A tree house


  • Conflict of interest: None.

Correspondence: Professor John Pearn, Discipline of Paediatrics & Child Health, Royal Children's Hospital, Brisbane, Qld 4029, Australia. Fax: +61 73365 5455; email: j.pearn@uq.edu.au

Every child and many adults dream of a tree house. Somewhere, among the primeval genes that persist in us, are those that recall the arboreal life of our forebears. They persist in the indefinable feelings of identity, of adventure, even of sanctuary, which so many experience in a tree house.

I have a tree house, a place both of sanctuary and of delight (Fig. 1). Enfolded in an urban rainforest that I love, I look both out and down; and delight in the beauty of the still green world, enjoyed from the perspective of this private place. Like the tree houses of children's literature and their imaginations, it is a real place of hospitality and sanctuary.

Figure 1.

The author's tree house, in suburban Brisbane. Photograph, September 2012.

Fantasy Tree Houses

Tree houses have been a recurring theme in the most loved children's literature for 200 years. Many alive today grew up with the stories of the Swiss Family Robinson and their tree house.[1] Written in 1812 by a Swiss Lutheran pastor, Johann David Wyss, The Swiss Family Robinson promoted the virtues of ingenuity, self-reliance, creativity, good husbandry, resilience and tolerance.[2] Their tree house was a place not just of sanctuary. Complete with its library, it was a haven of combined adventure, security and family love.

Almost a century after Wyss' book, J.M. Barrie (1860–1937) produced the stage play, Peter Pan, in the post-Christmas season of 1904.[3] The narrative was first published in book form as Peter and Wendy in 1911.[4] In it, Wendy Darling lived in a Neverland ‘house of leaves deftly sewn together’. Peter Pan himself, ‘the Boy who Wouldn't Grow Up’, was partly derived from the character of Pan, the mischievous Greek deity of the woods. In 1929, James Barrie donated the copyright of all the Peter Pan productions, plays and books to the Hospital for Sick Children at Great Ormond Street, London. I completed my training as a paediatric neurologist in the Peter Pan Ward in that Hospital in 1974.

Children of later generations have delighted in the works of Alan Alexander Milne (1882–1956), in which his son, Christopher Robin Milne (1920–1996), in fiction lived in a tree house – as did several of his toys including Winnie-the-Pooh (Fig. 2). In The House at Pooh Corner,[5] first published in 1928, one of Christopher Robin's toys, Owl, also lived in ‘The Chestnuts’, a magnificent tree house – sadly blown down (Fig. 3). With endearing dyslexia, Owl named the proposed replacement tree house ‘The Wolery’, even before he found his new home. The characters in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories are always visiting each other's homes in the Hundred Acre Wood, seeking friendship and adventure:

‘So Winnie-the-Pooh went round to his friend Christopher Robin, who lived behind a green door in another part of the Forest.’

Later, Enid Blyton (1897–1968) captured the delights, the wonder and sometimes the mystery of a fantasy tree house.[6] The Faraway Tree appeared in 1939 in the first of her four books in the Faraway Tree series, The Enchanted Wood.[7]

Figure 2.

A fantasy tree house in Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne (1926). Etching by E.H. Shepard courtesy of Egmont Publishers and (formerly) Methuen Children's Books, with acknowledgements.

Figure 3.

Owl's fallen tree house in The House at Pooh Corner (1928). Courtesy of Egmont Publishers and (formerly) Methuen Children's Books, with acknowledgements.

Tree Houses for Adults

A tree house is both a lookout and a place of security. One is safe therein; and its elevation engenders a hint of dominance. One can see much, often all around. In their tree house, children are above the world ‘down there’. Our Neolithic ancestors built their villages on high ground, often on hilltops. Such contemporary tableaux can be seen by all who fly over the mountains of Papua New Guinea today. The Benuaq Peoples (of Kalimantan) and the Korowai People of West Papua live in tree houses, the latter in refuges 30 m high.[8] Our metal-smelting ancestors built Iron Age hill forts on natural or man-made hilltops and retreated to those sanctuaries at times of threat and to participate in special social ceremonies.

