A tree house, a free house,
A secret you and me house,
A high up in the leafy branches
Cozy as can be house.
A street house, a neat house,
Be sure to wipe your feet house
Is not my kind of house at all —
Let’s go live in a tree house.
― Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends
Tree houses have been a quintessential part of childhood for generations. These simple structures perched off the ground have always had a magical appeal for children. Tree houses not only provide an exciting place to play, they also offer children a sense of independence and freedom as they create and explore their own world above the ground. Tree houses offer several developmental benefits to children, including physical activity, creative expression and the opportunity to learn about the natural environment. They help develop spatial awareness, problem solving, critical thinking and risk assessment. As families and educators seek ways to reduce children’s sedentary lifestyles, tree houses can offer children new, exciting, outdoor-play experiences.
Tree houses offer children many diverse experiences that can foster creativity, imagination, independence and a feeling of magic. Spending time in nature and engaging in adventure have many positive effects on children’s mental health and well-being. Figure 1 (below) provides an overview of reasons to consider bringing back tree houses as part of children’s lived experiences. Further information is provided on what children gain from having tree houses as part of their playscape.
Being Up High
Many children enjoy being up high because it gives them a sense of adventure, quiet time, socialization with peers and various levels of independence away from adults. Children’s curiosity is heightened when they think they are going to engage in an adventure. A tree house provides them with a natural sense of curiosity, intrigue and adventure. Getting up into a tree house is more than children exploring their physical capabilities, including how to move their bodies through space. Whenever children have access to off-the-ground play space, no matter how high off the ground, they have a unique vantage point to observe their space, such as watching birds, insects and other wildlife. Tree houses offer children with different vistas and perspectives about the space around them. They get to see things from new angles, which provides them with different perspectives on nature and the world in which they live and play.
Tree houses have long been associated with children’s opportunities to connect with magical moments. Many characters in children’s stories live in tree houses, including Ewoks and Elves. When children are in environments that promote magical moments, such as playing in a tree house, the neural pathways in their brains are being positively affected, promoting a sense of wonderment. Magical moments contribute to children’s sense of worth and happiness.
Independence and Autonomy
Children begin to build skills toward being independent from a very young age, as they try to make their own decisions. Tree houses contribute to children gaining a sense of independence and self-reliance. Furthermore, when children have choices of where and how to play, with limited adult supervision, they begin to develop a sense of autonomy, which is foundational for executive functioning and resiliency skills.
Children advance their skills and competencies in adventurous challenging experiences as they climb up to the tree house. Being able to climb high is a gradual process for children. They learn to overcome fear of heights, which contributes to their resilience and confidence in their abilities. For some children, a tree house is a space and place where they go to be away from other children so that they can refuel their energy, think about new ideas for the next phase of play and experimentation or to have quiet time just to be. Knowing when time is needed away from others is an important skill in peer play and socialization.
Words such as vistas, branch, trunk, canopy, foliage, ascending, rodent and bark may be added to children’s vocabulary and incorporated into their stories. Children without verbal skills communicate their stories through their actions and body movements.
Playing in tree houses increases children’s creativity, especially when they have access to loose parts that can be used to create and recreate space that fits their ideas for play. Depending on the design and position of the tree house, children will often explore new roles, engage in imaginative play and create stories. Studies suggest that children who engage in imaginative play score higher on empathy and self-esteem as adults.
Playing in tree houses positively influences children’s physical, social, cognitive and emotional development, which helps to reduce stress and anxiety and to improve overall health and well-being. Being in elevated spaces and surrounded by nature can spark a child’s creativity, imagination and sense of wonderment. Finally, playing in tree houses can contribute to children developing a sense of independence and self-reliance, while building positive memories of playing outdoors.