How to Build a Fort For Your Kids
Want a fun way to teach them important life skills?
Build a fort with your kids and have the ultimate kids’ adventure!
In this article I’ll show you how to plan and build an awesome outdoor playhouse with your family.
There will be wood. There will be tools. And there will be hands-on opportunities to teach your kids life skills and values while having loads of fun.
Why Build a Fort?
The question really is, “Why not build a fort?”
Every kid wants a playhouse, fort, clubhouse, treehouse or whatever you prefer to call it. And every grownup who had one as a kid remembers it forever.
Whether it’s covered in camouflage, pretty pink polka dots or a bright, vibrant color, your kids will love to have a fort as a place to play and call their own.
What makes the project even more special: You’ll build it as a family!
It’s an ambitious task to construct a real, well-built wooden fort that will stand on its own, but it’s not terribly complicated. It’s definitely something you and your kids can build together.
Note: This is much more ambitious and time-consuming than the projects we normally publish on My Kids’ Adventures, but if you have the time and space, its well worth the effort. Building an outdoor playhouse or fort together is something kids remember their whole lives.
When you build a wooden fort with your kids, it allows you to plan several ongoing activities over several weeks. These steps are simple (most of them are, anyway), but each step poses a challenge and requires teamwork.
Kids love to use tools, draw plans, hammer nails, measure and help in general… and even more so when the product will be their very own playhouse. Erecting this type of fort will not happen in one afternoon, but that’s half the fun.
Note: If you’re short on time or space, look into the possibilities below.
Each step in the fort-building process helps you teach your child skills and values like organization, goal setting, interpersonal skills, hard work, perseverance, self-worth and efficacy. These are invaluable skills that will prepare them for bigger things as they grow and meet the challenges of life.
#1: Plan Your Project
Building a wooden fort requires patience and dedication. Since the project will last several weeks (depending on the complexity of your family’s plan and the kind of materials you decide to use), we recommend picking an afternoon or day once a week with your kids to dedicate to this project until it’s complete.
Each phase is intended to be its own activity—to be accomplished on different days in order—since each step builds upon the last and builds up to the next. Anticipation of the finished product should motivate you and your kids to continue your hard work.
Once it’s finished, you and your kids will have an awesome fort that everyone can be proud of. The fort will bring your kids countless hours of imaginative play, and serve as a reminder of the wonderful time spent building it as a family.
Let’s get started!
#2: Design Your Fort
Before you jump into building the actual fort, create it in your mind and on paper. Brainstorm with your kids, organize your ideas, set goals and come up with a plan.
To make your plan, you’ll first need to choose the perfect spot in the yard and measure the size of the space. Build your fort on a level surface. You should consider this its permanent location, because when it is complete, it may be difficult to move.
Tell your kids about the fort you’re going to build together, and ask each of them to draw a simple buildable blueprint.
It’s amazing what kids can dream up. Help them draw plans for their perfect fort.
Ask them the following questions. Feel free to add others you think will help:
- What kind of a fort do you want? A playhouse? Clubhouse? Kid cave?
- What do you want it to look like?
- How big should it be?
- Where are you going to put it?
- How will you decorate it?
If you have more than one child, they can work on a blueprint together or you can combine ideas from the different sketches.
Unless you’re an experienced builder, keep the plans simple. Round castle turrets and drawbridges are pretty complex. Set realistic expectations from the get-go—it’s a great life lesson for kids.
Once you have agreed on a design, write in rough dimensions of its height, width and length. Note: If you need a little help with dimensions and materials, check out Ana White’s playhouse catalog.
Next, make a plan for what you’ll do over the following weeks.
Start by making a list of everything you’ll have to do:
- Research supplies and suppliers (you’ll do that next).
- Gather supplies and tools.
- Build the fort. Write down what needs to be done to build the fort and in what order. You can jump ahead to Step 3 to help with that list.
- Paint, decorate and finish the fort.
Now that you have a list, mark on a calendar which days you will work on the fort and what you will do each day. Determine a realistic amount of time each task will take.
Post the calendar in a place of honor, where your family will see it every day—on the refrigerator, perhaps?
Make a list of materials you’ll need—everyone should contribute ideas—and figure out where you’ll find them.
If you need regular building supplies like 2 x 4s and plywood, identify local contractors or building supply stores that might be willing to donate scrap wood or sell it to you at a low price. You and your kids can also scavenge scrap piles at local building sites (with permission and only if it’s safe to do so, of course).
Also, determine what tools you have and what tools you’ll need. Write those down, as well. More on gathering tools in the next step.
Once you have a plan, you can move forward.
The fort-planning stage encourages creativity and teaches organization. It also challenges your kids to set goals and come up with the specific steps needed to ensure success.
#3: Gather Materials and Tools
Sure, you could just take a trip to the local hardware store to purchase all the supplies you need in one place. But where’s the adventure in that?
This stage will help your kids learn how to do research and approach others. Both are essential life skills.
Now that you have a blueprint and a plan, gather supplies for your fort.
With some creativity—depending on the complexity of your design—you can acquire almost all of your resources for little or no money.
To find free boards and other building materials, call local building contractors or visit local building sites and ask the contractor or building manager if you can sort through the scrap pile. It’s amazing what you can find that the builder would otherwise throw out.
Don’t do all the “dealing” yourself. Before you head out, role-play the exchange with your kids. Coach them on how to approach someone and how to politely ask for permission to take the materials you need.
Once they’ve had some practice, challenge your kids to do all the talking when you reach the building site. Reassure them that you’ll be right there with them if they need you.
