Article Repost: Why kids should branch out and build tree houses

Why kids should branch out and build tree houses

Special to The Seattle Times

Did you build a tree house when you were a kid?

While your home in the branches probably wasn’t an architectural wonder, you probably had a memorable time planning, acquiring the materials and building it. You likely felt competent and in control, making adjustments as the structure progressed. Kids are driven to take on such a project because it somehow satisfies their need to utilize their growing developmental skills. They’re able to try building a structure they’ve fantasized about living in or at least sleeping in on a warm summer night.

While doing so, they imagine whether they’d be lonely or brave. They also challenge themselves physically by carrying and hoisting boards to the tree limbs and then pounding in nails to secure the structure.

The social challenge of the process likely provides the most benefit. Kids face the challenges of problem-solving, negotiating, compromising and making decisions without adult guidance. They’re left to pick a leader while calling on and using each other’s emerging expertise. Deep friendships usually form along with the project.

Kids between 8 and 10 years old begin the process of separating from parents. Some do so with a sign on their bedroom door that reads, “Keep Out.” Others form secret clubs. Many yearn to take on the challenge of building a camp in the woods or a tree house in the backyard.

Will your kids have the opportunity for such an adventure? One mom said she had built a tree house with her sister, but she would not support her children’s interest in building such a structure, because she’s afraid they’d fall or pound a nail in a finger. Other parents might fear that unsupervised youth building a tree house in the woods might attract adults that would do them harm.

Today, parents might hope for a summer day camp where the kids are commissioned to build a tree house with the plans, supplies and organization provided by camp counselors who would oversee the project. Such an experience, although possibly valuable on one level, would be absurd on another. What kids this age truly seek is the freedom to tackle such projects on their own, whether they finish them, serve a purpose or look respectable.

If you question the value of time spent building a free-form tree house, consider that the builders have the opportunity to learn about lumber, the importance of bracing the structure, hinges, nails, screws, ladders, pulleys, framing for windows and doors, sloping the roof to shed rain, the strength of materials, how to use a handsaw, the importance of measurement and how body size relates to the tree and the house it sits in.

Even if the structure is only a few slabs of lumber hammered into a tree where the builders take their lunch and view the neighborhood from this perspective, it’s still a gratifying memorable experience.

If you’d like your children to have a tree-house building experience outside your backyard, but worry about predators, go with them to keep an eye on lurkers in the woods. If you provide such protection, take a book to read, and resist the tendency to take over the project. Building a tree house by adult standards rather than kids’ is far less meaningful to the young builders.

With kids today spending so much time hooked up to technology, parents need to take on the challenge of endorsing opportunities for safe adventures in natural settings. If you question the need of kids to do so, read Richard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” ($13.95, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill).

Jan Faull, a specialist in child development and behavior, answers questions of general interest in her column. You can e-mail her at [email protected] or write to: Jan Faull, c/o Families, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. More columns at

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company