Spring To-Do's

It's Tax Time!

Shed Chic: A Toddler's Playhouse

A handydad turns a retired milkshed into a nifty toddler hangout

When Kurt and Jenna Susanke found a way to move to the former Illinois dairy farm where Kurt's grandparents had lived for more than 50 years, it seemed like good luck indeed. Their daughter, Jadyn, would grow up in the place where her dad had waged apple wars with his cousins. The less lucky part: The farmhouse needed a rafters-to-doorknobs renovation, which Kurt, who calls himself a "novice carpenter," aimed to take on himself.

He decided to start small — very small. His first project was to turn the farm's former milkshed into a playhouse, so Jadyn would have a construction-free place to retreat while he hammered away. Now the family's house is still filled with lumber, but the playhouse is outfitted for gracious living; Jadyn, 18 months, hosts tea parties there for her grandmother Sally.

Sally remembers when the blacktop road out front was just dust under her tractor and says that as a girl, she never served tea in the milkshed. "Play? We didn't know what playing was," she laughs. "We hauled milk out here!" Now the only thing that gets hauled in the shed is a bucket of stuffed animals.

Lofty Ideas
Kurt and Jenna got the inspiration for the loft from small apartments in Hong Kong, where Jenna once worked. "There, it's all about maximizing the space you have," she says. The loft gives the 10- by 14-foot playhouse a little extra room and gives rise to a range of dramatic scenarios: Up top, it's a lookout nest; down below, it's a marionette theater.

If you don't have a milkshed to spare, a loft can also transform a corner of the garage, Kurt says. This one was made with standard-sized lumber; Kurt attached a ledge to the existing wall studs, then nailed the loft into the ledge. He added a balcony railing for safety, of course; experts recommend leaving no more than 4 inches between the rails. A childproof gate at the top of the loft's ladder makes things even safer.

Floor Show
The platform under the loft was part of the shed: The floor lifts up to reveal the old milk repository underneath. Now Kurt and Jenna use the containers as storage for games and seasonal toys that are out of rotation. The corner of the platform makes a snug napping spot, with a red futon mattress (at walmart.com, full-sized mattresses start at $135, covers at $30; secondhand deals can usually be found in the classifieds) and body pillows (Jadyn's are from Costco; target.com also sells them in blue, turquoise, lilac, pink, and tan for $25 each).

On the floor, Kurt put down interlocking foam mats so Jadyn can spread out with her dolls. (A package of four 1-square-foot tiles is $7 at wondermat.com; mix and match the colors to create your own design.)

For the walls and ceiling, he went with rustic pine tongue-and-groove paneling (about $24 per 4- by 8-foot sheet at Home Depot) that snaps together; he says it's a less messy option than hanging sheets of heavy drywall.

Slide and Peek
Since the only thing more fun than a hideaway is another hideaway hidden away, Kurt made a simple curtain enclosure under the loft: He installed bamboo rods on hooks (a 2 1/2-inch-diameter pole is $10 at tikifocus.com; poles come in 10-foot lengths but can be cut to order at no charge), then added colorful shower curtains (target.com sells one similar to Jadyn's for $20) and anchored them to each post with ribbons.

Woolly Pulley
Inspired by the barn pulley that his grandfather used to haul feed, Kurt made a bucket-delivery system for the playhouse loft. (Colorful metal buckets start at $3 at mainstsupply.com.) He used a pulley from the toolshed, looping through synthetic rope and attaching it to a hook (this one's a boating cleat) fixed to the loft pole. Loftless? A pulley and bucket can also be fun for a sundeck or a staircase. (At hardware or boating-supply stores, simple pulleys are $2 and up; synthetic rope is about 75¢ per foot; cleats start at $2.)

Explore Décor
Kurt and Jenna are travelers, so they wanted to include "artifacts that would remind Jadyn of the big, interesting world out there beyond the farm," Jenna says. Some of the decorative things are souvenirs she and Kurt collected (painted Mexican letters that spell Jadyn, a Portuguese needlepoint hanging, Spanish fans). Other treasures are from World Market (the large lanterns and rows of small paper lights, a string of Indian elephants; worldmarket.com).

Custom Detailing
Over the bed hangs the costume Jadyn wore for her dol, a Korean ceremony that marks a child's first birthday. At the dol a series of objects is placed in front of the baby. She's then set loose as the adults watch to see what she'll pick up first; the belief is that it reveals the key to her future. "Kurt had put down a toy tractor, but she went for the pencil, so supposedly she'll be an academic," Jenna says. "She loves to play in the dirt, though. My grandparents were farmers in Korea, so I guess she gets it from both sides."

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