The Makings of Good Tree Forts
When I was young I spent much of my time, especially my summertime, making and playing in tree forts. Although my sister and I took advantage of the neighbor boys’ tree house, I always felt more adventurous while cleverly ensconced at the feet of the trees.
My father engineered our first tree forts around the yard as it evolved, and my sister and I worked with the tree-house-owning neighbor boys to develop ground-bound tree forts sprinkled about the local woods. I learned to translate my techniques for playground use (where permanent tree forts were not permitted).
Let us examine some of the key qualities of good tree forts:
1) There are no rules for the construction of tree forts.
2) Do what you can with what you have.
3) Shade, privacy, and secret-hiding-spots are ultimate.
4) The less non-forest material you bring in, the better (pack it in, pack it out).
5) Beware of ants’ nests and bees’ nests.
6) If you live in an area where ticks are present, clear the underbrush.
7) If you’re not having fun, you are probably doing it wrong.
[Now that I look at my list, I see that it could potentially apply to many fun forest activities. But I digress…]
To start, you want to select a site for your tree fort. Kids know how to do this, perhaps by instinct.
If you’re a kid you already know where you want your tree fort, and if you don’t, you just need a little walk around your yard or neighborhood to pick your spot. Remember, you can always make another, even better one if this one sucks or gets taken over by neighbor kids.
If your home doesn’t have a yard, it just means you have to be more creative with location, and minimalist with construction. It also means that you need to travel to the site (say, once a week), ‘cause what’s the point of having a tree fort, if you don’t use it?
Public parks and public school playgrounds can provide a helpful compromise for those without yards. With these kinds of tree forts, you’re looking for places which already have big trees in close proximity so that you make no changes to the landscape (for example, I just visited Wilcox Park in Lynnwood for the first time a few weeks ago – it has tree groves perfectly suited to tree fort purposes). You will not be able to move, stack, weave, and/or brandish branches in public parks as you can on your own private property. [You may be permitted to erect picnic canopies for the day, so check your local park for rules.]
What you want is a forest floor and canopy. Early mornings are often the BEST times to be at parks, when they are cool and quiet. And remember: you can’t own the park, so consider the diplomatic approach when another group of kids shows up and wants to play in your tree fort too.
If you are a parent or guardian, pay attention to the shady green spaces where your kids are attracted to play and explore. These places are often near or at the sources of local creepies and crawlies such as frogs, snakes, lizards, or tadpoles, and they may also coincide with edge spaces like culverts, construction sites, abandoned lots, and quiet street ends. You want to help your kids find the right balance of safety and privacy.
To find a good public park, take your kids to as many in your local area as possible, and get a sense for the parks they like best. Follow your kids’ lead to identify the top two park choices with good trees, playgrounds, and other qualities such as: good morning bird songs, pens with farm animals, really good swings that let you go super high, water access, mud access (yes, I said mud access), well-maintained trails, wide open run-around-crazy spaces, good wheelchair/stroller accessibility, good benches for kid watching, good parking, safe and managed, etc. Having two choices available means you can alternate parks according to convenience, availability, mood, etc.
Make it as relaxing and enjoyable as possible for yourself, and your kids will enjoy themselves too (in other words, don’t pick the park across town if you have to drive through lame traffic every time you visit). See note in previous section regarding early mornings.
If your kids (or you) aren’t used to playing outdoors, or if they (you) cry when unplugged, you may need to ease into the transition to the open world. I suggest that you start by incorporating affordable toys which are easy to take outside (and easy to give out in quantity to many kids at a time), using a different toy for each outing. Examples include bubble soap with wands, plastic snap-out “light sabres”, wax lips, pencils/watercolors and sketch books, noise makers, pinwheels, squirt guns, super balls, big rubber balls, and absolutely anything messy, stinky, noisy, and colorful. Work your kids up to outdoor toys and games once the park setting is comfortable and familiar (and remember the sunscreen and brimmed hats).
Finally, good plant and animal identification books are awesome for parents and kids alike. Binoculars, magnifying glasses, and flower/leaf presses are helpful tools. It’s never too early or too late to learn about what lives where you live.
If we refer to the key guidelines above, we know that there are no rules about what trees make good tree forts. Your tree forts will be different depending on what grows where you live.
