Tree Houses for Children's Play
To develop properly, a child needs a wide range of experiences, and for many of those experiences they need a space where they can be alone (or with other children); where they can feel away from adults. Any cubby will provide a child with “their own space”, but a tree house will provide an even greater feeling of distance from adults, but still enable parents to keep a watchful eye on their children, and for the children to know that their parents are still within hailing distance.
Isn’t It Dangerous?
Yes, kids can fall out of trees; but kids climb trees whether they have a tree house or not. It is natural for children to climb. In fact, it is an important part of child development. If children don't take risks and make little mistakes, they grow into adults who don't understand risk, and have a tendency to make much bigger mistakes. Research shows overwhelmingly that people learn to deal with dangerous situations through their childhood accidents. A child who never bruises or cuts themselves may grow into an adult who has little caution when faced with potentially life threatening situations
If a tree house is not built well and maintained properly, it can fall too, or pose a safety risk in other ways such as banged heads, cuts or splinters.
Parents, Do Yourself a Favour
Parents who provide their children with the opportunity to experience life fully from a young age are less likely to have as many problems with their children as teenagers or adults. There are, of course, always exceptions to such rules, but if you want the best chance for an easier road ahead, put the effort in while your children are young, and provide your child with as wide a range of experiences as possible, but in as safe an environment as possible.
What Sort of Tree?
Some trees are suited for tree houses, and others are not. You must know the type of tree you are dealing with, and whether it is suitable. Things to consider are:
- Some trees tend to drop branches (eg. Eucalyptus cladocalyx). This not only poses a risk of children being hurt by fallen branches, but also that the tree house may fall or become unstable if branches supporting the tree house fall.
- Some trees have a tendency to develop rots (eg. Birches). If bolts or nails are put into the wood and it rots, the structure may fall out of the tree; or eventually, the tree may rot and drop large branches.
- Some trees will weep sap (eg. conifers) more than others, and this can easily stain clothing.
- Some trees are dirtier to climb or be in (if they are subject to diseases such as sooty mould).
- Some branch junctions are not as strong as others (eg. sharp forks will often split more readily than branches that fork at a greater angle).
- Some trees harbour insects or spiders (eg. dense foliaged plants may harbour mosquitos in hot weather).
- Some trees are poisonous, or have prickles or thorns, or may cause allergies.
An ideal tree for a tree house is one that forms low, spreading branches in a way that supports a platform, and which readily heals over wounds caused by nails or bolts.
Some Suitable Species in Temperate Areas
- Willow (Salix sp)
- River Red Gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis)
- Oaks (Quercus species)
- Angophora species
- Large Maples (Acer species)
- Conifers are often used, but many bleed sap freely
Some Suitable Species in Hotter Climates
- Poinciana (Delonix regia)
- Figs (but watch out for mosquitoes)
- Ashes (Flindersia sp)
- Racecourse tree (Tipuana tipu)
- Coral trees (Erythrina sp)
PLAN FOR YOUR BABY
…if your child is only a baby, now is the time to plant the right type of tree to be used for a tree house later on.
- Brace the structure from the outer edges of the tree house angled to further down on the main trunk of the tree.
- Provide additional support to the base of the tree house by concreting in a support post or two into the ground. Be careful though not to damage the roots of the tree while digging a hole for the post/s.
- Create a ladder by nailing strips of wood onto the trunk if the tree is difficult to climb, or for younger children who haven’t yet developed good climbing skills. You might also add a rope ladder, or a knotted rope that can be pulled up into the tree house to strengthen the children’s feeling of isolation, as well as creating a different climbing challenge than the tree itself. The upper end of ladders should be well secured.
- Do not build over very hard surfaces (eg. concrete or hard earth). Also be careful of building a house above trees who have large, exposed surface roots that can be easily tripped over, or will create a hard surface if fallen on.
- Plant lawn underneath the tree and keep it cut long, or ideally put thick mulch or sand underneath to create a softer surface in case of falls.
- Do not build the tree house too high in the tree, ideally no more than 2.4 m.
- Regularly carry out safety checks to ensure:
- there are no loose, or rotten supports
- safety rails are in good condition and securely attached
- floor boards are in good condition and firmly fastened in position
- there are no sharp or pointy edges that could be fallen against
- any splintered surfaces are replaced or sanded down
- roofing materials are firmly attached
- the health of the tree is good (no signs of rotted areas, or splitting forks, or branches that are dying)
- that mulches, or other impact absorbing materials beneath the tree house are regularly levelled out and topped up as required, and checked for signs of any dangerous items such as glass or stones
- Make sure materials used in construction of the tree house are solid and not susceptible to rots …use a preservative on untreated timbers. Regularly retreat with preservatives or paints to keep them in good condition.
BUILDING A TREE HOUSE
Tree houses, particularly more ambitious ones, often draw the wrath of building inspectors, or of neighbours who may be concerned at loss of privacy, or of having something visually unappealing in an obvious position. In America, some tree house builders have successfully confused the local planning authorities by calling them “environmental sculptures” and claiming the artistic creation is worth thousands of dollars.
If you want to minimise such conflicts, it is probably best not to be too elaborate and not to build in an easily visible location. Talk to your neighbours about any concerns they may have, and contact your local council to find out any restrictions they may have in place in your area.
A simple tree house can be created from a packing crate (painted with a timber preservative that does not mark clothes), perhaps hoisted into position with pulleys, and secured firmly to branches. More comprehensive structures may require a lot more planning and preparation.
Whatever type of tree house you build try and involve the children. Even if you build it, let them paint the timber or participate in some way, as this will help them bond to the structure …they are more likely to see it as theirs. Older children should be allowed to build it themselves if that is their desire…perhaps the parents’ role might be to supply a gift of the materials and tools; and a little advice. Regardless of who builds it, remember the most important part of the tree house is the platform. This needs to be as level as possible and firmly attached to the tree to provide a stable base for the rest of the house.
A tree house can be a great Christmas or Birthday Present… but start thinking about it well before hand to give you enough time to design and build it (and save for it)!
What About An Adult Tree House?
Some adults never grow up; so if you are young at heart, there is no reason why you can’t build a tree house for yourself or your wife, perhaps as a romantic getaway, or somewhere to escape to for some peace and quiet.
What If You Don’t Have A Suitable Tree?
Build one by creating a tree house on poles (on a raised platform).