Tree Houses and the Powerful World of Play

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by   
the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”
— Carl Jung

When I was a young boy, my brother and I built tree houses. This act of engineering resulted in the creation of many things to me, most of which I had no idea about at the time. First, it was a time to build a relationship with a sibling. Secondly it honed my scavenging skills. And lastly, it gave me the opportunity to use my creativity. Without ever having knowing it, building tree houses exposed me to the singularly most important aspect of growing up…how to grow a sense of competence.

The word competence conjures up many different meanings. To me, competence is a feeling, almost an intuitive belief that one can negotiate through anything. By this I do not mean “master” everything, for the striving of universal mastery often gets confused with the false notion of gaining perfection. By gaining a sense of competence, I mean to have the knowhow, the confidence, the skillset, and the emotional awareness to figure out how to navigate life.

The act of building treehouses constantly challenged me. I needed to think about things logically. I needed to figure out where I could secure materials (usually by dismantling something else). It taught me patience when something didn’t stay together, it taught me how to ask for help when pieces completely fell apart, and it introduced me to pride when I made something work.
As a therapist, I rarely meet a child who has ever built a treehouse. Children these days seem far too busy lost in an electronic work where players on a screen do the creating and the building. It seems that too many children don’t have the first idea about what it would be like to build a structure, climb on it and create a world of adventure and excitement. Children seem too preoccupied attaining game “levels” than knowing the thrill of physically stepping up onto a level platform born of their own ideas and creative bliss.
When I ask children about if they would ever like to build something like a treehouse, the response is sadly almost always something like, “I would but my Dad doesn’t have the time to help me,” or “we are too busy,” or “my parents don’t like to go outside.” Perhaps we have collectively lost the pure fun found in play. How sad.

One of my favorite people, Leo Busgalia, wrote: “I still get wildly enthusiastic about little things… I play with leaves. I skip down the street and run against the wind.” Leo understood the power of play and he never lost sight of it. I don’t know if he ever built a treehouse, but I can clearly see him in my mind’s eye running through streams, playing in the dirt and arriving home filthy from head to toe but with a broad smile on his face. I suspect it was similar to the smile I had on my face after I scampered atop my tree house that transformed into a seagoing vessel that carried me and my crew from this port to that far away cove.

So, how do we regain for our children that joyous sense of playful competence? I think it begins with us as parents and as adults. A tree house has to be structurally sound. The beams and platforms placed just so, and it needs to be cradled tightly around at least one tree, better still between two. If our children are the platforms and the beams, we most certainly are the trees for our children. We need to be there to cradle and support, to challenge and inspire, to hold up and teach. If we have lost our own sense of play, how will our children discover their capacities to explore, build and invent?
It is up to each of us to reconnect to and nurture the playful children within us so that we can truly play with our children and teach them the joy of competence we enjoyed. One father painfully admitted to me that he didn’t know how to play with his children because no one ever played with him. Taking my suggestion, he went home and told his son that he didn’t know how to play. Tears welled in his eyes at our following session as he explained to me how his son took him by the hand and pulled him to the floor so that he could open the world of play to his father. Children aren’t the only ones who need to learn how to ask for help.

Nothing would make me happier that to see treehouses popping up in backyards on my drive to work. And I believe that nothing would make your children happier than to be outside with you playing and creating together. If you take on the challenge to build a treehouse, please remember that no matter what it looks like to you, it may be a spaceship, a fort, a clubhouse or a ship to your child. Whatever form it takes, it represents the tender bond found between parent and child.

Happy building!!!