Nothing stimulates children’s imaginations like their own private play space.“Play is the highest form of research.” —Albert Einstein By Maria Martin Ask John Griffin why he loves his job and his answer may surprise you. “I get a lot of hugs,” says Griffin, owner of TreeHouse Colorado in Louisville. “One little boy I built a tree house for walked out, looked at it, and told me—with a serious look—‘I love you.’” When his daughter Ellie was 2, Griffin built her first tree house, which had only 18-inch-tall levels “so she couldn’t fall far,” he says. Ellie’s current tree house has a dog-friendly ramp and a trapdoor. “My friends and I are thinking of camping in it this summer,” says Ellie, now 14. “Tree houses bring back great memories.” Children need such spaces because they process experiences through play, says Bridget Borsdorf, owner and lead therapist of The Boulder Center for Play Therapy. “Play is crucial to kids,” she says, “and play structures are great places for kids to discharge energy.” In doing so, they’re finding their own place in the world. “Imagination is how they communicate.” The humble playhouse Mark Borden built for his three children reflects Borsdorf’s belief. “The playhouse gives them their own structure, which they can imagine as a house, castle, ship or whatever they dream up,” Borden says. “It’s their own kingdom.” His children make the rules in their playhouse. “They can even ban adults if they want,” Borden says, adding that a playhouse creates more solid social interaction than TV or video games. A playhouse is also a great place for kids to mimic what’s going on in their home, Borsdorf adds. “What’s important is that it’s their space. There aren’t a lot of rules—other than you need to be safe. You can make a mess, even if your mom doesn’t let you do so in your ‘real’ house.” Abby Borden, 4, likes to have tea parties in her playhouse, while her 6-year-old sister Felice announces, “I get to play puppets!” Eleven-year-old Marcus Borden admires the playhouse’s aesthetics. “I like that it’s made out of wood, because it’s more natural,” he says, adding that “fort” is his favorite game. Boulder psychologist Stephen Schmitz decided to build a tree house for his children in 2006. He and his father made it out of mostly recycled materials. “It took about two months to build,” Schmitz says of the two-story structure that wraps around a gigantic honey locust. Schmitz also enhanced the tree house with additional play areas. “I have a playground and a zip line, and we’ve tried to make it multigenerational, so there’s a swing for a baby.” Though he’s had to replace a few bolts as the tree grew, the tree house has proven resilient. “It’s a great place to be in a windstorm, because it’s almost like a boat on the water, swaying.” Summer is when play and play structures go hand in hand, says Christie Gestal, founder and clinical director of The Boulder Center for Play Therapy. “Summertime offers children freedom from the responsibilities of school and the space to explore their curiosity, wonder and delight with the world! They get to know themselves and what truly inspires them from within.” [accordion title="Tree House Do’s & Don’ts" open="1"] Don’t try to build a play structure yourself until you do proper research. The key to safety is to know how to build a stable structure.
- Do use the space. Whether you’re starting from scratch or a pro has installed the basics, consider using all the space under and around the tree house or playhouse. Add in swing sets, monkey bars and fireman’s poles, as well as access ladders. Tire swings are popular, too.
- Don’t build too high. Though the idea of a tree house perched high up in the branches might hold appeal, safety comes first.
- Do consider building primarily from the ground up, near a tree. Native Colorado trees, like aspens and cottonwoods, are not sturdy enough to support a heavy tree house. Build a separate platform to support the play structure off the ground next to a tree, and then launch ladders and bridges from the tree to the play structure.
- Do know the building code. If a “house” attaches to tree and ground, for instance, the city of Boulder requires a permit.
- Don’t build play structures in setback areas.