If You Build It, They Will Play: Fantasy Playhouses

Filed under: Activities: Toddlers & Preschoolers, Activities: Big Kids

With a castle in their backyard, the Budge home is a popular spot for play dates. Credit: Lisa Budge

Barbara Butler has been helping parents make their kids' dreams come true for more than two decades, conjuring up castles for little princesses, forts for young cowboys and quite a few jails with secret escape doors.

Is she the latest trend in fairy godmothers? Sort of ... Butler designs and builds custom, one-of-a-kind play structures that feed young imaginations, and encourage kids to abandon the TV and video games for some old-fashioned outdoor play.

From small, cozy cabins and tree houses built up high, to huge play forts complete with monkey bars, rope swings, bridges and slides, Butler's creations are elaborate and designed in collaboration with her clients.

Butler suggests that the internal environment in many children's homes is so controlled, and their lives so scheduled, that they need a place where they can be free to fire up their imagination and run around until they're all tired out.

"I think it's all about exercise, being outdoors and building a relationship with nature," Butler tells ParentDish, "I also think it's important that kids get dirty -- I want them to make mud pies in their tree fort."

Butler's structures are constructed from second-growth redwood from well-managed forests, and finished with a custom tung oil stain that is applied by hand. Each piece is strong, durable and eco-friendly, and built and situated with careful attention to safety, though she explains that parents can sometimes go overboard in this area.

"There's a difference between hazards and risks -- risks are something kids need to take, but hazards are something we need to control," Butler explains. "You know they're going to goof around and eventually they'll fall, so you have to make sure they land on something that's going to absorb the fall so they won't have any neck or head injuries," she says.

Resilient surfaces like bark chips and recycled rubber chips are great, according to Butler, while sand -- which is often used -- is not, as rain compacts it over time and transforms it into a hard surface.

On average, Butler creates about 40 play structures a year, and boasts a client list that includes celebs like Robert Redford and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. The client that actually launched her career was singer Bobby McFerrin, best known for his 1988 hit "Don't Worry, Be Happy," who asked her to build a play structure for his two children. At the time, Butler was designing decks and hot tubs, so this was a completely new direction for her.

"When I did my first play structure in 1987, it pulled together my interests in painting, sculpture, play, construction and kids," Butler recalls, "though, at the time, everyone told me that I couldn't do it."

But 23 years later, she's still at it, creating fantastical environments for little ones.

Lisa Budge of Los Altos Hills, Calif., had Butler create a play structure as a surprise for her six young children last Christmas. After listening to two women rave about Butler and her work at a school auction, Budge decided to see for herself, so she visited Butler's website and started reviewing design ideas with her kids.

"My kids just thought they were looking, they had no clue" Budge tells ParentDish, "but we picked and chose different items that they loved, and then Barbara helped us create a design that was uniquely our own."

The Budge creation is a castle that includes a clubhouse with turrets, a jail with a secret escape door and slide, and water guns mounted on the second floor, which are the kids' favorite feature.

"Everyone thinks it's the coolest thing," says Budge, "they all want to come to our house for play dates now, because of the castle."

When families outgrow their play structure, it can be unbolted and moved to another location, and Butler says they have relocated quite a few. Some families sell them when their kids grow up, and some donate them, like one 16-year-old girl who decided to donate hers to a local family that takes in foster children. She and her mom repainted it, and they both helped Butler deliver it to the new family.

In the same spirit, Butler frequently donates playhouses to fundraiser auctions for organizations that benefit children's health and welfare. One of her structures is currently up for auction on eBay through May 31, to help raise funds for the construction of the Magical Bridge Playground in Palo Alto, Calif., a playground for kids of all abilities.

Over the last few years, Butler has begun to focus a bit more on public works, like a redwood play structure built last year for Los Rios Park in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., and four structures constructed in 2007 in the middle of the Turnberry Town Square Shopping Center in Las Vegas -- including a theatre, bakery café, two big towers and a tree house.

Butler must be doing something right, as her work has been featured on Oprah and HGTV; in "People," "Architectural Digest" and "Child," at the Laguna Art Museum and in the Robin Williams movie "Bicentennial Man."

Butler now offers DIY kits on her website, but strongly recommends reading through the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's free Public Playground Safety Handbook (PDF) before undertaking a play structure project.

Related: Michelle Obama Kicks Off Summer Exercise Series

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.