VITAMIN N AT HOME: Backyard Fort Building

About the Author

Jason Runkel Sperling found Running Wild family nature club in Boulder, Colorado, in 2015. He is a skilled and experienced outdoorsman who earned the rank of Eagle Scout as a youth – and went on to travel and live around the globe for 20 years, scuba diving, surfing, backpacking, skiing, rafting, and adventuring. He is the author of several books that help parents get their children outdoors, and reconnected with nature, themselves, family, and friends.

Photo by Jason Sperling
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It’s 6:48 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 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, 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.

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.

But this summer, I heard about C&NN’s Vitamin N Challenge. The Challenge, influenced by Richard Louv’s new book, Vitamin N, is a challenge to each of us to think of creative ways to bring more nature into our lives. In Vitamin N, Louv outlines a number of actions (500 to be exact) that each of us can take on our own, some in our own backyards.

‘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.

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

Louv’s work has inspired me in the past. His book, Last Child in the Woods, gave me the idea to start a Family Nature Club (read about my experiences starting a tiny Family Nature Club on Children & Nature Network’s blog).

Because 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 is 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.

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.

‘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 says.

“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.

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Jason Sperling’s posts about his family nature club adventures appear Instagram @jsperling. Follow @familynatureclub for curated images from around the world. His most recent book is “Unplugged.


Take the Vitamin N Challenge!

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Find out how your family can get a larger dose of nature this summer — 
take action with the Vitamin N Challenge!


Additional Reading

SMALL STEPS, BIG FUTURE: the Profound Experience of Starting a Tiny Family Nature Club
10 Reasons Children, Adults & Communities Need Vitamin N
5 Ways to Get Kids into Nature — Outside Magazine
10 Vitamin N Strategies for Families, Organizations and Communities
Vitamin N Book Excerpt: San Diego Magazine

C&NN Resources

Nature Clubs for Families Took Kit provides worksheets, templates, examples, and more resources for getting your club up and running.

Nature Clubs Directory connects you with existing clubs and leaders around the world for support in starting your own club.

C&NN’s Family Nature Club Leaders Facebook group provides ongoing support and inspiration.

Photo(s) credit: Jason Sperling

This post was originally published on Jason Sperling’s blog


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