The Roman Emperor Gaius Caesar (AD12–41), nicknamed Caligula (literally ‘Little Boots’), is perhaps the first historical figure to be associated with a tree house. Caligula squandered much of the Roman treasury and led a brief hedonistic life in which ‘for me anything is licit’.[9] He created ‘ephemeral extravagances of construction for his own pleasure’ including a circus and a bridge of boats. He also delighted not just in the fantasy but in the reality of a tree house. On an estate at Velitrae he constructed a tree house in a huge plane tree. Pliny the Elder described how Caligula established flooring in the tree with

‘the horizontal branches serving as seats; he held a banquet in the tree – the leaves provided a partial awning – in a dining-room spacious enough to hold fifteen guests and the servants. Caligula called this [the tree house] his “eyrie” ’.[10]

Perhaps the most magnificent tree houses ever built were those commissioned by two of the Dukes of the Medici family in Renaissance Italy. The first was built by Cosimo I (de' Medici: 1519–1574), Duke of Florence and the first Grand Duke of Tuscany. At the Villa di Castello at Florence, Cosimo I commissioned magnificent estate gardens designed by Nicolo Tribolo.[11] A feature was a magnificent tree house concealed in an ivy-covered oak tree, with a square dining room inside the tree.[12] A central dining table was adorned with a fountain, fed by reticulated water:

‘In a meadow to the east of the villa [Villa di Castello], Cosimo constructed a stepped walkway climbing up into it [a massive holm oak tree], and at the top of a large platform with seats “… with backs all of living green … and in the middle a marble table with a vase of variegated marble into which water is piped … the pipes are so covered with ivy that they cannot be seen and the water is controlled by taps.” ’[13]

Cosimo's son, Francesco I (1541–1587) outdid his father in the manner of tree houses:

‘Like Cosimo, Francesco was a crafty and brutal tyrant … but Tuscany was well governed … at his new Villa di Pratolino he freely indulged his love of artistically designed gardens.’[14]

At the Villa di Pratolino Francesco built a magnificent tree house which he called ‘La Fonte delle Rovere’ – the ‘Fountain of Oak’. Francesco entwined a great holm oak at Pratolino with, not one, but

‘Two staircases [which] spiralled up, parallel to one another on opposite sides of the tree. Stepped ramps rather than staircases, they led high up to where a platform eight metres in diameter had been created among the top most branches … on which were a marble table, seats and fountains that were fed from water piped along the branches.’[15]

Tree houses were popular in other European countries in centuries gone by. Some were illustrated in the works of Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450–1516) and Peter Brueghel the Elder (c. 1525–1569) ‘suggesting the popularity of treehouses in the Netherlands’.[16] Anthony Aikman, a historian of tree houses, has recorded that in Tudor England tree houses were popular and known as ‘roosting places’. One of the grandest was the one built in a great lime tree at Cobham Hall in Kent. It had three separate levels or ‘arbours’, on which the middle one ‘might bee placed halfe a hundred men at the least’. Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558–1603) banqueted in the Cobham tree house. Three and a half centuries later, Queen Elizabeth II learnt of her accession to the British throne at three in the morning of 6 February 1952 in Treetops, the tree house hotel in Aberdare National Park, near Nyeri in Kenya.

Tree Houses and Children's Development

A tree house is a physical place of enthusiastic adventure for children. In their imagination, the tree house becomes a fort, a ship, a treasure island, a balloon with its basket, a spaceship or a military bunker. For adults, perhaps sheepishly aloft, it can be all of these, relived again in the recalled imagination of our own childhoods or in one's adult childhood of today.

