DON'T TEAR DOWN THAT FORT! Ten Lessons (and More) that Kids Learn from Building Their Own Tree Houses and Forts — if Adults Let Them

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of ten books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," "The Nature Principle," and "Vitamin N." His newest book is "Our Wild Calling: How Connecting to Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal. He speaks frequently around the country and internationally.

From where I grew up, outside Kansas City, Mo., the town of Lee’s Summit was just a stone’s throw. Or maybe a tornado’s toss. In the woods between the towns, my friends and I built our forts and tree houses.

This week, KCTV News reported about a group of neighborhood kids in Lee’s Summit who did the same, but “learned a hard lesson about city codes…” These kids had built a terrific fort on a vacant lot, using scrap lumber left over from the construction of surrounding homes. The same way generations of children had done before. Responding to an anonymous complaint about the fort, building inspectors sent a small bulldozer to demolish the fort, despite a written plea made by some of the youngsters:

adventure playground
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Dear City, Please do not tear this house down! We have all worked for almost a year on it, for hours and hours. We have all had fun climbing on it, camping in it, having picnics in it. Many happy memories were forged here. We all hope that it won’t be torn down. So please don’t tear it down!”

The fault herein does not lie with city officials – they’re just doing their jobs — but with the codes and restrictions, common throughout the nation. These spring from two public and private mandates: be neat; be safe. Never mind another kind of danger: the stunting of creativity and inventiveness and the kind of risk-taking necessary for healthy development and true learning.

In “Last Child in the Woods,”  I referred to this trend as the criminalization of natural play. When researching that book, I asked my friend, architect Alberto Lau (who at that time was also the construction scheduler for several new schools in San Diego, Ca.) this question: What did we learn by building those tree houses and forts? Here’s part of his intriguing list:

  • You learned the most common sizes of lumber, 4×8’ sheets of plywood, and 2×4” studs; also, about the sizes of nails.
  • You probably figured out that diagonal bracing stiffened the structure, whether the bracing was applied at a corner or to hold up the platform or floor of the tree house.
  • You probably learned the difference between screws and nails.
  • You learned about pulleys.
  • You learned that framing must strengthen openings such as windows or the trap doors.
  • You probably learned to slope the roof in imitation of real homes, or because you were beginning to understand that a slope would shed rain.
  • You probably learned to place the framing narrow side up; you were beginning to learn about “strength of materials,” a subject taught in engineering schools.
  • You learned about measurement, and three-dimensional geometry.
  • You learned how the size of your body relates to the world…the height from which you could safely jump, etc.

The list went on. “One more thing,” Alberto added, “You probably learned from your failures more than from success.” And, “you also learned, by practicing, one of the essential principles of engineering: you can solve any large or complex problem by breaking it down into smaller, simpler problems.”

By the way, Alberto’s daughter, Erin Lau, grew up building tree houses in the canyon behind her house, before the community association of her neighborhood started tearing them down.

Today, as an adult, she credits those experiences with influencing “the way I see the built world.” She became a landscape architecture “because of the pressing need in this world for the reintroduction of the natural landscape into the unwelcoming built environment.”

And she asks. “Why can’t mini-ecosystems be introduced into the middle of the city? Can we design parks so that they are as chaotic as nature, yet safe for an evening walk?” Those are great questions. They deserve to be broken down into smaller, simpler problems. Over to you, dear readers.

Erin now lives in Seattle. A couple of years ago, my wife, Kathy, and I hired her to redesign our San Diego back yard as a native landscape. What she created now enriches the lives of several species, including our own.


Richard Louv is the author of “THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting with Life in a Digital Age” and “LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” He is Chairman Emeritus of The Children and Nature Network

 Photo from an Adventure Playground, where kids get to build forts, by Jelly Baby, Creative Commons

More Reading

KCTV: City of Lee’s Summit Forces Kids to Tear Down Fort!

