The Importance of Building Treehouses

Hang on a minute before you go, this is not one of those teamwork and life skills articles that proliferate across the web. Nor am I recommending you rush into your backyard and start nailing boards into a perfectly healthy tree in an effort to recapture a childhood that is, quite rightly, behind you.

Trees are essential. Without them, society as we know it would not exist. We, as we know ourselves, would not exist either. After all we are allegedly descended from tree-climbing ancestors and our physiology backs this up.

Many animals create shelters, sleeping places or warrens. We humans are no different, we simply call ours posher names (like apartment, hotel, house) because, well, we like language and distinguishing things for a whole variety of reasons. However, when one strips away all the non-essential things any building is, essentially, a shelter. Just like a Gorilla’s nest. So we know adults like to build. We also know children like to build things, love to in fact. How many of us built a tent out of a blanket and a couple of chairs in our bedrooms? Or stuck a sheet to the ceiling with whatever we could find? Alot of the time, this sort of play is discouraged today because it is noisy, time-consuming, potentially damaging to physical objects and usually means that the child then wants to eat their lunch inside their new (temporary) domain. However, wherever possible, these things should be allowed to stand for a while. They are an achievement, especially if a parent helps as little as possible. After all, when a little boy’s temporary tent is taken down by Mum before bedtime because its messy, won’t that be deeply unsatisfying? Isn’t that an hour or so of play, discarded? if a little girl has chosen to read or hold court in her own little castle, doesn’t lifting the roof off make you the big, unfriendly giant, even if it is time for bed? Children will soon realise they need their blanket back, and will most likely ask mum or dad to get it, or dismantle it themselves as they grow. I know I did. if they don’t, they’ll  learn that sleeping on a floor is uncomfortable!

So once we get out from underneath a parent’s feet and into the wonderful world outdoors, what next? Well, in alot of cases and alot of places, nothing. No more building things, except groups of friends that change with the wind. Very, very fortunately, I grew up in the country side. When my parents moved there, treehouses weren’t a big thing, exactly. But my friends and I went out and found spaces. We were opportunists, then, simply looking for trees or spaces we could use to sit in, talk and play games of pretend. That opportunism is extremely empowering, as it quickly teaches you to distinguish a good campsite from a bad, a good treehouse tree from the not so good, and to be honest about your opinion to save the effort of walking there!

Once kids start doing this, an urge to improve said camp or treehouse almost always arises. Often, this isn’t possible, so kids move on to the next better site. Once a good one is found then the scavenging begins. Not for food, of course, but junk. Old desks, beds, even window frames and wheelbarrows, not to mention branches, leaves, moss and earth, almost anything can make its way into a treehouse and should. Yes, there is a  risk your precious child will take some nicks and scratches and maybe even a nasty fall, but as long as they don’t work alone, they will survive and building a good treehouse takes a team. Absolutely everything they are doing at this point is constructive, and useful, because they are building something, however temporary, that requires time, effort, thought and teamwork.  I know I’ved used the word when I said this article wasn’t a teamwork and life skills article, but honestly, its not. It  goes much, much deeper. Because of cruel mother Nature. Nature will destroy any manmade structure given enough time, and treehouses fall apart quickest. Sure losing the precious treehouse might really upset your child, but it is a powerful lesson as well. A lesson in humility. Nothing they do, not even something to held together with rope and plants and pins, will last forever. That’s good to know, particularly when they make a mistake later in life, because they will know that, whatever their mistake, it, like their treehouses, is not eternal. Only knowledge is sure to last for most of their lifetime and even then, not always. Once a treehouse is gone, the team that built has a choice. Try again, or do something else. Surprisingly, lots of children seem to want to try again. I know I did, and I know many of my friends did.

From this small loss, usually comes a large motivation and the next treehouse or camp is much improved, usually as a result of further scavenging and salvaging material from the previous treehouse. Here is where I’m ready to conclude, because as I’m sure you can gather, this begins an outwardly spiralling process of building things, maintaining them and eventually letting them go when wind, water or plants undo them. For me, it ended with a treehouse constructed of bits of old fence, with its own hinged door, lantern and scout tower (tree) that stood for at least 10 years after its construction, as plants slowly grew around it, holding the fence together even as they tore it apart. This taught me a final powerful lesson about life. What we do may not last, but it does make an impression .Iit changes the world. So I urge councillors, city planners, manor house owners and gardeners not to ban or dismantle that ramshackle, untidy collection of boards halfway up a tree. Like the work you do, that just might make an impression, both on the tree and lives of the children building it and if not, nature itself will take care of it.