Addictive smartphones, tablets and video games are no concern to San Francisco designer Barbara Butler, who has been building custom forts and treehouses for more than 25 years.
“I love play and I love exercise and I love being active,” Butler said recently. “I grew up in a big family with eight kids, and we were always going out to play. All kids need is a little encouragement.”
With the end of school and summer approaching, we asked Butler for some tips on how to create welcoming play areas for kids and teens.
You have so much experience working with kids. What do kids request over and over again?
Kids want swings, slides and clubhouses no matter how old they are. Usually they want a slide from their bedroom. [Laughs.] I like to add interesting ways for kids to climb. Put a clubhouse up high -- but not too high -- and make it hard for them to get to. I like to design loops and fire poles where they can climb up and down. Integrate swings and slides into the site. Beware of making a space too immature. Sometimes playhouses talk down to kids. Think about it as a safe place for unsupervised play.
You clearly enjoy incorporating trees in to the structures you design and build. How do you choose a site and know that a tree is appropriate?
Usually you can tell if a tree is healthy by looking at the canopy. I always recommend clients consult with an arborist. Sometimes it’s not strong enough. If that is the case, then we make it look like the tree supports it or you can put supports near the tree and station them with concrete posts. There are specialty treehouse fasteners available by Michael Garnier, a treehouse builder in Oregon. I like to look for a site that people haven’t thought of. Or an underused spot that is not out in the open. Kids like things that are tucked away, like a hillside or above a retaining wall. I like to find the flaw of the yard and try to use it. It adds mystery and excitement.
You use only all-natural redwood. Can you offer advice on materials for someone who might want to build a structure on their own?
I don’t use pressure-treated wood. We sand and grind all the edges so the structures are splinter free. We stain with nontoxic stains and Tung oil. The slides are plastic because the kids have convinced me that they like them. It is wonderful to use real wood. I am so happy to see it come back into favor. I use it from second-growth forests and build it in a manner that can be maintained. Redwood structures can be revitalized with a little sanding and Tung oil and last for several families.
Do you think it's really a struggle for parents to get their kids outdoors to play?
Many parents have talked to me about whether they should put electricity in the playhouse. It’s better to have a place where they can’t use their iPhone. If you build something cool, the kids are going to take a break from electronics. It’s pretty easy to lure the kids outside. With the older kids, it's about involving them in the process. Let them come up with ideas. I recently created a rope hangout where four or five kids hang out every weekend. They want a secret place that is theirs and they can escape to. It’s a great thing for teenagers. They are still on your property but you know where they are. I haven’t seen a teenager yet who doesn’t like a fire pole. They go back to swings too. It’s a place to hang out and a way to touch back to your childhood. And if kids have a zip line to run and play on, it’s going to make a big difference.
What about safety?
We think about safety a lot. The biggest safety feature you can add to a play structure is resilient surfacing around the tree. Dirt is not good enough, grass and concrete are not good enough. We want to encourage people to climb, and if they take a risk we want them to bounce off that resiliency surfacing. You can find redwood bark and rubber chips at Costco or landscape stores. The other safety concern is ropes. You really don’t want to have loose rope available to kids. When we make a pulley with a bucket we tie it in a loop so no one can get it caught around their neck. We always tie ropes off at both ends.
Because your play structures are custom-built, they are obviously expensive. Any budget tips for do-it yourself types?
I think that people can do a lot of the simpler ropes and climbing ropes. Try to create a natural play area. Create a secret area with plants. Install things that encourage imaginative and physical play. It doesn’t have to be a fancy wood tour de force. Create a hideout for the kids with physical climbing areas. That’s really what they need. They want to be up high. It’s really important. Climbing is good for their brains and motor skills. I don’t like to make treehouses too fancy. I like it to be difficult to get to and rough and tumble. The kids know that they are outside of the serious adult world but they can still peer down and see that they are safe in the family yard.