Build a fort and have the time of your life

Adult helper lends a hand as a young fort builder transports a log to the fort under construction in the natural play area at Sharon Woods. Allison Shaw
Adult helper lends a hand as a young fort builder transports a log to the fort under construction in the natural play area at Sharon Woods. Allison Shaw

Many adults have fond memories of playing in the woods as a child. I wax nostalgic remembering my own woods outside of Marietta with an extension into Wayne National Forest. But what about kids today? With televisions, online videos and electronic devices, do kids need the woods and a natural place to play?

The answer has to be yes. Natural play areas and unstructured play are both very important. This means the child goes out and finds their own fun (adult supervision optional.) A multitude of studies have been conducted and scientific articles written touting the benefits of outdoor, unstructured play. And books, too. I would be remiss if I did not mention Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods.

In 2009, Metro Parks changed a long-standing policy: visitors could now go off-trail in park areas not designated as a State Nature Preserve or special area set aside for wildlife. Five parks were selected for a natural play area to be created, and two more have been added since (Battelle Darby Creek, Blendon Woods, Highbanks, Prairie Oaks, Sharon Woods, Slate Run and Three Creeks). Since unstructured natural play is so important, we wanted the visitors to make the paths and use the play areas on their own. They could climb trees and play in the creek.

But the people did not come. A committee of naturalists worked to find ways to entice park visitors to use the natural play areas. A combination of public programs and some hefty promotion did the trick. Our Natural Play Area Adventures programs became wildly popular. Small bulletin boards and signs at the entrance to each natural play area were added, so that people could discover the areas for themselves, without needing to come to a public program.

We still have lots of events and programs at our natural play areas, such as International Mud Day, geocaching, scavenger hunts, campfire cooking, and of course, fort building, which has become one of our most popular programs. Over the years, we have added items such as stumps for sitting, sticks for fort building, a tunnel and a variety of other items in the natural play areas. Sometimes mowing is needed to make the area even more inviting. Highbanks added a new play area near their nature center to invite children (and adults) to play in an area closer to the parking lot and restroom facilities.

Two kids at the entrance to the fort they built in the natural play area at Sharon Woods. Allison Shaw
Two kids at the entrance to the fort they built in the natural play area at Sharon Woods. Allison Shaw

Kids love something they have built on their own, which is why fort building is so popular. A fort can be constructed out of couch cushions or pillows and blankets. But why not come out to a park and build one out of natural items, and get some great exercise at the same time?

Building a fort may seem like a daunting task, especially because items like nails and hammers shouldn’t be used in our natural play areas. But the children and their adult helpers always build the most amazing structures. It challenges their thinking skills, spatial skills, problem solving, physical coordination, and collaboration with others. They can be creative in their design and construction methods. And just being out in the fresh air does wonders for all involved.

At the beginning of our fort building programs at Sharon Woods, I go over a few guidelines:

● Be safe
● Help each other out
● You can work by yourself or with others
● You will get dirty today and that’s ok
● Don’t let your grown-up dictate where and what you should build. They are there to help only if you need it. You get to tell them what to do for this program.
● I want a tour of your fort when you are finished. I’ll make sure to visit each site at some point but you may need to come find me if you finish early.
● I will blow a whistle at the end of the program. That means that I am leaving but you can stay as long as you want while the park is open.
● Ok, go!

Two girls shelter inside their fort in the natural play area at Sharon Woods. Allison Shaw
Two girls shelter inside their fort in the natural play area at Sharon Woods. Allison Shaw

Site selection and proper building supplies
The children disperse as soon as they get into the forest. Excited cries and pointing ensue. The builder can choose whatever site they want and can use whatever they can find while in the play area. Plain and simple, there are no proper building supplies. As mentioned, hammers and nails should not be deployed while on a fort building mission. Sticks, logs, bark and other natural items are fair game. While searching for these items, the kids always find interesting things: a spider, a piece of trash to pick up, the creek, a fallen log to use as a balance beam, etc. They explore, burn off energy, play and even chat with their fellow builders. New friends are always made during this program. Grown-ups love this.

Construction time
Adult assistance is adopted only if needed. Sometimes this branch needs to go waaaay up there and vertically-challenged builders can’t reach. Everyone works together. The last fort building program in January at Sharon Woods had a massive ash log moved by several children to a building site. It took a while… time has no meaning in the natural play area, when you are having such fun.

How long should we spend on our structure?
As long as it takes. This being said, life gets in the way—an urgent trip to the bathroom, dinner, a looming grocery list, another parent needs to be picked up, etc. The fort doesn’t have to be finished that day. Forts can be worked on and visited whenever the family can get back out to the park.

Each and every fort is unique and special to the builder(s.) Efforts show hard work and creativity. There are large and small entryways, peaked and flat roofs, gaps for peeking out and a myriad of other features. I always do more hiking the day of natural play area programs because I love to visit the different sites during and after construction, usually several times. Sometimes other children take part in the tours to see what their fellow builders created.

As tours are finished and people trickle out of the natural play area in search of a warm car and food, the whistle is blown and the main part of the program has ended. Forts will be visited later and added to, I am sure of it. And we will see these families again at another program.

Get on those old clothes and venture out to a natural play area at a park near you. Come to a program or explore on your own. And send us photos of your adventures. You can email photos to

Look for our next natural play area blog, coming soon – FAIRY & ELF HOUSE BUILDING!

Sharon Woods Naturalist