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Up a Tree with a Ladder

Build a Hangout That Ranks High Above the Rest

Climbing trees is one thing – children throughout history have spent many lazy summer days scaling whatever happened to be growing in their backyards or at the local park. Living in trees, of course, is something else – a magical fantasy usually reserved for mythic heroes and childhood friends.

Winnie the Pooh hung his honey pots in a hollowed tree located at the heart of the Hundred Acre Wood. Tarzan and Jane made their home in a tree high above the jungle floor. Both the Ewoks from Return of the Jedi and the elves from The Lord of the Rings commanded entire tree kingdoms. But why should fictional characters have all the fun when it comes to cool places to hang out?

Monkey Business
"A treehouse should be a place for kids – their domain, their private place, their responsibility and their sanctuary," says David Stiles, a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, Italy, and an award-winning industrial designer and author. Along with wife, Jeanie, he is the author and illustrator of 18 "how-to" books, including How to Build Treehouses, Huts and Forts (The Lyons Press, 2003) and Treehouses You Can Actually Build: A Weekend Project Book (Houghton Mifflin, 1998). "Build a child a treehouse and grant them sole ownership of it and you will be admired and loved for the rest of your life."

Stiles has built a dozen or so treehouses himself and writes his books for families with the idea that they will be the ones completing the projects. "The best thing about building a treehouse is that it can be a family project," Stiles says. "You are giving your family the gift of imagination. One father told me that he put a ladder up to a tree, climbed it with his son and discussed, from amongst the leaves, how to build their treehouse. He said it was the best time he had ever had with his son."

The Sky's the Limit
Joe Mirrow of Centerville, Ohio, is a biomedical engineer in the air force and the father of three. As an air force family, the Mirrows have to move every three years or so. "When we were about to leave Texas and all their friends, I told the kids that if we could find a house with a big tree, I would build them a treehouse," Mirrow says.

Needless to say, young Rachel, Andrew and Benjamin were excited when their new house in Ohio had about five trees that would accommodate their father's promise. And so Mirrow's skills were put to the test. "I have always been handy with power tools, but I'm not a woodworker by any stretch," he says. Mirrow designed the treehouse on graph paper to get an approximate idea of how much wood and other resources would be needed.

Mirrow estimates that the treehouse cost him between $700 and $800 in materials, but he is convinced that he got his money's worth. Among the many fun features of the treehouse are a front deck, real casement windows, a rope ladder built by his daughter, a trap door installed at his son's request, a shingled roof, bunk beds, even an intercom connected from the house to the treehouse so the kids can call down for snacks. Unfortunately, at least one thing did have to remain on the drawing board – Mirrow nixed an idea for a zip-line from the treehouse to the ground, concerned about the potential for a 14-foot fall from "leg-breaking height."

Decoration was not a problem and actually turned the family project into a community one. "The painting was done on the ground by just about every kid in the neighborhood," Mirrow says. After the walls were painted, Mirrow and a neighbor assembled them in his garage and then used a pulley tied above the treehouse platform to lift them into place. After construction was completed, the pulley was left in place and is now used to hoist a basket for snacks.

Fully Loaded
Stiles thinks such creativity and involvement are a crucial component of the treehouse mystique. "Kids like to invent ways to test their skills, bravery and imagination," he says. "A treehouse should be loaded with as many different activities as possible." Such kid-centric amenities can include ladders, secret doors, ropes, pulleys, swings and "anything else that can be moved, operated or climbed by a kid."

Of course, if a dad is going to build a treehouse with these kinds of upgrades, he may need to make a few upgrades of his own – to his toolbox. Mirrow did purchase a 10-inch mitre saw, though he admits that a 12-inch saw would have been helpful in cutting some of the necessary angles. Another investment for would-be treehouse builders? A good laser level. Mirrow built the floor to the treehouse on uneven ground and "leveling it 10 feet in the air took a very long time."

For the Mirrows, this labor of love remains a work in progress. Mirrow sees room for improvement. "At some point, I'd love to attach a fire pole to make getting down easier," he says, proving that treehouses spark inspiration and imagination in children of all ages.

Planning Your Treehouse
David Stiles has a lot of ideas to help you build the perfect treehouse for your kids at www.treehouse-books.com. Getting started, however, requires a little planning. Here's some ideas to get your tree house off the ground:

  • Hold a family meeting to start tossing out design ideas.
  • Using those ideas, make or pick a plan, taking the logistics into account.
  • Pick a tree that has limbs strong enough to support your treehouse and some open space between branches to allow for building.
  • Safety is key. Allow for wind and make sure that your treehouse is properly supported.
  • Remember, treehouses do not have to be elaborate or expensive to be fun. "Anyone who can bore a hole with a drill can build a treehouse," Stiles says.

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