I grew up in western Washington near Seattle where good tree fort trees include young Red Alder (Alnus Rubra) stands, old Western redcedar (Thuja plicata) trees, Big Leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) woods, mature Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii ssp. menziesii) stands, and large Pacific coast rhododendrons (Rhododendron macropyllum). Naturally creek banks and lakeside woodlands are extra-awesome tree fort sites – weave back the salmonberries (Rubus spectabilis) and voilà!
While living in eastern Pennsylvania I didn’t get a chance to build a tree fort, but I did scope out good potentials. Hedges are good candidates, especially those which have been sculpted over generations with Pin cherries (Prunus pensylvanica) and brambles such the Multiflora rose. The Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) is considered an invasive species in this region because of how much it likes to make big, impenetrable cane stands (it was once encouraged for planting in gardens). American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) stands have a nice openness about them, but it’s important to be aware of the poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) and other plants which are not safe to touch. Black walnut (Juglans nigra) trees seem to be good candidates because their allelopathic qualities tend to eliminate most other plants around them. [NOTE: if you live where ticks live, ALWAYS CHECK FOR TICKS after playing in tree forts. Clear the underbrush and low hanging branches to help reduce ticks.]
Considering what a beautiful diversity of ecosystems exist on Earth, I’ll end my speculation there and invite you to share your favorite tree-fort-tree candidates in the comments.
If you want to plant trees: you can plant trees now and have the makings of a tree fort in a few short years. Young trees still make good tree forts! Before you select and plant your trees, take some time to learn what trees grow best in your soil and climate, what trees are considered nuisance trees in your area, what qualities you want in your trees (evergreen or deciduous? flowering?) and how much maintenance they require (do you have to rake leaves? will sweet gum balls fall on the main walkway?).
It’s also important to “think-tree” when you plant: trees grow up, down, and side-to-side. You don’t want to plant trees too close to your home, your utility lines or your other trees. BEFORE you dig, you may need to call utilities to mark underground power, water, gas, or communications.
Visit The Arbor Day Foundation online to read more information on tree planting and care, including these articles:
And remember, if trees are scarce you can always build a sunflower fort on the lawn.
The Fun Part
Finally, the really fun part about tree forts: playing with them. Referencing again our “no rules” guideline, remember that you can do whatever you want with tree forts. That said, here are a few things which I learned in my tree fort days:
Branches are great for stacking and weaving into walls, barriers, and canopies.
Look for weeds which are long and strong – strong grasses and reeds, creepers and vines, or anything that’s abundant and handy – these can be used to tie sticks together, join branches, and other good stuff. [NOTE: Poison ivy and poison oak are NOT SAFE TO TOUCH – learn how to identify these and other poisonous plants where you live.]
Boys and girls have different ideas about how to make tree forts. You want input from both if you’re gonna make an ultimate tree fort.
Brings snacks in baggies and water in bottles. It sucks to have to go home for stuff.
Remember to take your trash home with you.
Work with what’s already on the ground when you can – if you strip stuff off of living trees, it will take a long time for it to grow back.
Mosses make good seats. Collect pieces and keep them damp to help them grow into mats.
Big rocks are useful for many things. Keep some in the sun, and some in the shade, and you’ll have hot rocks and cool rocks.
Fallen logs work really well, which is why I believe that a large fallen log on a forested hillside is possibly one of the best places to start a tree fort (but I’m biased).
If you’re a parent sculpting a tree fort out of grown trees in your yard, read up on good tree-trimming technique, and remember that less is more: a couple entry points and a clear interior space is your goal. If you open it up too much with heavy trimming, you leave the fort feeling exposed.
While attending The Evergreen State College, I accidentally located a domed tree-fort-in-progress. Whatever its intended purpose, the construction was as follows: large/long branches erected in a stable hemisphere with enough crisscrossing branches to create a web. Mosses, ferns, and forest duff were being woven through the web to make a complete (and living) enclosure.
In closing, I’ll share one final suggestion, to always, always remember:
The first step in making a good tree fort is a concealed lookout along the front (and another at the back… don’t want anyone sneaking up!)
Please share your own tree fort ideas in the comments, including your favorite tree fort tree species where you live.