Get the kids involved by giving them a job. Make them feel like they're a part of the project.
That's what the book on building outdoor play structures says to do, so give the kids jobs I did.
We started with tree fort design. A few months ago, I had my kids draw pictures of what their tree fort would look like. Their drawings were impressive, complete with spiral staircases leading to watchtowers with turrets. My son, Billy, included a catapult in his design -- to repel invading squirrels? -- while my daughter, Grace, insisted on bunks for each of her dolls.
My vision isn't quite so grandiose. Where my kids are thinking royal palace, I'm thinking "rustic."
We started construction last week, sinking some support posts into the ground. We don't have good trees in which to build, so we're doing a structure with a tree in the middle.
My plan is for a raised platform -- with safety railings, of course -- and a canvas awning overhead. I figured luxuries could include some sort of climbing wall up the side, a flag pole and maybe a rope-and-pulley system to send lunch from the house up to the fort.
Pretty cool, right?
"No, no, no!" scolded Grace when I told her what I had in mind. "It needs walls and a roof and windows and a door."
"Yeah," added Billy, "and a flat-screen."
"A flat-screen, so we can play video games out there," said Billy.
I have to admit, having a tree fort wired for TV would be pretty cool. I remember how cool I thought it was when I brought my battery-powered AM radio out to where my dad was building a tree house for me and my siblings when I was about Billy's age.
And if the fact that I had an AM radio didn't give it away, that was a long time before plasma TVs, when we had to go to an arcade to play Pac-Man.
However, cool as a flat-screen in the tree fort might be, it's not going to happen. Something about sending the kids outside so they can play inside just doesn't feel right.
I'm sure Billy and Grace have more than enough imagination to embark on hours of backyard adventures. If it helps, I'll even let them bring my iPod out there, and they can listen to the theme from "Indiana Jones" to get in the mood.
As for walls and a roof, at the current pace of construction, it will be a few seasons before we're ready for that. Getting kids involved and giving them things to do may be emotionally rewarding, but it also means construction proceeds at a much slower pace.
The time needed to complete any given project doubles with each additional set of helping hands.
For setting the posts, I gave Grace the job of holding the hose while Billy helped me mix concrete.
I already had the posts plumbed and braced -- I had a moderate amount of help for that -- but mixing and pouring concrete for the first two took at least two hours. Grace watered everything in the yard but the concrete, and Billy and I played dueling shovels as I tried to get a nice, consistent mix in the wheelbarrow.
After the second post, they got bored and went in search of dessert. The final two posts were done in less than an hour.
I'm open to walls, but depending on how much help I get, we might not be ready to frame them up until the kids finish middle school.
In the meantime, I've got an old tent that should work just fine should the kids find their adventures call for more substantial shelter.
I'll leave the watchtower and turrets to their imagination.
Clarion city editor Will Morrow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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