Building a tree fort is about as cool as it gets in terms of DIY home projects. The building process generates sheer excitement for the kids involved, and it’s often a nostalgic project for adults as well, evoking memories of similar projects back during childhood. Although tree houses can be fairly simple to build, they actually allow for a good amount of creative expression, since no two trees are exactly alike.
My father is a self proclaimed “tree fort consultant.” In my neighborhood growing up, he was the go-to foreman on many successful tree fort projects, and he build other playground equipment including gazebos, jungle gyms, and swingsets for my siblings and me when we were growing up. We spoke recently about projects he did with us as kids and I want to share his advice with other DIY parents.
Here are 8 tips on how to build a tree house with your kids, from my dad, a 50 year veteran of the treehouse trade. Thinking back on projects he did with us as kids, it’s no surprise that the bulk of his advice centers around how to keep the kids motivated and invested in the project.
Avoid Work Stoppages
First, the project needs to stay fun, and nothing kills the fun of building a treehouse like having to cancel the project. Make sure you’ve covered all the bases for potential problems by checking out the permits you might need to build a treehouse in your area, talking to your neighbors beforehand to let them know what you’re planning and avoid ruffling feathers, and choosing the right tree for the project: you want a solid, mature, healthy tree with lots of strong branches. Think through your plans , and get your basic design on paper.
Keep the Kids Involved
If your kids are on the young side, they may not be able to help with the actual construction of the treehouse, but there are plenty of ways for kids of all ages to feel like they made their treehouse with you, instead of just watching you make it. Of course, the fort will be a lot more special to your kids when they helped make it themselves, so get them in the game as soon as you make sure the logistics are good to go.
Teach While Doing
Before you begin construction, you’ll probably have a decent idea of which tree you’ll use, what kind of structure you’re making, and what type of wood is best – but why not let the kids help you check the plan? After you’ve made all the necessary safety and logistical decisions, have them climb the tree (if they’re old enough) to test whether load-bearing branches are sound, show them treehouse designs and have them help figure out which ones will work best, and finally, explain the different types of construction materials available and have them choose the right one for their fort.
All that involvement will make them feel like this really is their project, and they’ll be invested in making sure it turns out well. If you explain the advantages and drawbacks of each approach, they’ll learn a lot – and they may even figure out solutions you never considered. You can keep teaching as you…
Build on the Ground
Most kids will want to climb up into the tree and start hammering bits of wood together, because that’s how they’ve seen treehouses made in comic books and TV shows. You know better, of course, but you’ll still want to get the pieces up in the tree as quickly as possible so they can see how the project is coming together. Aim to build one piece on the ground at a time and hoist it into place on the same day. The kids will see progress, you’ll build safely on the ground, and you won’t get tired trying to put everything up at once.
Keep the Magic Alive
Every aspect of treehouse building can become fun if you make it a privilege to perform it. Let’s say you need to cover yours with a tarp to protect against weather while you’re building. It’s not an exciting job, but it has to be done every day. If you make spreading the tarp the prize for the most helpful assistant among your brood, it’ll become a coveted job – and they’ll clamor to be the one to do it.
Anything you can make into a ritual – laying out the tools, announcing the part of the treehouse you’ll be building today, putting on your work gloves – do so with as much fanfare as possible. It’s fun for the kids and helps them feel like they’re participating in something big and meaningful – which they are.
Give Age-Appropriate Tasks
If you have a 10-year-old and a 7-year-old, you have one kid who can help with simple hammer-and-nail jobs, and another who’s more of a fetch-and-carry age. Give your younger kid their task first, and play up the importance of what you’ve given them to do – otherwise it’s easy for the younger kid to become jealous of all the responsibility the elder has.
Once the younger kid is settled with their task, give the older one their marching orders more quietly and with a little less fanfare; the elder will understand immediately that he has the more “grown-up” job, and he won’t need to be convinced that it’s important.
Put Them In Charge of Your Safety
Make sure you demonstrate the best safety practices to your children, and speak them out loud as you perform them so your kids remember. “I’m making sure both feet of the ladder are on the ground so it doesn’t wobble.” “I’m checking my safety rope before I put my weight on it.” “I’m going to put these tools in this bucket so that I can haul them up to me once I climb the tree. Can you help make sure it doesn’t catch on a branch?”
By talking out your safety precautions, you ensure both that you’re following them and that they’re helping you out. You’ll find your kids will correct you if you forget to say something out loud – and they might even catch you before you make a dangerous safety error.
Stick to a Schedule
You don’t need to show it to the kids, but you may want to keep a schedule for yourself to keep the momentum going. Your kids will stay engaged as long as the project is moving forward, but they’ll quickly start to have mixed feelings about it if they work hard for a week and then nothing happens for two months. You’re the grown-up, so make sure the project moves forward consistently. Maybe you work on it every Saturday, for example, so the kids know that’s Tree Fort Building Day.
If your schedule gets interrupted for whatever reason (family vacation, illness, rain), give them tree fort related activities to do to keep the excitement high. Maybe you can set them to work making a sign to hang outside the tree fort, or drafting rules for their clubhouse, or drawing pictures of the completed project.
Before they know it, they’ll be the proud owners of a new treehouse, and it’ll be extra special to them since they were involved from the beginning.
About the Author
Nick Domino is a partner at Water Damage Defense, an online distributor of specialty water damage prevention equipment. Water Damage Defense equips homeowners so they can protect their property from the devastating effects of water damage.