How to Build the Best Backyard Fort With Your Kids

With winter in the rearview mirror, it's time to take fort building from the basement to the backyard.

by Brett Ortler
An illustration of a backyard lean-to shelter

As the weather warms up, building a backyard lean-to is a fun way to take fort building from an inside activity with pillows and sheets to an outside one with sticks and leaves. Together, you’ll MacGyver a simple survival shelter that masquerades as a fun wooden fort. It’s one of the activities for kids that’s fun because there aren’t many rules beyond “keep it standing.” Plus, the processes teaches kids a bit of self-reliance and outdoor skills that will keep them dry in a pinch.

Prep Time: Half an hour

Hours of Entertainment: An hour or soEnergy Expended by Child: Significant

What you’ll need:

  • A bunch of relatively long sticks
  • Two long, solid sticks that will serve as the lean-to’s main supports
  • A thick tree trunk or a tall (3-4 foot) high tree stump
  • A blanket for the “floor”
  • Flashlights make things more fun

How to Do It: A lean-to is a simple shelter that you build by leaning sticks against something else — whether it’s a tall tree, a rock wall, or the side of the house. There are a lot of ways to make them, and you can incorporate different materials, but for the simplest version, build it around a tree with a thick trunk. (Old oak trees work really well.)

Start by finding an area in the yard with a lot of long sticks, branches, and leaves, and set your kids loose collecting them. Have them pick up one stick at a time and stack them in a nice orderly pile. As you supervise your tiny lumberjacks, keep an eye out for two long downed branches (preferably both six feet or so in length). If you can find one that has a fork in it, even better. Drag them to your tree trunk. These will serve as the main supports that you’ll lean against the tree.

First, take one of the large support branches with the fork, and lean it against the left side of the tree trunk. Then take the other tree branch and lean on the right side of the tree stump. Then connect the two supports by lodging the non-forked branch into the “fork” of the other branch at the point where they both are leaning against the tree trunk. (You’ll basically be creating the outline of the letter “A.”) Now do a quick test to ensure the frame is stable. If it seems suspect or wobbly, lower the supports so they lean at a wider angle against the tree.

Now it’s time to start leaning sticks across and against the frame to build the walls. Do so one by one to start, making sure the first half dozen or so are carefully laid against your supports to fill in the space. After that, you should have a pretty solid base on which to lay the rest of the sticks and the kids can get into the action. As you layer in more sticks, the walls will become more complete. Just be sure to leave some room at the bottom or on the side for a door. If you really want to make the lean-to weather-resistant, have them jam dry leaves, strips of bark, or branches with pine needles in between the branches to ‘thatch’ the walls/roof and fill in any holes. This makes the lean-to a cozy, if confined, shelter that will persist for days.

Before you let the kids crawl in, check the overall stability once more. If everything feels stable, duck inside, place the sleeping bag as the floor, and snap off any dangerous sticks that are protruding into the shelter. That’s it. You’re ready for the kids to come in and the adventures to begin.

Wrap Up: Like leafbag football, building a lean-to is a win-win when it comes to activities. Not only do the kids get to burn off energy building a cool fort out of sticks and leaves, but you get some free yard work out of the deal as well. And better still, once your kids declare the lean-to fort officially defunct, you’ve got everything ready for your next bonfire.