When children’s games become an exploration in autonomy

In June, while Dan, Rose and I planted potatoes in our front yard, Col decided to build a fort in our cottonwood tree.

He hauled up some random boards from our woodpile while Rose fetched a hammer and handed him nails from the ground. Had Dan decided to “help,” he could have fashioned the kids a mini-paradise of a tree fort, every board perfectly level, plumb and stable, with shelving, multiple platforms and other tricked-out accoutrements. But Col made it clear that he would be foreman of the job and proceeded to nail a piece of plywood, slopingly, to all sorts of random wooden block shims. There is nothing level, plumb or stable about the job, but it’s his.

The next morning, as I was transplanting bok choy into the garden, Col ran crying to me about how he just wanted to be in the tree fort alone and Rosie would not get out. It was his tree fort, he claimed, and he was not going to add a bedsheet, as Rosie insisted it needed.

Rose retorted that, as building-assistant, she had rights to the fort, too. I listened to their grievances, asked for their potential solutions, practiced for the Olympic sighing competition, considered the buzzkill solution of “if you can’t work it out, no one can play in there,” and when they couldn’t agree on anything, I went back to tucking baby bok choy into compost.

“I’m sure you’ll figure something out,” I told them.

The kids scurried back to the front yard, perhaps to fight some more, while I braced myself for the next wave of complaints. Ten minutes passed quietly. When I went to check on them, I learned they had constructed a game where they were siblings who had terribly mean parents whom they escaped by moving to their tree fort in the countryside.

The game got more elaborate as they decided they lived in “olden times,” and all the cars were carriages, letters back home were written on hollyhock leaves, and they slept on pillows stuffed with straw (filched from the potato patch).

Col and Rose have spent almost every free moment in their tree fort. They’ve eaten meals up there. They’ve created rules (only two kids at a time, and if neighbor kids want to use it while Col and Rose are away, they have to “not wreck it.”). They’ve constructed a rope pulley system attached to a bucket to haul important things up (such as more straw for pillows). When friends and neighborhood kids come over, they join the game.

I thought the kids were constructing a tree fort, but actually they were exploring autonomy, building design, problem-solving, collaboration, historical narration, imagination and ingenuity. But the best part is that for them, they’ve just been playing.

Reach Rachel Turiel at sanjuandrive@frontier.net.Visit her blog, 6512 and growing, on raising children, chickens and other messy, rewarding endeavors at 6,512 feet.

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