Why your childhood fort is so memorable

We asked Exhibit Development Director and forts aficionado Katie Slivovsky to share her insights with us. Here’s what she had to say.


Does the word “fort” spark memories of secret hideouts you built in your closet, living room or yard?

Our childhood forts still evoke powerful memories, though they probably weren’t much to look at or particularly well-constructed. In fact, if we saw them today, we might think, “Someone needs to clean up that mess, pronto!”

We don’t remember our forts because they were impressive—we remember them because they were ours.

Forts were both sanctuary and home base for our developing imaginations.  We built them, we made the rules (including who could enter), and because of that we were the landlords and we were empowered.  Forts also provided comfort—a calm place just for us in the midst of a sometimes chaotic world.

As adults we may forget that children need a break too. Kids are aware of what’s happening around them, for worse or for better, and between challenges at school and demanding schedules, their worlds can be stressful. Forts provide a much-needed respite—if they get to design and make it themselves.

That’s why we created our Forts exhibit—to provide a space specifically designed for children to build the forts of their dreams. In doing so, we’ve learned a few things that can help parents and caregivers encourage kids to create their own sanctuary through fort building.

 

  1. Fort-building materials are not the same as a fort-building vision.

At home, adults usually provide fort-building materials: blankets, pillows, furniture and the space to build. At Chicago Children’s Museum, we’ve created a space totally dedicated to fort-building—our walls have hooks, our blankets have loops and every piece of furniture there is up for grabs.

But that doesn’t mean we control the vision—in fact, it’s just the opposite. Even though we designed the space, we love to be surprised at how our visitors configure it. It’s probably our favorite thing about the exhibit—at any hour of the day, the space looks totally different because the kids are in charge.

Parents and caregivers can provide materials and space (with limits, of course—not all your furniture need be up for grabs), but the kids should control the vision and direction of their fort. When parents and caregivers exert too much control, the fort becomes less about the kids building it and children lose the sense of control that is so integral to creating their own sanctuary.

 

  1. “No grown-ups allowed” is more than okay—it’s a good thing.

You’ve probably noticed that sometimes children don’t want grown-ups in their forts. In fact, sometimes we literally don’t fit—and that’s okay. A kid-sized fort that fits only one or two little ones shows that the child has been able to build a space just for them.

 

By letting children control the forts they design and build, they most certainly won’t be adult-sized. Remember to sit back and let children build forts that reflect their kid-sized view of the world—even if you can’t be a part of it.

 

  1. If you are invited, it’s a huge compliment—just don’t overstay your welcome.

At Chicago Children’s Museum, when one of our child visitors invites us to play, it’s the greatest compliment a museum staffer can get. Our space—including our Forts exhibit—is designed for kids to be in charge of how they play. If they want a grown-up to come along, we’re ready and excited, but realize that we’re guests in their world.

When a child extends an invitation into their space, it means they feel safe and comfortable to share their world with you. It’s a compliment for sure—but be sure to be a gracious guest and leave them to the world they’ve created for themselves.

 

We love forts because of how incredibly powerful they can be for children. When they build forts, children design and construct their own sanctuaries. They set the boundaries. They get to be in charge. They can be whoever they want to be, and gain confidence as they make their own rules.

When you come to our Forts exhibit, kids can get that experience in a space designed just for fort-building—and the best part is, we’re in charge of cleaning it up.

Katie Slivovsky is the Exhibit Development Director at Chicago Children’s Museum and spent her childhood building forts in the woods behind her house on the edge of a small town in eastern Iowa. Katie has developed several exhibits at CCM and at Brookfield Zoo, including the Hamill Family Play Zoo. FORTS is one of her favorites because children have complete creative control of the space. Her daughter, Leah, is quoted in the exhibit and pictured in a fort built for her dog, Midnight.

Once Upon a Castle: Going beyond boy/girl story lines

In our current exhibit, we focused on removing the gender stereotypes from castle play. Here’s what happened.

 

You know the scene: a woeful princess cowers in a castle tower, every strand of her blonde hair perfectly in place, her waist impossibly small in her pink dress. Soon, some bright-eyed prince will come rescue her with his cartoonish biceps and flash his pearly whites, and if she hasn’t already fallen in love with him as he scales the castle walls, she will once he whisks her away on his horse.

As adults, it’s a story we’ve been told over and over again.

Children, on the other hand, may not be used to it yet—or the stereotypes that come along with it.

That’s why, when we designed our Once Upon a Castle exhibit, we wanted to take back the castle narrative from this cliché. We wanted to ditch gender stereotypes so that children could create their own stories and come up with their own characters. We set out to create a space where any child—no matter what their gender—could put on any costume, pick up any prop, and play however they want to play.

To begin, we made costumes children can wear regardless of gender, included a wide range of fabrics and colors (not just pink or blue), and coached staff to use neutral language like “your majesty” to make everyone feel welcome. Here’s what we learned.