Cops draw guns on kids building a tree fort

San Francisco residents appeal the city’s ban on tree climbing with a petition

Needed: A National Conference on Children, Nature & the Law

Hope by Design: Five Great Examples of Nature-Rich Places

How to Create a Neighborhood Butterfly Zone — and a Homegrown National Park

20 Ways to Create a Naturally Restorative Home and Garden

 A New Role for Landscape Architecture: Robin Moore

About Biophilic Design and Children’s Health, by Stephen Kellert

New Nature-Smart Careers

Tree house design
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  1. My brother and I grew up building forts and when our apricot tree stopped producing fruit, some said to chop it down. I said no let’s build a tree house. So for two summer my husband and kids built a tree house and there it still sits. They use a pulley device to bring things up into it (including our cat :)) and food. I sat up in it while it rained and it was the most peaceful experience I had had in awhile. We live in Long Neach and I try my best to give my kids the childhood I had. My brother moved to Oregon and yup he and his kids have a treehouse too.

  2. Beautifully crafted piece, once again, Richard! I’ll be tweeting and posting this one for sure, and I hope it will inspire some good, old fashioned dialogue, followed by some good old-fashioned fort building. We live in an area of San Diego that doesn’t allow fort or treehouse building… however, my sons are rebels and are building quite the lean-to in a natural “wild” area very near our home. Okay, they don’t know that they’re not supposed to build there. My husband and I have chosen to not tell them, because what they know (if they knew) COULD hurt them!!

    Thanks again for this inspiring piece!

  3. The value of such natural play and the vital skills learned far transcend the specific value and skills of knowing nails and lumber and pulleys. I did many such projects as a kid but remain a home improvement disaster-in-waiting. But through these projects I learned to plan, conceptualize, work as a team, project manage, improvise, deal with “noble failures”, and take risks. I felt a sense of accomplishment, a sense of place, and a sense of myself as an integral and interactive part of my environment (not just an observer or consumer of it). The [literal] blood, sweat, and tears expended viscerally reinforced those lessons in a way an iPad never will.

  4. Hello. What a shame. My apologise to those children in name of this adult world always worried about “safe places”.
    In my school, a nice Waldorf initiative in central Mexico, children have been building their “clubs”. There are wonderful experiences and painful ones, like thorns in the hands and blisters for tool use. The happy faces tells everything.
    Wonderful article. Thank you.

  5. I am going to encourage my boys to build a tree fort this summer:)

  6. Hi,
    my daughters and I were born in Anchorage, Alaska. The cool thing with Alaska is that so many people MOVE UP THERE FOR adventure, so a LARGE amount of the population go outdoors all year long. Constantly, there are always new people moving up who’ve lived there for less than 3 years who are exploring the state. There’s many REI, city type ‘hipsters’ going camping and hiking on weekends. There are many hippies. Of course there’s also the stereotypical Alaskan family in a cabin completely living off the land. It’s a very broad mix up there, and I grew up knowing all of these kinds of people and more. Being outdoors is just a part of life for most Alaskan kids- their parents have chosen to raise them in that state for that reason. Every Anchorage public elementary school has an ice rink and a sledding hill built into their playgrounds. Families in the neighborhoods get out in the snow with their kids (any age), often. Anchorage has an extensive bike trail system all through the city, too (which becomes a city maintained ski trail in winter).

    Now, we live in Washington state. Just as beautiful to us and we’re still exploring it. We purposefully moved to property that has some of Washington’s beautiful trees for our girls to climb in and play around. There are great urban parks and trails in all the cities around Seattle and some nature centers.

    One of the many unexpected discoveries we made here is that there is a wooded lot on Mercer Island (near a school and a park)DEDICATED to fort building. The city has workers that rent out tool boxes to families on certain dates in the summer! People donate scrap lumber, and the kids can have at it in a pretty, forested setting! It’s not a large area, and the city keeps it gated when their staff is not around to supervise. The kids are not allowed to tear down other children’s forts. I’ve never seen anything like it!

    • Richard Louv

      That’s terrific. Some folks call these adventure playgrounds, and there was a movement in that direction in the ’70s, but the movement faded. Good that there are exceptions, though! Would be great if there were many more of those.

