By Nancy Humphrey Case
Issue 126, September/October 2004
I'd seen plenty of extravagance in the marketing of toys, but this magazine ad made my eyes pop. It featured playhouses so elaborate that the cheapest one cost $4,000. Besides shingled roofs, shuttered windows, glass doors, and scalloped trim, they came with options ranging from flying bridges and flagpoles to trapdoors and sliding peepholes. Little was left to the imagination. The Climbing Castle even had 16 hand-carved fleur-de-lis shields. If this wasn't enough, you could go for one of the more expensive custom play structures (up to $159,000) with electricity and indoor plumbing. "The ultimate children's toy," the ad declared. But the next line revealed that it was big kids these play structures really appealed to. "Popular among Hollywood stars," it boasted.
Aside from the extravagance, there's something wrong with this picture when you put kids into it. I speak from experience.
When our older kids were eight and five, my husband and I began thinking about building a tree house for them. My dad had built me a simple tree house"ha wooden box with an upside-down sandbox on posts for a roof. I told my kids how much fun I'd had perched in my own special spot behind a leafy screen. They listened with big eyes, and began to envision their own tree house. We picked out a spot in the woods behind our house: four straight ash trees growing six to eight feet apart.
The first issue was how high to build the tree house. I was concerned about safety, but my husband wanted its floor to be at least ten feet off the ground. "It won't be very exciting if it's any lower than that," he said, "especially when the kids get older." Did he really mean that it wouldn't be very exciting for him?
Christa and Ian stood by in silence as we hammered out this decision. We cut the beams and bolted them into the trees"hten feet off the ground. The work was too dangerous for the kids to take much part in, but they sported their tool bags and watched cheerfully. They couldn't wait to have a tree house.
By the end of that afternoon, I think we had all of two beams bolted in place. A few weeks later we finally had a plywood platform. Christa and Ian were delighted. They climbed up the ladder and through the trap opening as I held their hands and told them to be very careful. There was nothing to keep them from falling off. A simple railing would have sufficed, but my husband had a grander scheme in mind.
When we were in college, a bunch of guys who had tired of studying and itched to do something creative with their hands built a tree house at the edge of the college golf course. Word got around, and my then boyfriend (now my husband) and I walked out one spring evening to see it. I was amazed. It had full walls with glass windows, and stairs inside to connect its three levels. There was a west-facing deck off the back, from which we sat and watched the sun set through buds of pale green.
I don't know if my husband was remembering that magical place or not, but the tree house he wanted to build for our kids went way beyond anything I'd had in mind. It was to be fully enclosed, with a trap door for entry and a regular door to a deck, complete with full railing. It would be solidly built and of generous proportions"htall enough for my husband and me to stand up in.
For a while we spent a little time each weekend adding a few more boards to our tree house. But other activities interfered, and soon our New Hampshire fall turned to winter. We put the tree house project on hold until spring. By then, the idea had lost its initial zest. Although we did make progress on the tree house for a couple of years, the project dragged on until the kids were too old to care. When we moved several years later, I gave the buyers of our house the piece of corrugated Plexiglas that was to have been the roof of our tree house, but their son was already in high school.
The most fun anyone ever had in that tree house was a couple of years ago, when our college-age son decided he wanted to show his new girlfriend where he'd grown up. They drove up from Boston one winter night, arriving after midnight. While the family slept in the house that had once been ours, Ian and his girlfriend sneaked through the snowy woods and climbed up into the old tree house. It still had no roof, but it was as sturdy as heck"hstrong enough and tall enough to hold two fun-loving adults.
The good news is that, all the while our tree house sat unfinished and unused, our kids were having a ton of fun building places of their own.
"Ian, want to make a fort today?" Christa would ask on a fall day. They'd go off looking for fallen sticks"hlong, thick ones to pile against low-slung branches. They'd spend hours building something like the house Eeyore built for himself"hthe one Pooh and Piglet mistook for a heap of sticks. And when Christa and Ian came inside for hot chocolate and popcorn, their pink cheeks glowed with satisfaction. They never played in the forts they made"hthe joy was in the creative process, in building something all by themselves.