 

It took weeks to tweak and finalize our ads.

Ditching gender stereotypes in our marketing proved more difficult than we’d assumed. We struggled to find the right way to get our message across—how to be clear while showing off everything the exhibit has to offer. But when you remove the gender from something, often you remove what’s stereotypically considered “feminine.” We began to wonder: Is it okay to strip the feminine from something just to resist gender stereotypes? Will girls still feel welcome?

Our goal wasn’t to exclude anything stereotypically feminine because it’s bad—we love pink! Instead, we wanted to make sure what we included wasn’t so strictly gendered that a child might get picked on for choosing the “wrong” thing—like a little boy in a pink costume getting made fun of by his friends, or worst yet, scolded by a parent/caregiver.

And the girls who visit the exhibit have no problem picking up the wide array of props and costumes and having a blast—even without a tiara in the mix.

 

Children know exactly what to do—but parents get confused.

Children don’t seem phased by the lack of pink or tiaras in Once Upon a Castle, however some parents have a harder time adjusting.

On one particularly busy day, a little girl around five years old starting asking for a tiara. We didn’t include tiaras in the exhibit because of how strongly associated they are with cartoon princesses—a gendered stereotype we wanted to avoid. It isn’t that we don’t like them, but rather that we wanted to encourage the children who visit to invent their own characters and stories instead of rehashing the ones they already know.

When her caretaker couldn’t find one, the child seemed disappointed for a moment, then scooped up the nearest crown, hopped on a stick horse, and charged toward an available sword at the other end of the exhibit.

Her caretaker, on the other hand, kept searching and asking for a tiara, not even noticing that the girl had moved on so quickly. It just goes to show you—sometimes kids adapt better than grownups.

 

Ditching stereotypes opens a whole new way to play.

Taking away existing rules lets kids make up their own. Since Once Upon a Castle opened, we’ve seen children switch from playing knights to jesters to chefs to wizards in a matter of seconds—they don’t have to be pushed or led in the right direction or follow any prescribed rules.

In fact, a lot of the time, it’s better not to prescribe, because that’s when their imaginations really shine.

So why does it matter? Our big takeaway from this process has been that too often we lead kids without watching to see what they do. Letting children lead is a cornerstone of Chicago Children’s Museum experiences. Children often have a better route. Sometimes it’s better to stand back, watch, and let them show us.

It’s what we try to do every day.

 

Visit our website to learn more about Once Upon a Castle or how you can join us in ditching gender stereotypes.

 

How parents and caregivers can move beyond gender stereotypes

Is what we think of as “for boys” or “for girls” written in stone? Some childhood development experts argue that children learn these stereotypes from grownups, and that it starts at a very young age.

Take gender-specific toys: Toys directed at boys tend to have more to do with visual spatial skills and active/physical play, whereas toys directed at girls are more focused on language arts and social skills. Children can take cues from those focuses, form their own gender stereotypes, and grow up thinking that certain skills are reserved for boys, while certain skills are just for girls. This can limit children’s perceptions of what they’re good at, what they’re capable of, or even what is possible for them.

But kids don’t necessarily have to live by those strict stereotypes—just ask Riley:

Riley Video

As parents and caregivers, you can help prevent kids from forming and internalizing some of these gender stereotypes. Here’s how.

 

Think beyond two groups.

It takes a little thought and practice, but avoid reinforcing the gender binary—the idea that there are only two distinct and opposite genders, masculine and feminine. Not everyone fits into one of those categories.

Instead, try to think about gender identity as a spectrum with characteristics that intersect and overlap. Remember that there isn’t one way to be “male,” one way to be “female”—there’s a wide range of ways to express gender.

 

Avoid assumptions.

Making assumptions about gender is something we’ve been taught to do since birth, so it can be tricky to stop. However, gender isn’t always cut and dry—take the recent uproar about Garfield’s gender identity.

Instead of making your own assumptions, try not to label a child’s stuffed animal or toy a particular gender—let the child do that and support their decision. Additionally, if children are playing together, avoid gendered romantic labels like “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.”

 

Create a new greeting.

One way to resist the gender binary and avoid assumptions is to avoid gender in a greeting.

For example, when you greet a group of children, instead of saying, “Hi boys and girls,” which reinforces the gender binary, try, “Hi friends,” or address a group of children based on what they’re doing: “Hi artists/climbers/explorers,” etc.

 

Don’t let gender make the rules.

Children enjoy and benefit from all kinds of imaginative and creative play—regardless of gender. When hosting playdates and parties, don’t let gender determine the activity.

Instead, offer art, active play, dress up, superhero play, dance, etc. to all children, regardless of the gender of your guests. Playing dress up and playing superhero have much in common, and all children can benefit from (and enjoy) many different ways to play.

 

Ignore blue and pink.

There are an awful lot of ways that stores and manufacturers gender the toys they make—so much so that it can be obvious which store aisles are “for boys” and which are “for girls.” But like Riley asks in the video above, who makes those rules anyway?

