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August 7, 2018
I remember building forts with my brother and sister as a kid. We’d spend hours picking the right materials from around the house, establishing “characters” with elaborate backstories, and perfecting our building techniques. I doubt my mom appreciated the messes we made, but she valued the time we spent together as siblings. Now as a mother myself, I too enjoy listening to my daughters as they build forts. Hearing their sweet conversations and squeals of laughter fills me with joy and nostalgia. Intuitively, I always had a feeling that real substantive learning was happening as the pillows and blankets piled up.
Last summer at the Glazer Children’s Museum, we opened a new exhibit called “Forts.” With the furniture bolted down, hooks on the structures, and loops on all the textiles, children can build and create in a safe and fun environment. Observing my own kids at home and watching Museum guests play and interact in this exhibit has confirmed my theory that fort-building leads to real learning and development.
My girls are 1 and 3, so they each play and learn differently. Toddlers start with parallel play – playing near each other – and move on to collaborative play as they gain confidence. It’s fascinating to watch my girls teach each other. Ellie, the youngest, models Audrey’s behavior and feels emboldened to try new things when she sees her big sister do them. Audrey guides her little sister to use “proper” building techniques. Little sis is mastering her motor skills while learning how to build, and big sis is developing patience, empathy and collaboration skills while learning how to articulate her thoughts and ideas.
Fort-building is a platform for exploration, construction and creative planning. With no parameters to guide them, kids must experiment with the best techniques and anticipate what supplies they need. They have to figure out for themselves where creative ideas meet structural integrity. Kids gain confidence through experimentation, problem-solving – and yes, failure – as they define their own success.
Playing in the Forts exhibit at the Museum builds empathy, understanding and inclusion as kids from different backgrounds, genders, races and abilities play together. Fort-building invites collaboration, negotiation and compromise. Teaching kids to consider perspectives outside their own is crucial for their social and emotional wellness.
Fort-building ignites imagination and inspires dramatic play. In a child’s mind, a fort can become anything from a military fortress, to a rocket, to a sailboat. Kids create narratives as they play, keeping them engaged longer and helping them retain information. Imaginative play is one of the most beneficial learning tools for any child, leading to a lifetime of innovation and creativity.
So, while your kids are stuck inside on those rainy afternoons, combat boredom by encouraging them to build a fort. Enjoy listening to the giggles and imaginative stories, knowing it’s the sound of learning and creativity at work!
Kate White is a mom of two girls and the director of marketing at Glazer Children’s Museum.
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