Napa Valley Register
June 9, 2018
A Portland treehouse, designed and fabricated by Barbara Butler Artist Builders Inc.
Coaxing kids outdoors with astounding play structures
by Rosemarie Kempton
Concerned that your child might become permanently attached to the chair in front of the computer screen? Stop worrying. Barbara Butler has an antidote that gets youngsters begging to go out in the fresh air. She designs and constructs site-specific outdoor play structures that are beautiful to look at and strong enough for the whole family to play on. Her goal is to provide spaces that can “spark the imagination” and encourage kids to turn off the television and computer and go outside. Butler is the woman who can be seen on a zipline from a treehouse to a tree on a video from her website about play structures for children.
“I’m a big kid, myself. I’m sort of recreating my own childhood,” said Butler, CEO of Barbara Butler Artist-Builder Inc., during a telephone interview from her South San Francisco warehouse.
“We build and install green play structures and treehouses to endure for generations,” she said. Butler worked as sole propriety for several years until she was joined by her future husband, Jeffrey Beal, in 1996. Together they accepted commissions around the country to build play structures on site. Butler’s brother and sister later joined the team, and eventually the business incorporated. Butler and the team said they have built 690 custom playhouses, play structures and tree forts, delivering and installing them all over the country and internationally.
“Originally, I built the play structures by myself. Now there are 12 of us. I keep trying to pull people in,” Butler said. “So many family members work with me that we joke about our family reunions being like a board of directors.”
Besides custom treehouses and play structures, Butler’s company has predesigned kits for play forts, theaters and playhouses and accessories that parents can purchase for less money. In addition, they now have a “build-it-yourself” division for those who want to build their own play structure. Butler has been revising and refining her selection of parts to use in her play creations for years.
Here are the Ruffians Retreat, left, and the Belvedere in Palo Alto.
“Some items are specially made by use while other items come from various manufacturers”, she said. All have been tested and judged by us to be the best available.”
Butler acknowledges that there is a difference in the life children lived when she was growing up and what they experience today. Butler grew up in upstate New York, one of eight children, in a close-knit family where active, outdoor play was a daily occurrence.
“We were free to roam the neighborhood,” she said. “The only rule was ‘be home by dark.’ Kids today don’t have quite as much freedom of movement, their lives are heavily scheduled with classes, sports and carpools and they can’t wander off unwatched. The family backyard is the safe haven, a place to congregate with their friends and to explore the huge world of their imaginations,” she said. “The backyard play structure becomes an outdoor playroom.”
Butler, who has specialized in creating outdoor play structures for children for a little over three decades, said that her business “really took off” when she got her first famous client.
“In 1987, Bobby McFerrin, the singer/songwriter who did ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ – the number one song that year- and his wife, Debbie, asked me to do an unusual play structure for their two sons,” she said. “I threw myself into my research for their project by playing on every play structure in San Francisco.”
Other celebrity clients followed. Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates commissioned a large play structure for their summer home in the Hudson Valley of New York. Robert Redford commissioned a global village play area. Jada Pinkett Smith purchased Butler’s storybook playhouse with carved animals all over it. Lou Adler chose a dramatic lighthouse for his Malibu beachfront property. Walt Disney Productions, Bob Weir and others also purchased Butler creations.
Butler and her play structures have been featured on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” CNBC, CBS, “Early Show,” “Evening Magazine,” “House Beautiful TV,” “Livin’ Large,” “The Christopher Lowell Show,” “Billionaire Toys” and “Modern Master.”
At the beginning of a project, Butler likes to brainstorm with children and to get them involved in figuring out how to integrate “fun and cool ideas” with safety, budget and site conditions. She said parents of shy children have confided to her that, after having the playhouse in their yard, lots of other children become regular visitors and their children blossomed with the positive attention.
“Kids in the neighborhood see it and want to come over and play,” she said.
Besides being inspired by her own childhood, Butler seeks inspiration from her many nieces and nephews and uses them as “consultants.”
Butler’s natural redwood structures feature touches that delight children such as jails with secret escapes, doors with sliding “who-goes there?” peepholes, rock climbing towers, bridges with hand-woven rope railings, door knockers and mailboxes.
“Very rare have parents told me that their kids outgrew a playhouse or tree fort,” she said. “At 16, some parents want to take it down and their kids won’t let them.”
If, and when, parents decide to let a play structure go, they can list if for sale on the Barbara Butler Artist-Builder Inc. website.
Butler’s marketing strategy is simple. “We don’t’ advertise; we donate to charity,” she said. “We get publicity and they get the benefit.” Donations to charities are often tables and chairs her company makes for children and, sometimes, playhouses.
“In the future I want to move more into public projects,” Butler said. “I love the idea of getting my play message out to more people and bringing good quality playhouses into affordable housing.”
Butler’s playhouses and treehouses appear in “The Treehouse Book,” “Children’s Playhouses,” “The Kidspace Idea Book,” “Treehouses,” “The Dream Catalog” and “The Workshop.” Her work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Architectural Digest, People, In-Style, Child Magazine, House & Garden, Coastal Living, Entrepreneur, Fortune, Robb Report, Sunset Magazine, Veranda, Lose Angeles Times, and the Washington Post.
For more information go to www.barbarabutler.com.
Barbara Butler’s tips for do-it-yourselfers
Realizing that her custom play structures don’t fall within everyone’d budget, Barbara Butler is quick to share low-costs ideas for do-it-youselfers on how to create fun and magical backyards to encourage kids to go outside and play.
- Of course, a playhouse or a treehouse is a great way to get the kids outside, but there are many other ways. It can be as simple as using a corner of the yard, a garden shed, a platform in a small tree or a tent. Let the kids decorate it, and then offer to bring them snacks in their new clubhouse as soon as they get home from school.
- Engage the kids in creating an obstacle course. If you provide the idea and a stopwatch, they won’t be able to resist. Obstacle courses can include running, climbing, jumping, crawling and balancing elements with the aim of testing endurance while being timed. Sometimes a course involves mental tests, too.
- Helping to design the backyard will give the kids a sense of pride and ownership. Make your own stepping stones. Many craft stores sell kits with the molds and the cement. You provide the decorations: marbles, shells, beads, pebbles. Or, decorate flower boxes and plant with veggies or flowers.
- Use full round log cut-offs to create a circle in your backyard. It doesn’t have to be high off the ground to create a fun space of “inside the circle” and “outside the circle” and “walk the circle.”
- String a rope between two trees – very low to the ground – and try to learn tightrope walking. It helps to have a balancing stick.
- Make an old-fashioned tree swing with a 1.5-inch diameter manila rope. It’s great to look at and play with. Tie it loosely but securely around a strong tree branch and tie a knot at the bottom to sit on.
- String a hammock between two trees for lots of lollygagging.