Ignore those rules and, when purchasing gifts for your kids, relatives, or friends, don’t limit yourself to toys labeled “boys” or “girls.” All children deserve (and want) the opportunity to explore a variety of interests—regardless of gender.

 

Read more about how Chicago Children’s Museum tries to remove gender stereotypes from our exhibits and why.

Talking to kids about social injustice and discrimination

As a cultural institution and a place for children, Chicago Children’s Museum is constantly thinking about how kids understand and interact with the world around them, and how that world impacts them. Kids’ ears can pick up bits and pieces of the most complicated conversations, which in turn can prompt adult-sized questions.

Regardless of your political beliefs, these conversations can bring up questions and concerns about discrimination and fairness, and it can be challenging to know the best ways to tackle it with your kids.

We’ve put together some ideas for parents and caregivers to have meaningful conversations with children of all ages about issues of equality and diversity, and how to get those conversations started.

 

Teach them empathy.

Being able to empathize with others who are treated unfairly is an early step in understanding the damage that is done by discrimination and inequality. However, kids need to learn empathy—we’re not born with it. Parents and caregivers need to talk about what it means to empathize, encourage their kids to work toward it, and model it themselves.

Sometimes books can be great discussion tools. Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry is a great story to kick off conversations about empathy.

 

Relate larger issues to their smaller worlds.

Children may not be able to understand the details of civil rights, but they can understand why it isn’t fair to cut in line for the playground slide. Kindness and fairness are ideas that kids understand and relate to very early on. Show kids that their worlds and the world around them are related.

The book What Does It Mean To Be Kind by Rana DiOrio talks about kindness in a world that kids understand: the classroom.

 

Help them explore difference—without generalizing.

We ask kids to point out which block is red and which block is blue, but when it comes to people, we insist we’re all the same. Kids notice differences—be honest and encourage them to explore those differences in positive ways.

The book The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler (and published by Chicago Children’s Museum) teaches kids to not only acknowledge difference, but to celebrate it too.

 

Hold yourself accountable—but not to the level of perfection.

Nobody’s perfect. We all have our own biases, and children hear what we say and take it all in. Avoid speaking in generalizations about other people and question others when they do so. If you do speak unfairly about a person or group, openly acknowledge the mistake.

 

Continue the conversation—but avoid oversharing.

Listen carefully to children’s questions and take cues about what they want to talk about. As adults, we have a tendency to provide too many details and concepts that may well be beyond their comprehension. Try using open-ended questions like “What are you curious about?” to get to the heart of their concerns. Then you can help them find more information about what they would like to know. And if you’re not sure how to start the conversation, you can always turn to books like the ones we listed above.

 

Talking about prejudice and discrimination is not something we can check off a list—it’s an ongoing conversation. Help your children see the world through a lens of compassion and kindness throughout their childhoods that will last well into their adult lives.

Field Trips and Self Identity

Museum educators Holly Denman and Alexandra Pafilis look at how field trips can provide a special platform for children as they work on developing their unique senses of self. 

Daily, we are reminded that children are individuals, growing into their potential and personality, developing their senses of self. As we watch children enter and explore Chicago Children’s Museum, we are often struck by the varying reactions, interests and temperaments of our field trip visitors. Some children eagerly burst into the nearest exhibit—passionately curious about what it could hold. Others dutifully stick close to their teacher as they look around their new setting. Some express concern about putting their lunch away, looking for reassurance that it will be waiting for them.

Field trips can be a powerful tool for fostering self-efficacy, the feeling of being a “doer” inthe world and capable of success in new situations. We love to watch feelings of self-efficacy bloom as children build structures in our Skyline exhibit. At first, children may puzzle over how to line up the wooden struts, nuts and bolts. After some tinkering, they quickly discover how to assemble the

Unknown

materials into the frame of a building. As they work with busy hands and minds, they can see the results of their actions—all of a sudden they have a house that they built! Similarly, children have a chance to work with real tools—many of which they are using for the first time—in our Tinkering Lab exhibit. When children swing a hammer for the first time, they often miss the nail completely. But on the tenth, 20th or maybe 50th time, they have the technique mastered and are driving nails into wood like a pro. The healthy pride on a child’s face at that moment is a peek into a bolstered sense of ability, efficacy and confidence.

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Talking to Your Kids About Tragedy

Like the rest of the country, we were shocked and deeply saddened by the events at the Boston Marathon this past Monday. Discussing disaster and loss with your family, especially children, can be complicated subjects to navigate. Below are resources we have reviewed and approved to help you decide when and how to talk to the children in your life about tragedy.

Talking to Kids About News
Talking with Children About Tragedy – Again
Hot to Talk to Kids About The Boston Marathon Bombing, Age by Age
Cope After Exposure to a Traumatic Event
How to Help Kids Feel Safe After a Tragedy