of "A Kids' Guide to Building Forts," suggests getting together with neighbors or a friend after soccer practice. Mr. Birdseye says that forts built by two or more kids have the advantage that kids can "build" on one another's ideas. "Collaborative, creative energy takes over and it snowballs," he says.

Mr. Birdseye's book (Roberts Rhinehart, 1993) also suggests several kinds of forts that you may want to try. Some that it describes are: the lean-to-fort, the leaf fort, and the sand fort. Another, fancier one is the "wattlework" fort. (See below.) You can order the book from the National Book Network by calling 1-800-462-6420. The pictures by Bill Klein are very helpful.

Add a few nice touches

Part of the fun of building a fort - fancy or simple - is adding special features. For example, I've heard about kids who added a swing for swinging onto the fort; stairs; an armory; a lookout; carpet for the floor; places to peek out; a door with doorknob; a curtain; and a secret compartment underground with a board over it where you can hide things.

Once you do get started, you may need a little help from your parents. But watch out. Many parents like building forts so much they might take over your project. You may want to politely remind them that one of the nicest things about your fort is that you're building it yourself. A lot of kids say that building it is even more fun than playing in it.

Or, find your own fort

Some forts aren't exactly built by kids. They are sort of found.

My 12-year-old neighbor, Katherine Mullen, told me about a fort she had behind her house in northern California. She led me way up on a steep, wooded hillside to see it.

Katherine's fort wasn't made of plywood, or boards, or tarps. It wasn't even made of sticks and leaves. It was made of Katherine's imagination.

Her special place was under an ancient black oak tree. Four large trunks grew out of the ground at different angles, and the branches hung gracefully down to the ground.

Under this canopy, Katherine had hung a tire from a high limb with some blue nylon rope. She had clipped out the underbrush. And she had fastened a pink wastebasket to a rope looped over a high branch. This way she could haul things up into the tree when she wanted to.

"I like to come up here and read," Katherine said as she swung gently in the tire. I could see why. It was very quiet. All we could hear was the breeze rustling the oak leaves.

"How does it feel to be up here?" I asked Katherine.

"It's like you are free from all the problems in your life," she answered. Then she told me what she liked best about her fort. And her comment was similar to what other kids have said about their forts: "I like that it is mine. My own special place."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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