  7. Richard Louv is such an inspiration to me, and all that we design here at our outdoor learning lab! After reading the bit about forts in The Last Child in the Woods, I bought the book he refers to by Daniel Beard, Shelters, Shacks and Shanties and read it in a day. I remembered all the other forts I had found and climbed as a young girl. Sadly girls in my neck of the woods were not encouraged or helped to learn about and build, but I discovered them exploring woods on my own. Now fort building, and unstructured “green hour” are common place in my programming and our ranch. Thank you for sharing this, so will we!

  8. I built a 4-story treehouse in the 70’s when I was a kid. I learned all 10 of those things and more. I also learned how to negotiate for spare lumber with the local construction workers. And, unfortunately, I learned that government cares little for what kids learn from these things and cares a great deal about their own liability or sense of what is right. The city tore it down. I see this as just another sign of a continued narrowing of education–kids are allowed to experience little that they are not force-fed by the adult world.

  9. Say Yes to FORTS! All of this is so true and rings so many bells in my own past. Growing up on Williams Lake in Oakland County in the 50’s was one adventure after another. I so cherish my childhood memories of living on the lake with scads of friends. Hockey and wind sailing across the lake on those rare times when the ice was crystal clear and the west wind with a sheet as a sail along with my dear friend Carolyn Klender as we zoomed across the lake. In those days new houses were being built that were perfect places to explore and gather materials for our own hide-away forts. All our time from after school till the dinner call was outside.
    May all of us of those precious times inspire others.

  10. We have some great footage of an “Adventure Playground” in Denmark, where they still have these vibrant and dynamic places children have access to growing up. It is expected that children will have several of these after school “clubs” throughout their area to go to, where they are not led – not told what to do every second – but guided from behind by wizened mentors/staff (paid for as a part of their taxes). It is common in kindergartens and schools to also give their students access to tools and materials to build. Their concepts of liability are completely different. Alot of nordic parents give their children real tools at an early age and think nothing of it. Please look for the footage in our upcoming documentary NaturePlay.

    An idea that can be easily started in your neighborhood is a Pop-up playground as promoted by the people at Kaboom. Put a bunch of cardboard boxes, scissors, and accessories in your front yard and invite the neighbor kids to come construct with your kids. That way they are introduced to construction in an easy way . Before you know it you will covertly supplying building supplies to the little “wild” space nearby, dropping hints for the renegades have at it!

  11. Built a house in a new development where there were no trees years ago.I got some 8-foot logs for garden deco.Several left over. My son (age 9) and several friends decided they could be a fort foundation. They could not figure out how to get the logs to balance. Overhearing their increasingly frustrated attempts, I thought to propose help. They could not get over the fact that a “girl” knew how to notch logs.(I had fort experience!)They provided the muscle to make the square “foundation”. Eventually, they had a fort high enough for me to stand in, with a ditch-found shed-type hinged door, a hinged self-created ‘window’ opening, and best of all, on hinges,a “trap” door in the roof for inside access-in case of possible attack by ?. (His father estimated 10 lbs nails per sq. inch) They would put on fathers’ boots and hardhats and go to local under-construction houses to ask for spare lumber, always returning with armsfull. Marvellously supportive men, eh?

    I have a photo of 10 kids on their roof-so solid!
    From upstairs I could look over the backyards up the development, lovely with nice furniture, play frames,etc. and there in my yard was this splendid fort, kid-made. They learned also to use hand tools, plan, negotiate, work co-operatively, solve problems without any type of violence . (I could easily hear all from the kitchen) I loved it too; so proud of them. Wonderfully, no one ever complained over the years it lasted – the boys took it down in a weekend intending to re-build but it didn’t happen -other interests interfered. Thanks for the remembering.

  12. Growing up on a farm in south Georgia, my dad helped me build a treehouse in which I lived most of the time. My cousin, Julia, and I stayed up there most of the time during the mid 50’s. We would take a picnic up there and not come down til late in the afternoon. Nobody bothered us, and we enjoyed our childhood. When my son was old enough to enjoy a treehouse, his dad and I helped him build one in the backyard. Nothing like them!


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