Take a vehicle that will allow you to haul wood and other supplies to the building sites. Borrow a friend’s truck, if need be. Gather as many materials as you can find that you can use to build your fort.
Haul your findings home and plan out what will work best for your floor, framing for the wall studs and the walls themselves. Make sure that you have enough nails or screws to fasten the various pieces together. It’s a good idea to purchase nails and screws, so they’ll be of consistent size and quality. Don’t use the bent or rusty ones found at construction sites.
Gathering donated or found materials allows your family to drive together and have some bonding time as you go from place to place. It also teaches your kids assertive but appropriate ways to ask others for things they need. These proactive, positive social skills will help build your kids’ confidence.
If you need to, use several “fort” days to collect supplies. That way, you’ll ensure you have the resources you need to build the perfect family fort.
Note: You may even need to borrow tools from friends as well. That’s something you should do right before you start building your fort.
Bonus Activity: Before or after you build the fort, you can also go to garage sales to wheel and deal for furniture for your fort.
#4: Build Your Playhouse
Are your tools and supplies organized and handy? Are your helpers ready? Let’s build your outdoor playhouse!
The other thing you will need for this part is a great attitude and maybe a little music to increase patience and create a fun vibe.
Break each step of building the fort down into small tasks that you and your kids can work on together.
Let’s start with a quick rundown. First, build the base and the walls, frame the basic structure, sheet the walls, shingle the roof and hang the door and windows (optional). Finally paint and decorate (also optional).
To get you in the mood, watch this video of Tim Steward building a playhouse.
It helps to designate roles like the parent cuts the boards and starts the nails and the kids hold the measuring tape and drive the nails once they are started. These roles will be different based on the ages and coordination of your kids.
Build the base of your fort.
Be sure the ground where your fort will sit is flat.
Using nails or screws, connect the boards for the frame on the outside. Then put two (slightly shorter) parallel beams on the inside for support.
Lay thick wooden planks on top of the frame and attach them as well.
Next, frame the walls.
Take it one wall at a time. Construct each wall separately and attach them to the frame.
How you decide to build each wall and how you fasten them together may differ according to your fort design. When you measure and cut boards for the walls, remember to take into account the width of adjoining boards.
Once the framed walls are attached to the floor, sheet the walls.
Cut sheets of siding to attach to the walls.
Be sure to measure, measure, measure to make sure everything connects properly.
Frame, cover and shingle the roof.
Create a roof frame, as you did with the walls. Attach it to the top of the fort. Then cover the frame with plywood.
You can add shingles to the roof or just leave it as is with the plywood.
Hang the door and windows.
This step is optional. If you haven’t already left space, using a jigsaw, cut a hole for the door and/or window. Then, install them or just leave the spaces open.
Keep your kids involved throughout the building process and keep it fun. Dance around the yard every so often. Sing or whistle a tune together as you work or let them cut a board with your supervision.
Remember, the point of the activity is to get the fort done while you have a good time together. You’re also teaching them that perseverance and hard work pay off.
#5: Paint and Decorate the Playhouse
This step is also optional. You can paint the outside of your clubhouse and decorate it to look like anything your kids can dream up.
Find kid-sized table and chairs, hang some curtains or shutters, or just put pillows and a throw rug into the fort for a little décor. Add whatever items you want to make your outdoor playhouse a fun place your kids will love.
#6: Celebrate Your Success and Creation
No matter how many weeks it takes to complete the fort, the last step is to celebrate!
Have your kids drive the last couple of nails, put the last brush of paint or other finishing touch on your new clubhouse.
Celebrate your grand opening, your hard work and the things you learned along the way with a pizza party in the fort.
Commemorate the completion of your fort by signing and dating one of the walls (in the future, your kids will get a kick out of their childish handwriting) or even by building a time capsule into one of them.
Make a list—or even write, etch or paint it right onto the boards—of the things you learned while building your fort.
Here are a few you can suggest to get the ball rolling:
- Hard work
- Goal setting
Now make a list of all of the things you can do in the fort. You don’t need suggestions for this one. Your kids will have their own ideas!
Building a fort is all about dreaming, thinking and being creative. Through the process, your kids will learn to set and follow through with goals, negotiate, solve problems—the list goes on and on.
Most importantly, they’ll learn that they can work hard and do awesome things… and have a physical product as a result. The icing on the cake… er, the roof on the fort… is a wonderful family experience.
Tip: If you have materials left over, offer them to another family so they can build a fort of their own.
Some Final Thoughts…
Building a fort together is a large but doable project. And it’s an adventure your kids can contribute to all along the way. Remember, it’s not just about the end product—it’s about the incredible adventure you take together. It’s about strengthening your family relationships, as well as the lessons learned.
There will inevitably be mistakes along the way. This experience creates a perfect laboratory for real life. It allows kids to make mistakes in the safe environment of your backyard and learn that mistakes don’t equal failure. It just means you have to fix them.
Over the next few weeks, you’re not just building a fort. You’re building your family and creating memories your kids will never forget.
What do you think? What different styles of forts can you build? Where can you find the supplies you need for little to no cost? Did you build a fort? How did it turn out? What lessons did you and your kids learn? Please tell us about your experience and share pictures of your fort design and/or final project. We’re so excited to see your ingenuity! Good luck.
Images from iStockPhoto.
Andy Smithson, LMSW is the creator of TRU Parenting; parent education devoted to helping parents build powerful cycles of growth with their children through teaching, relationship and upgrading themselves. Other posts by Andy Smithson »