“Doing” in Nature: Building Forts & Shelters

The longer a child plays the deeper and more meaningful their play becomes. When forest play is extended both short term (1 hour vs. 30 minutes) and long term (2 years vs. the two months of good weather) the more the children discover, the more creative they become, and the more they “do”. Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods, discusses the idea that in the early 1900’s being in nature was not a passive activity, rather it was about doing something. It was about fully engaging in the environment and interacting with it. Louv uses fort building as a prime example of “doing” in nature.

This month the children have taken a giant leap in their “doing.” There is a greater, almost unanimous, interest in the building of forts and shelters. The children have always experimented with building forts, but recently their forts have become something more architectural. They create plans, discuss among themselves ideas and ways of accomplishing them, and assign tasks to ensure that the plan is completed. It has been quite marvelous to observe and be a part of. I am, of course, always assigned tasks as well.

I have spoken about my qualms with fort building before. Mostly, I was concerned about the amount of damage that was being done to the forest. Forts require materials and these materials come from trees and other plants. Usually, the best finishing touches to a fort are materials that are “fresh,” as one of my students puts it. Yes, fort building can be destructive; however, Louv points out that if you speak to most environmentalists they themselves built forts causing destruction to a particular natural area. He argues that these experiences fostered their care for the environment and led them to a career to protect it. He goes further to suggest that if we prevent children from having these potentially “destructive” experiences we may not have any environmentalists in the future. I myself engaged in destructive forest play as a child. At the time, I didn’t consider it destructive. Nobody told me that my actions would “ruin the world.” It led to a degree in Botany. I love nature. I do my best to reduce my impact. But, most importantly it led me to where I am now … providing children with opportunities to play outside uninhibited and to, maybe, lead them to develop the same care for nature that I have.

I’m at a place of peace with it now. I am finally able to see the bigger picture and I like what I see.

Fort #1:

Fort #2:


Fort #3:

Fort #4:


Fort #5:



References: Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods. 2008. pp. 15, 147.

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  • I recently started exploring a pretty large forest right behind my house, and after finding some cool things I never knew were there (Like a lake!) I’ve decided to map out the whole place and build some bridges and forts around it. Ive found so many cool things while just exploring some of the forest and I cant wait to build! This gave me some ideas for it! Thanks!

  • Very impressive! Reminds me of the Bear Grylls nature shows we watch – the kids could easily survive a night outside with these great shelters 🙂

    • Thank you, Jacquie!

      I can’t take any of the credit, though. It was all the children! They are quite a marvelous bunch. 🙂
      It would be pretty neat to sleep outside under the forts and shelters that they made themselves. Maybe that is something I will do if I ever teach an older class.

      I have never watched Bear Grylls, it looks similar to Survivor Man, though. Thank you for sharing 🙂 .

      Ms. T


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