Vitamin N: Backyard Fort Building

It’s 6:48 AM on a Monday morning. As I stir eggs in a frying pan, my daughter, Nyla asks, “can we eat breakfast in the fort?” I smile and say, “sure, sweetie.” I finish up cooking, serve up on metal camping plates, and head out to the backyard to find the children. When I arrive at the fort, I see it has already been transformed– Nyla and Silas have hung linens from the roof trusses to make walls, they’ve supplemented the wood floor with soft pads, secured a pulley and strung a rope to a basket. After we eat, I supply them with bamboo sticks, bicycle tires (with the valve sliced out and cleaned), buckets, more linens, cutters, chalk, and other loose parts to fill their day.

I recently heard about the Vitamin N Challenge, which prompted me to build this fort over a weekend. The Vitamin N Challenge is inspired in part by Richard Louv’s new book, Vitamin N, which includes 500 actions to help connect families and communities to the natural world. Richard’s work has inspired me in the past – his book, Last Child in the Woods, introduced and inspired me to begin a Family Nature Club (read about my experiences starting a tiny Family Nature Club on Children & Nature Network’s blog). In Vitamin N, Richard outlines a number of actions you can take in the backyard.

Since having children, my wife and I dreamed about having a playhouse in the backyard for the children. Like much of our dreams, the playhouse in our minds is elaborate, complex, full of features, and stunningly beautiful. But those are pricey to buy and I’m hesitant to begin down the DIY path, so months have gone by without any progress. Vitamin N reminded me that fort building need not be complex: children love to be the architects and builders of their own forts! Adult aesthetics do not drive play value for children.

Nyla, age 7, and Silas, age 3, are still a bit young to build a play structure entirely on their own. I decided that I would spend some of the weekend hours creating a canvas of sorts for their fort-building imaginations. My construction skills are seriously lacking but my years in Boy Scouts gave me confidence to build a modified tower structure. I bought a new pair of leather gloves and went about lashing together a few dozen poles with twisted manila rope. In total, the supplies I used included:

  • 32 x 2”x6.5’ untreated wooden poles
  • 10 x 20’ length of ¼” twisted manila rope
  • 30 x 15’ length of ¼” twisted manila rope
  • And a new pair of leather gloves 🙂

I used only two kinds of lashings that are easy to learn and do: the Japanese Square Lashing Mark II and the Traditional Diagonal Lashing. I like the Mark II because it a fast lashing to tie compared to the traditional square lashing, which is a nice efficiency gain for a time-starved parent like me. The Mark II was used on all of the ties where the poles were perpendicular to each other. The diagonal was used for all the ties that keep the structure from wobbling. For these, I secured diagonal trusses from the top of the legs to high up the tree that stands in the center of the fort as well as diagonals on the base of the legs. What I love about lashing a structure together is how the construction is done entirely outdoors, with the sun shining on my back, without the noise of power tools. It is easy to change – as the children dream up new ideas, we can easily add, subtract, or modify, with ease and flexibility. Lashing is also simple and safe enough that my children can participate from the start. Nyla tied a couple of lashings that, with a bit of extra tightening by me, contributed to the fort creation. It’s beautiful to do this work, carrying a sense of yesteryear.

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Silas pulls a rope that raises a basket of supplies up to the fort.

Before I finish the last knot, the children board the fort. That night we eat dinner in the fort and on the next morning, Monday, we eat breakfast there. We’ve made some small improvements: lashing one of the bamboo sticks up with a pair of pulleys to make retrieving a basket of goodies easy and more cloth has been haphazardly tied on for walls and the roof. Since the addition of the fort, the children have been magnetized to the backyard. It’s activities like this that afford long, deep, playtimes, that hold my children’s attention that I cherish. And Vitamin N is full of hundreds of activities like these, some more in-depth than others, and makes for a terrific resource. This morning, I am very grateful for the inspiration it’s provided.

It’s noon. I wander to the back deck thinking about taking a break from work for lunch with the family. The children now wear felt crowns, royal, elaborate, clothes, and oscillate between brandishing bamboo sticks as swashbuckling swords and interior decorating of their new abode. The gurgling of the stream in the open space beyond our backyard draws their attention as a hummingbird zips through the air, “Did you see that?! Nyla – a hummingbird! Did you see that?”, Silas proclaims. “No, but I see a red-breasted blackbird! Or, maybe it was a robin…. It’s gone now,” Nyla responds, then turns, back to her work of tying a climbing rope to a beam in the fort, constructing a clothesline. I hope they invite me to eat lunch with them in their fort.