Tree houses teach children to aim high, fall softly

Ryan M. Taylor


For the Capital Press

There are a few things a kid just has to have if they're going to be an all-around, outdoors-loving kid -- a good collection of rocks, sticks and feathers; a jackknife just sharp enough to cut your finger and make it bleed; and a hand-crafted tree house suitable for both playing and pondering the great mysteries of life that only a kid can ponder.

Our children have been collecting rocks, sticks and feathers for years. Two of the three who've reached the ripe old age of five have been given official Yellowstone National Park souvenir pocketknives, and, as of last week, they have a tree house built in the great forest a hundred feet north of our house.

I don't remember how old I was when my first tree house was put into service, but I must have been fairly young because Dad and my brother built it just four or five feet off the ground. They didn't want to build it so high that I'd hurt myself when my sister pushed me off the edge, which she most certainly would at some point in time.

It got a lot of playtime for the small investment made in 2-by-4s and plywood. As I got older I would outgrow it. Then I'd venture out with a hammer and nails and a few old boards into the great forest beyond my backyard to find a horizontal-growing cottonwood tree worth homesteading.

I would nail my ladder steps up to the best sideways branch I could find and commence construction. Eventually, I built on a branch so high that Dad put a pile of loose hay under it to break my fall just in case the old barn siding secured with my bent-over nails let loose.

I built some good ones, complete with back rests, top decks, lower decks and lookout sentries.

Like old times

Last weekend, my nephew was visiting and I was trying to think of a project we could do with him and my little rascals to keep them outside. It dawned on me exactly what we should do. I grabbed some tools and had them each drag a couple of used boards as we ventured into the trees.

The blueprint was in my mind as we set up shop next to two old cottonwoods with a root that served as a sawhorse. I gave lessons in sawing and hammering and, together, the plan went from mental draft to deciduous architecture in no time flat.

I kept the height of the deck at about five feet or so to limit the tears and the boo-boos. That was a good thing because I had the first boo-boo when the old aluminum ladder I was using during construction collapsed and dumped me flat on my back like a pile of bricks. I was sure glad I hadn't built a 10-footer as I lay there and groaned on top of the crumpled ladder.

We built a more permanent ladder out of wood, one that a sibling couldn't swipe and leave a brother or sister stranded on a high, lonely five-foot-high platform. These kids are resourceful enough little Tarzan cartoon watchers so I suppose they could swing to the ground if need be with a makeshift vine made from an old lariat. Still, we secured a ladder to our cottonwood condo.

At the end of the day, the tree house was up, and we all admired it and took pride in our handiwork. I expect, and hope, there'll be some modifications. I left a few boards out there and I'll gladly donate the nails, because every kid ought to have a tree house, and it should be one of a kind.

Now I'll know right where to find them if it's a nice day outside, especially if it looks like a good day for playing or pondering or swinging from the vine.

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