Last Saturday I was doing my time on the elliptical bike at the gym and caught an episode of HGTV where the homeowners were doing an entire backyard makeover. Since that moment, I’ve been planning this blog post. I’m taking a deep breath here because I know there are probably lots of readers who disagree with me, but this comes from personal experience.
Why on earth have parents decided to rob their children of the creativity, imagination and fun of building their own tree forts? They aren’t really even forts, they’re tree mansions! I know how tempting it must be, especially if you have the resources, to build your kids an over-the-top, multi-level tree house that makes the rest of the neighborhood green with envy. Big is not always better, blah, blah, blah.
Back to the conclusion of the HGTV show. The grown men had had their fun and the kids were finally released from the house into the backyard. The three little girls did what I presume was a scripted little happy dance and swirled at the base of the tree, right around the beautifully built fire pit where their parents will surely hang out, not fifteen feet away from their kids. Don’t get me wrong, it was impressive. But here’s a huge clue as to why parents should not rob their kids of the childhood delight-you should have seen how much fun the adult men were having building this thing, going down the slide and climbing back up. Where were the kids when the menfolk were having all the fun putting this together and then frolicking around acting like kids, so proud of the finished product? Who knows? Probably inside building their own forts with blankets and chairs. (Deep breath, again.)
Looking back on my own childhood and our communally built tree fort, this was one of the most enjoyable, exciting, learning packed childhood experiences I remember. I don’t think one parent ever walked across the street into the woods where we built our fortress of childhood wonderfulness. It was kid-dom, our territory, our turf, our project, our little microcosm of what would hit us out in the real world. We learned to work together, get along, argue, resolve, be creative and imaginative and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Granted, things were safer back then. No creepy old men were wandering around, kids were never abducted, and if you got hurt, your mom just said to wash it off or rub it and it would feel better. That was a bit on the under cautious side, but you get the point, and we all survived. Practical parents can take precautions, but still let the kids own the experience.
Our gem of a fort looked similar to this, only with a roof. Somehow we got linoleum tiles up there and tiled the entire floor. As I remember, we even slept out in it one night. The construction of it was the fun part and hidden in that were all sorts of learning experiences.
Here’s a perfect example of how the process is much more valuable than the product. I found this sweet little ‘fort’ over on JustAnotherMama. Read how their wise mom stands back to appreciate the bigger thing going on here.
They have spent hours—days even—building their tree fort. They have worked together, usually nicely. They’ve recruited neighbor kids to help them. And even though I cringe every time I look at it, I think of how much they love it and how many hours of joy it has given them, and I can’t help but like it despite itself.
“Can you believe that we made that all by ourselves?” they ask. Yes. Yes I can. But I reply, “No! It is amazing!”
One early Spring, our kids were showing the signs of being cooped up due to cold, rainy days. I merely suggested that they start planning a tree fort they could build in the woods all by themselves. Our middle son took the lead and went to work collecting materials from a wood pile, the garage and even rummaged through some stuff in the basement. He was on a mission. Our daughter, the oldest, didn’t like him taking charge, so she got into it. Our youngest son was eager to do whatever they asked, so he was free labor. They spent hours dragging wood planks back into the woods. We did show them how to use a hammer and nails and made sure they knew the basics. We also told them we were available to help if they needed us. When they weren’t looking, we’d periodically venture back to do safety inspections. It was not a pretty tree house, it was a kid-built fort. It was age and skill appropriate and they LOVED it. If they saw us take over, polish it up and create a mini version of our house in a tree, and with a slide, they wouldn’t have known how to articulate it, but they would have felt robbed, outdone by their parents and they would have likely turned their attention elsewhere.
I know how hard it is to accept a horrendous looking monstrosity built by kids, but believe me, when it’s all said and done, it’s a win-win proposition to NOT rob your kids of the things kids should be doing. Our kids still talk about how free they felt when they were allowed to design their own little hideout. Nobody ever told them to clean it up and keep it nice because we spent so much time and money on it. It was theirs, and theirs alone.
Even if your kids are young and it’s on the ground, a kid sized fort feels special. Over on RealTimeFamily, this mom provides 4 simple steps to help you get started.
I have nothing against grown men building an over-the-top tree house, complete with a little veranda with an oriental-looking rug and an adult sized bistro table and chairs, but at least don’t pimp the kids out by pretending that this is what a tree fort is all about. The kids may play in it and even use their imagination, but kids will play and use their imagination anywhere, that’s what kids do. Sadly, there’s a huge component that’s being taken away from the kids-the hands on experiences and processes of designing, planning, problem solving, implementation, and pride in their work; all on a kid level, but appropriately so.
There’s no doubt that kids who grow up with beautiful custom built or manufactured tree forts will not suffer because of it. In fact, they’ll have great childhood memories too. My point is that when there’s a teachable moment or a project that is just chock full of lesson-packed opportunities for your kids, don’t give in to the temptation for slick, pretty, or awesome, -dig deeper, be patient, and use it to teach them the value of planning a project, building it, working with their hands, materials, and then letting them experience that sense of accomplishment. This is a confidence builder.
*Obviously, parents should decide what are realistic and safe goals depending on the ages and skills of their children.
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