Wendy houses take their name from the tree house built for Wendy Darling in Barrie's Peter Pan,[17] in its many modern presentations on stage and film and in computer games.[18] Wendy houses, either as an outdoor playhouse or tree house, are seen all over the world. In such it has been said that everywhere

‘children are drawn to these spaces that are essentially their own. It is important for young children to have a space that is theirs, where they can pretend, make decisions, create, and play games.’[17]

Children who build tree houses typically use old or recycled timber and found objects as construction materials. They scavenge for wood, rope, nails and screws. Such creativity is expressed in countless forms, the only design requirement being a platform among the branches and a ladder or steps to ascend to the place of adventure. Many architects recall the awakening of their design skills during such a construction; and attribute their later professional skills as dating from the building of a childhood tree house. Frank Lloyd Wright ‘attributed the awakening of his design skills to childhood houses’, and his son John Wright in 1917 described the progression of his professional life as a famous architect as one ‘from tree houses to Lincoln Logs’.[19]

The US architect, Laurinda Spear, a founder of Arquitectonica in Miami, noted that most architects built spaces to promote the illusion of independence, which a tree house engenders:

‘We loved building forts. It was dangerous: pretty high in a tree, with wood wedged between two branches to make a platform. It's amazing that my mother let us spend the night in them.’[20]

There is a recent architectural trend to design adult houses and offices in the tree house genre. The artist Tadashi Kawamata has created spaces in Madison Square Garden in New York

‘into tree houses for local children and adults. The success of his exhibit was linked to the creativity of the building and fondness associated with re-living childhood memories, and an escape from urban life.’[17]

In a total population survey of the entire USA over 17 years (1990–2006), 47 351 patients (0–19 years) attended hospital for tree house-related injuries.[21] Falls accounted for 79% of injuries with upper limb fractures (38.8%) being the most common injury. A majority of injuries resulted from older boys (10–19 years) jumping from heights greater than 3 m. No exposure denominator is possible in this type of study. However, tree houses are relatively safe places for children. We have undertaken a review of all trauma admissions at the Royal Children's Hospital in Brisbane requiring a hospital inpatient stay for more than 24 h. This Hospital serves a primary population of approximately 1 million children aged under 14 years. A review of all admissions revealed an annual rate of 400 admissions for trauma of all forms, of which 140 were due to falls. None were from tree houses. Again, no exposure denominator is possible in this type of risk assessment, but the risk is obviously very low.

Children's Hospitals and the Tree House Theme

The tree house concept, as a private place of both sanctuary and happiness, has been developed in several modern children's hospitals. Several hospital planners and architects have developed this concept in their design of outpatient waiting areas and on-site respite accommodation homes for the families of long-term inpatients (Fig. 4). The Ronald MacDonald House at the Wilhelmina Children's Hospital (Wilhelmina Kinderziekenhuis (WKZ) ) in Utrecht was designed as a tree house and is so named (Fig. 5). That ‘tree house’ functions as a much appreciated place of refuge for parents, families and ambulant patients in that splendid children's hospital.

Figure 4.

The forest motif in the entrance to the tree house, the Ronald McDonald Huis, in the Wilhelmina Kinderziekenhuis (WKZ) [Wilhelmina Children's Hospital], Utrecht, the Netherlands. Left to right: Mr Berry Dekkers, Principal of the WKZ Hospital School; Ms M. Jansen, Superintendent of the Ronald McDonald Huis, WKZ; and the author. Photograph, October 2012.

Figure 5.

The atrium of the tree house of the Ronald McDonald Huis, Wilhelmina Kinderziekenhuis (WKZ) [Wilhelmina Children's Hospital] Utrecht, showing the tree house architecture. Photograph, October 2012.


In this online electronic era, there is a significant decline in children's unstructured free play, particularly that hitherto enjoyed in outdoor adventure. A tree house affords such opportunities, and is the setting for further creativity, building, modifying existing structures, decorating and, perhaps most important of all, pretend play. In make-believe play, especially that enjoyed in an outdoor setting, children are both the creators and the owners of their world. In a tree house

‘children make decisions, act on those decisions and perhaps develop skills valued by society and inhibit those which we do not value.’[17]

Socially, make-believe play affords children the opportunity to understand others' thoughts, beliefs and feelings, or at least play and experiment with these concepts. Tree house play can help children develop motor confidence and a sense of mastery and competence.[22] In a tree house, such development, in both mind and body, can have free rein.