Building a Treehouse

Help your children craft a backyard treehouse.
By Ron Dalby
May/June 1984
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"It's anything and everything I think is best/Because, when I climb to my house in the tree/I pretend it's whatever I want it to be." (Harold Longman, The Wonderful Tree House.)  

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In days gone by, it was referred to as a treehouse, but today's child most likely calls it a tree fort. No matter what its title, though, the place is basically the same: a safe arboreal hideout ... mysteriously endowed with the power to transport its occupants far away from worldly matters and into the realm of fantastical play and unencumbered daydreams. You remember the place ....

And, while reminiscing, you may also recall that these aerial habitats usually come in two distinct forms: There's the sturdy fortress cautiously constructed by a hammer-wise adult, and then there's the ramshackle (but equally usable) type built by the inexperienced but enthusiastic carpenters/adventurers who plan to inhabit it. Of the two versions, only one is really worth creating: the latter. After all, whereas an adult-built structure might be more aesthetically pleasing (to parents), a child-made hangout is enriched with the unique (and oftentimes quite inspired) resourcefulness of its youthful creators.

However, you must keep in mind that, although these child-crafted models might appear to be haphazard in design, there really is a basic "recipe" that must be adhered to. Otherwise, the outcome could be downright dangerous. The exact amounts of ingredients involved may vary according to the builders' needs and whatever raw materials are available, but the general components of a tree fort are always the same. Just in case you've got an eager crew of aspiring builders, I've prepared an outline of the basic plan, complete with a few directions on what to do with the ingredients when you've assembled them:

Building a Treehouse

  1. One parent able to stand up to a mate's protestations and say, "Let the kids build it themselves if they want to!" (Naturally, this could be difficult if the Joneses across the street have recently subcontracted a multistory split-level tree palace for their child.)
  2. A few budding engineers, male or female, aged 6 to 13 years. (It's especially nice if they're best friends.)
  3. The family hammer . . . which will undoubtedly be lost each winter at the first snowfall, only to reappear in the spring in the vicinity of the tree fort. (Wise parents who desire the use of a hammer during the winter will keep a spare on hand.)
  4. A good stock of nails, carefully sorted according to size.
  5. The family crosscut saw (which will be subject to the same fate as the household hammer, so it's a good idea to have two saws around, as well).
  6. Whatever scrap lumber is available or affordable. (Plywood works well because it covers a lot of area quickly, but you'll also need some thicker, stronger pieces of wood to serve as support beams.)
  7. One large tree or a number of small sturdy ones growing close together. 
  8. Spare time for the carpenters (after school, on weekends, during spring vacation, and so on).

General Directions

To begin, organize the raw materials ... and then don't yield to the young engineers' impassioned pleas that you build the fort for them! Point out that all the ingredients have been assembled so that they can begin work whenever they wish.

Once construction is taken up by the youngsters, your job becomes that of building inspector. This task should be undertaken as subtly as possible, so as to leave most of the work (and therefore the resulting sense of accomplishment) to the crew. The initial stage of construction should take place at the limit of the youngsters' reach . . . maybe four or five feet above the ground, at most. After the plywood has been haphazardly nailed to the trees, you might point outcasually, of coursethe need for supporting beams (otherwise, they're likely to find out the hard way!).

Level Two construction generally gets under way during the following year, when the carpenters realize thatsince the view improves with altitudea second-story platform is a necessity. During this phase of work, the building inspector should make frequent trips to the site-after bedtimeto check on the sturdiness of the new structure by flashlight. (Note: Be sure to bend over the heads of any nails used to reinforce critical pointsand maybe even leave a few hammer marks on the boardsthus disguising any obvious evidence of your nocturnal visits.)

Over the years, a fort can expand to as many as four levels, depending on the height and strength of the tree(s). As the structure grows, the inspector's job becomes not only more crucial but much more difficult, since young engineers tend to concoct ladders and trapdoors suited to their own small sizes and weights. This could result in gymnastic contortions on your part in order to inspect Level Four.

A Memorable Site

A tree fort is never fully finished: It's steadily added to and improved upon until about the time that its inhabitants/creators discover the opposite sex. Since a splintered playhouse some distance above the ground is hardly the most comfortable (or conventional) spot for a first date, the tree fort is retired to the photograph album as the children pursue more mature matters. Still, an appreciation of "Hey, I really did build it myself!" does remain, and this can grow with the passage of years. If you have any doubts, just ask Grandpa about his treehouse hideaway!

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