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little boy in treehouse
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Growing up, was your treehouse or fort your favorite hangout? Get your kids to put their smartphones and tablets down and play outside in a magical retreat of their own. We know what you're thinking: you don't have acres of outdoor space. But don't worry, creating a fun and imaginative play space is possible even in tiny backyards and at any budget.

We were especially inspired by the cool, modern playhouse Los Angeles based designer Sarah Sherman Samuel installed for her son Archie. Samuel spruced up the Little Squirt Playhouse by Outdoor Living Today in Benjamin Moore Iron Mountain paint, but for those looking to roll their sleeves up and build their own we reached out to renowned playhouse designer Barbara Butler. For over 30 years Butler has created awe-inspiring multi-level treehouses, castles, and woodland forts for clients, including a few you may have heard of like Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith, Robert Redford and Walt Disney Productions.

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backyard treehouse family
Credit: Nicki Sebastian Photography

Having an outdoor area that's just for them is important for your kids to foster their creativity, imagination, and play independently all while in close enough proximity to you, the parent says Butler. "It's built by you but it's their secret escape to have fun with."

Here, she walks us through her expert tips for turning your yard into your kids' favorite hangout.

Get The Lay of the Land

When choosing a spot that will soon be the foundation of your child's new fantasy land, take the shape of the ground, the amount of space available, and proximity to your home and any potential obstacles-like trees or a shed-into consideration.

Butler says that when she first arrives at a new client's backyard, she listens to everyone's wish list and then gets a feel for the space to see what's possible.

"We walk through the yard together and plan out where and how different elements can fit and flow best," she says. "I like to take advantage of an unusual spot in the yard. It doesn't have to be flat-save that for the soccer games. The slope of a hill, for instance, could be a fun spot to create a slide."

tree fort blue and green rope climb
Credit: Courtesy of Barbara Butler

Strapped For Space? Go Vertical

Butler says that in a tight space like a city yard, going vertical is key.

"Make a platform with a deck and hang things underneath like a hammock or a swing," she says. "Create one way up with a rope ladder and another way down with a fireman's pole to create movement and flow in the space."

tree house fort
Credit: Courtesy of Barbara Butler

Engage Them With A Challenge

To ensure that the space will keep your kids entertained, Butler says incorporate elements that both challenge and move them through the structure. "Slides and swings are classic," she says. "When I walk into a backyard and I see a great branch, I'm like, ‘put a swing on it.' And they give you a good bang for your buck."

But if you have some square footage to work with, go big.

"If you have the space to install a zip-line, that's amazing," says Butler. If not, "rung ladders are versatile (and) rope swings are easy and affordable."

To make a clubhouse special and feel more authentic, she says to "add a roof for shelter to keep them and their things dry and protected."

tree house fort
Credit: Courtesy of Barbara Butler

Build Smartly

Safety is the number one concern when building a new backyard structure, so it's imperative that parents don't get in over their heads. Call for backup from a trained professional when you truly aren't sure, stresses Butler.

"I learned almost everything I know about building from my brothers but also from books," she says. Some resources Butler loves ones include Pete Nelson's "Home Tree Home," "Treehouses You Can Actually Build" by David and Jeanie Stiles and "The Complete Guide to Building Your Own Tree House" by Robert Miskimon. The designer also has clubhouse blueprints for sale on her site.

"Whatever you create should be strong and sturdy enough to support the weight of a few adults," she says. "Imagine the worst-case scenario and avoid it. Kids bring all of their friends up into clubhouses."

To key to properly securing a structure Butler says is to attach it to the ground so it doesn't tip over or settle and become unlevel. "For a one story playhouse, staking the floor to the ground is usually sufficient," she says. "We do this under the floor boards so the stakes aren't visible and so no one trips over the stakes. For 2-story structures that involve swing or climbing, I think it is best to do post footings that securely anchor the structure to the ground." But the best way to know your structure is safe is to have an engineer review your drawing and plan before you begin says Butler. It's what she does.

And just like in playgrounds, be prepared for trips and falls in your yard with a soft cushion for your kids to land on.

"Rubber tiles with foam padding underneath is great for covering concrete but can be a bit expensive," Butler says. "Bark chips are much more reasonably priced, natural and still do the job

tree house
Credit: Courtesy of Barbara Butler

Make it Beautiful Together

Butler's vibrant play spaces incorporate hand-painted florals, bright scalloped trim and faux brick patterns to artfully personalize her all-wood structures. But the designer says neither you nor your neighbors want to live with an eyesore.

"Maybe don't paint blue and red stripes on the outside," she quips. "Let your kids go wild inside it with watercolors instead."

To make the new play place feel like a part of your yard, "plant some ivy to grow all over the structure," advises Butler. "It's a soft landing in case kids fall and a tasteful, natural decoration for the new structure."

And to truly make it their space, "bring in play furniture, their favorite books and toys, and let them carve their names into it," Butler says. "It'll go from the place where they played with dolls to the place where they'll escape when they're mad at you seamlessly."

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