What child can resist the temptation to slip under a bed, scramble into a cardboard box, or pitch a homemade tent? That desire to create a private hideaway explains the enduring appeal of backyard playhouses."Childhood used to be about disappearing with friends and making up your own activities," says Roger Hart, Ph.D., co-director of the Children's Environments Research Group at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "In today's uncertain world, children's activities are programmed, and there's always an adult in charge. So there's great value in having an outdoor place of their own where children can grow physically, intellectually, and emotionally.""A playhouse gives kids a special spot that's magical and mysterious, and yet it's within the safe circle of the family home," agrees Barbara Butler, a San Francisco-based artist-builder who creates fanciful forts and log cabins, castles and cottages, pirate ships and lighthouses.
Butler's celebrity clientele includes Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, but she sees the value of playhouses in very simple terms.
"A playhouse makes your home the center of the neighborhood," says Barbara Butler. Her custom play structure on a California hillside includes bridges, a slide, and lots of hide-and-seek spaces.
My Private World
The first thing kids do when they get in a playhouse is say; 'It's my house; you can't come in,'" Butler says. "Then they say, 'I want you to come in.'" That's the playhouse covenant: Kids rule.Whether storming the castle or forming a secret club, children use playhouses to try on adult roles, cement friendships, and exercise their imaginations along with their bodies, inventing games that are more convoluted and fascinating than anything found on a video screen."A playhouse provides a creative play environment," notes Chernicky. "The kids embrace having their own clubhouse or a place to host a tea party. And never underestimate the quiet pleasures to be found in a playhouse, particularly as children get older. "My daughter is 14 now," says Chernicky, "and she likes to escape to her playhouse to read a book. Instead of ribbons and bows, the walls of her house are now covered with 'N Sync posters.
When choosing a playhouse, let kids get involved. Tots as young as 3 have ideas about what they want, says Butler, and many of their requests are universal. Children love high-up spaces, fire-fighters' poles, and the classic two-part Dutch door, which has top and bottom halves that can be opened and shut independently. Mailboxes, peepholes, ladders, flagpoles, bridges, secret escape hatches: If you're attracted to a feature, your kids will probably like it too.
Parents of young childrenare often tempted to place the playhouse alongside the home so they can keep an eye on the kids. "Back it up a little," Butler always advises. "Kids growup fast. When they're 6 and have their friends over, you're not going to want them five feet from the kitchen window. But don't shove the playhouse into a corner, or you'll create a dead end. Leave room for a 'secret passageway' in back." Do keep the playhouse within earshot, however, and never leave preschoolers unattended. Other safety tips: Be sure the structure is solid and all surfaces are well-sanded with no exposed nails or screws, insist on safety railings, and observe weight limits on platform areas.
Taking care of a playhouse should be no greater hassle than caring for a deck: Clean it periodically, and treat it every year with a waterproofing agent. Doors, windows, and cutouts let air come through to keep mold and mildew at bay. Reflecting on the youthful exuberance that playhouses engender, Butler recalls the reaction ofher young niece as the child watched her carve fairies into the wall of a playhouse recently. "Fairies hide under mushrooms and ride dragonflies," the little girl announced. Thinking of that moment, Butler chuckles. "When you're an adult, you can get away from contemplating what fairies do---but should you? Playhouses bring all that back.
Cape Codder Deluxe
Kids enjoy physical challenges, especially as they get older," says Barbara Butler. Her signature touches: swings, rings, a rock-climbing wall, and a slide (above); a firefighter's pole outside the jail and a ladder to board the pirate ship.