“Imagine if you could create a world for your children, one that they would never forget...a magical tree house land filled with action, excitement and squeals of delight, a tree house, fueled by make-believe and the imagination of the young or a tree house inviting journeys to far-off lands, yet still safe to explore...Imagine that your children they could run through the air and soar like an eagle and cross deep ravines and scale mountainous heights. Scramble over unchartered terrain and swing through the trees...and they could do all of this, without ever leaving their own back garden.”
This is how tree-house Life, a UK company that makes custom tree-houses starts off their website. I think everyone loves the idea of a tree-house. As kids, most of us have dreamed of having a safe haven where we could establish a secret clubhouse away from our irksome parents. There is something about being up high, above the rest of the world. It opens us up to the nature around us and opens our imagination up for fun.
Tree-houses are big business now. There are all sorts of companies that will build your dream playground in your backyard. There are tree-house hotels, retreats, and even tree-house spas. Here are some links to amazing tree-houses around the world, one from BoredPanda and the other from FastCoDesign.
In the past, the feeling of pure joy associated with climbing and watching the world from a tree-house has eluded children with physical disabilities. When I was the executive director of the Center for Creative Play, we built an accessible tree-house in our indoor play environment. It had an elevator that took you to the top. The tree wasn’t real but that didn’t stop the kids from hanging up at the top planning and plotting.
On the night of our grand opening, a forty-five-year-old woman who uses a wheelchair went up into the tree-house. It was the first time she had ever been up in a tree-house. It was really the first time she had the opportunity to be above everyone in the way a playhouse lets you. There were so many tears of joy that night. It was extraordinary to watch her have that experience.
Recently, I visited The Pepper Family Accessible tree-house, the first accessible tree-house in Illinois, which opened in 2007 to the delight of area residents and of groups traveling from far and wide. Located in Barrington, a northwest suburb of Chicago, the tree-house features 2,000 square feet of winding ramps, open-air decks, a gazebo, and an enclosed cabin with electricity. It is a magnificent structure that provides a place for people of all ages, with disabilities or without, to experience nature, gather for social occasions, play in the cabin, and create memories.
The inspiration to build the tree-house began with a NISRA (Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association) staff member discovering Forever Young Treehouses, Inc. while surfing the internet. “Our goal,” says the founder of Forever Young, “is to help everyone, regardless of ability, see the world differently, and enjoy the freedom and peace that a tree-house can provide.” A partnership of the Barrington Park District, the NISRA Foundation, and Forever Young tree-houses, Inc., the tree-house garnered media attention and three prestigious awards within its first year of existence.
The tree-house is amazing; there are no other words for it. I have visited a couple of other Forever Young playgrounds, which are also great, but this one goes beyond those.
The playground is located in Citizens Park, which is a beautiful park with many different amenities in addition to the tree-house. There are biking and running paths, playgrounds, a lodge, an amphitheater, and more. You can rent out the Pepper tree-house for special events, and the park district offers birthday parties up there. How cool!
The day I was visiting, NISRA was up in the tree-house running one of their summer art programs for children with a variety of disabilities. The staff told me how much they love running programs in the tree-house and how excited the children are to be there.
To get up to the top of the tree-house, you need to meander up a lot of ramps. When raving about the tree-house to others, people have commented that they thought I didn’t like ramps. It is not that I don’t like ramps – it’s that there needs to be a purpose to spend the money and the space for the ramp.
I too often feel that in accessible playgrounds there isn’t a good purpose for the ramp. The ramps do not go up high enough to give a child the really unique experience of height. Not like this tree-house. The purpose of playground ramps is often to go up so that you can go down. Push the wheelchair up the ramp, transfer out of the wheelchair to go down the slide, sit on the ground while someone brings you back your chair. This just doesn’t sound fun to me. It just doesn’t have a play value that matches the cost of the ramps.
In contrast, The Pepper Family tree-house has great play value; a child (and adults) really experience height and nature in a unique setting. The way the ramps are designed makes you instantly feel that you are in a special place.
Forever Young Treehouses started as a non-profit organization that built accessible tree-houses in public parks and private camps. They have since become the tree-house Guys and they build accessible and non-accessible tree-houses in a variety of settings. In 2011, James Roth, a Forever Young Treehouses co-founder, was the recipient of Paralyzed Veterans of America’s Barrier-Free America Award. Roth at that point had built 34 universally accessible tree-houses in private camps and public parks across the country. John Connell, the architect behind the first prototype designs, received honorable mention for his work.
Mark Lichter, AIA, Paralyzed Veterans’ director of Architecture, put it best when he said that “An accessible tree-house sends an important message to other architects when it comes to accessibility – to think big, and think ‘out of the box’ when it comes to designing accessible buildings and structures,” said. “Accessible design benefits not only people with disabilities, but everyone in the community.” I know that the families that were at the Pepper tree-house the day I visited were having a blast.
You can get a full list of tree-house Guys’ accessible tree-houses on accessibleplayground.net.