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LAST TREEHOUSE IN THE WOODS

About the Author

Brian and his family live on the coast, working together to make adventure movies for the whole family. They are almost done with their next film, ISLAND OF LOST GIRLS. It's a tale of mischievous sea lions, collapsing sea caves, and 9,000-pound monsters that roam the shores.

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In his book “Last Child in the Woods,” Richard Louv wrote about the criminalization of nature play. He wrote about a civic association that would spend much of their time and resources hunting through the forests in an effort to try to catch children in the act of building a treehouse. In the eyes of the association, the kids had to be stopped.

The structures that the kids built started out as just a few scraps of wood planks hanging haphazardly at odd angles, barely fitting the definition of a treehouse. If you walked past, you would probably mistake the planks for a few extra branches. Over time, these odd planks became platforms, then houses and, eventually, a village as the kids built treehouses that connected from tree to tree, filled with nets, rope swings and drawbridges.

The kids would run through the woods playing capture the flag. They would hide in bushes, crawl through trapdoors, and zip line from treehouse to treehouse as they played in their Ewok village.

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Each time the Association found a treehouse, they would pay thousands of dollars to tear down these “unsafe” structures. And each time, the kids were forced to go deeper into the canyons, to try to find a spot in the woods where the adults wouldn’t follow. The money used to tear down the treehouses could have easily been spent building bike trails, outdoor playgrounds, or other activities to encourage kids to get outside, but the civic association had different priorities.

The association’s president would write long diatribes in the local community newsletter screeching against the criminal element. Unbeknownst to the civic association, in the same newsletter that railed against thecriminals,” you could flip a page, and there would be a glowing article commending one of these same neighborhood youths for an academic achievement. In one issue, there was even a photo of the president of the association shaking hands and awarding a scholarship to one of the chief instigators of the treehouses.

I know this because I was one of that neighborhood’s treehouse-building kids. Building the treehouses was one of the fondest memories of my childhood. For all my friends, it was the highlight of our childhood. We were a group of boys and girls who wanted nothing more than to spend our days running through creeks, working on our treehouse, and having sleepovers during the summer. The entire treehouse experience was something that I wish every child could have.

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The treehouses shaped our lives in different ways. Many of us learned negotiation skills as we would trade burritos and donuts for scraps of wood with local construction companies. Others learned about engineering as we started to develop curved walls, multi-floor structures, and even drawbridges. We even dealt with a little bit of botany since we had built our treehouses with eucalyptus trees. We learned about their shallow root system and the importance of dissipating the weight of the treehouse through several trees backed by a system of rope suspension. We had to make sure the structures could securely glide on the branches when gusts of winds would blow through the canyons. 

It was such a formative experience for us that, when we grew up and wrote our college essays, describing how those treehouses affected us was the number one topic of choice.

The treehouses instilled a love of the serenity of the outdoors mixed with a thrill for adventure. Getting a chance to be outside made all our lives better and we all carried a part of the treehouse with us as we grew up. Inspired by what we learned outside in the canyons, some of us ‘criminals’ grew up to be engineers, doctors, firefighters, software programmers, and one of us even works with the United Nations on climate change.

As an adult, I became a film director, making films with my family. I still think it’s important for kids to get off the couch and spend time outside so our films reflect that belief. Our adventure films hope to show audiences the possibilities that exist outside in the woods. 

Our latest film is about a six-year-old boy who wakes up from a car accident deep in the woods. He leaves behind all his electronics, as he plops his baby sister in his backpack, and together they try to make it home alive, as they encounter wolves and raging rivers. It’s called ADVENTURES OF JOJO (and his annoying sister Avila). 

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We’ve enjoyed going on the film festival circuit. In every state or country we visit, there is an opportunity for grand adventure; from spelunking through caves in Arkansas, climbing trees and picking apples in Quebec, rafting down rivers in the Pacific Northwest, to jumping into a hot spring in -24 degree weather in Alaska.

The best part, though, is the letters. When we get back from the festivals, we receive stories from parents regaling us with tales of their own kids who were inspired by the film. They tell us of kids escaping into the woods, causing chaos, and having their own adventures. We receive photos and drawings from the kids, and it means a lot to know that in a small way, we’re helping inspire another generation to have the same feeling I had with my treehouse.

Photo credits: Brian Schmidt

More Reading and Resources

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Treehouse Mafia Productions

THE CRIMINALIZATION OF NATURAL PLAY

Hummingbird Parents: 7 Actions Parents Can Take to Increase Safety and Still Get Their Kids Outdoors

If Dogs Get Their Own Parks for Running Free, Why Can’t Kids?

How to Break a Child’s Spirit: 25 Surefire Techniques

Nature Bullies: A conservation biologist’s perspective on children in nature

Bring Down the Barriers: Five Causes of Nature-Deficit Disorder 

Look, Don’t Touch: The problem with environmental education, Orion magazine, by David Sobel

Free Range Kids


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1 Comment

  1. More, more, more….. I loved this article!!! Thanks so much for sharing your tree house experience. My childhood was similar- outdoors all the time and while I didn’t develop treehouse building skills and all that go with it, my siblings and I were adept fort builders any and everywhere. My best life lessons are in being outdoors and now I get the best grownup job ever – becoming the Director of a Nature Preschool!!! I too want children to have the types of experiences in nature I had…we must preserve what we value for our children- “the times they are a changing”! Thanks again

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