Later, I learned that this urge kids have to create special places for themselves is nearly universal. In a summer writing class I taught, the fifth through seventh graders had lots of stories to tell about the places they'd built. They were diverse: a group of mossy rocks, a large hole in the ground, a secret spot high in a tree, an igloo, a fort made of furniture and blankets, a tunnel made of sticks. The children who had not made forts had strong visions for ones they'd like to create. But this wasn't all.
One of my graduate professors, David Sobel of Antioch/New England Graduate School, did some research in Devon, England and Carriacou, West Indies, and found this instinct to be cross-cultural. He wrote a fascinating book, Children's Special Places, tying his findings to some theories of child development (see sidebar, "Get the Scoop on Secret Hideouts").
After reading Sobel's book, I decided to write a children's article on the topic. I began by asking around town for some kids and forts I could interview and photograph. One boy said he and his brothers had made a fort in a huge tangle of blackberry bushes, but a heavy snow had flattened it the previous winter. A neighbor girl showed me her "fort""ha sheltered spot under the drooping branches of a huge black oak tree on a wild hillside. It had a swing and a pink plastic wastebasket on a rope for hauling stuff up into the tree. That was interesting, but I wanted an example of something a bit more substantial"hone that had been put together piece by piece.
I asked a friend of mine who had seven children. He thought for a minute. "I know the one you want," he said. "It's a wonderful fort." Then he described the structure another dad had built for his kids. I knew the place"ha classy platform with a railing built in a tree with a great view. It looked beautiful"hthe kind you might see in a magazine. But I had never seen any kids playing in it.
"No," I told my friend, "you don't understand. I need a fort built by kids"hyou know, made with sticks and scraps they find lying around." He couldn't help me, but an idea was brewing in my head. After all, I had the go-ahead for this article and I had to come up with something soon.
One summer morning I picked up five of my friend's kids, ages 4 to 14, and drove them to my house. I showed them our pile of scrap lumber and told them they could have whatever they wanted if they'd build a fort with it. They picked out an odd assortment of 2 by 4s and pieces of plywood and loaded it into my pickup truck. We hauled it into their back yard, under some tall pines beside a horse pasture. Then I turned to leave.
"Have fun," I called. "I'll be back this evening to see how it turned out."
The fort they made was a hodgepodge of triangular spaces and crazy roof angles. There were walls in some places, big gaps in others, and plenty of bent nails embedded in the lumber. But the kids were very proud of it.
"See, this is a skylight," one said, pointing to a gap in the roof. The younger ones danced around and poked their heads out the "windows." The oldest showed me where he had made a leather hinge for the door. One of the girls had spray-painted a sign to hang over the door. "FORT SHEP," it announced (named after their dog). They were beaming with pleasure. They had had a blast making this fort themselves"hall in one day-long burst of creative energy.
Think back to the special places you carved out for yourself when you were a child. Maybe it was nothing more than a round room enclosed by cascading willow branches, where you staked out your claim with a few blankets and dolls. Or a tent made of a blanket draped over a rope. My favorites were the paths and "rooms" we created in a hayfield. We slithered along on our tummies, bending down the fragrant grass, feeling totally secreted and yet part of the huge, embracing world of nature.
Forget the deluxe playhouses advertised in that magazine. Your kids' lives will be a lot richer for the meaning and joy they'll find creating special places of their own"hwhether in a hayfield, a wood, or a postage-stamp backyard. If you must get involved, then buy a copy of A Kids' Guide to Building Forts, by Tom Birdseye (see sidebar). Help your kids understand some basic techniques, if necessary. Show them what stuff they can scavenge. Then (this is the hard part) back off. You'll be surprised to see how capable and creative they can be"hespecially if two or three kids work on it together. If you're lucky, when they've finished, you'll be invited inside. It might be a tight squeeze. Your head might bump the ceiling and the roof might cave in. But that's okay. You'll just be giving them the opportunity to build another one.
And if you really want a playhouse with a flying bridge and electricity, just buy or build it for yourself.
Nancy Humphrey Case is a freelance writer living in Hyde Park, Vermont. A former teacher, she holds a master's degree in education. Her essays and articles on parenting have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor. She also writes for children's magazines. Nancy considers mothering to be her most important and rewarding job.