A simple plan

When I was four my dad took some scrap lumber he had lying around and built me what is today called a “play structure”. It was basically a small, roofed box on stilts, and you got up into it by climbing an old ladder that he built onto the front. This structure was everything our kidly imaginations needed it to be; conestoga wagon, rocket ship, pirate ship, jail, submarine, tank, frontier fort, clubhouse, center for horticultural experimentation and education headquarters — you name it.

Best friend Bill Cornish and I slap on a protective coat of lead-based paint.

Neighbor Bill Cornish and I slap on a protective coat of lead-based paint.

We called it the “treehouse” at first, though it was only a treehouse in the sense that it was elevated. And that it was made of wood. Later I think we called it the “fort”. It had a real shake roof, which could be gained by climbing to the top of the ladder and then heaving yourself up and over the peak. When we were small, we contented ourselves with being inside it, draping hazelnut catkins along the walls as decorations (a feminine touch that was surely my sister’s idea), but in later years it was more fun to climb onto the roof and then jump off into the grass below, which was always a little squishy right there at the lowest part of the yard. For much of its life it stood next to the celebrated Transparent apple tree, and I remember picking those tart apples from the roof.

It was a cosmos of fun.

The fort as originally built. It was modified only a year or so later, not sure why. The last photo in this post shows the fort stripped before getting new walls. Could it be that we wore this thing out in such a short time?

The fort as originally built. It was modified only a year or so later, not sure why. The last photo in this post shows the fort stripped before getting new walls. Could it be that we wore this thing out in such a short time?

I wanted to build my daughter something similar. She was always asking if we could go to various parks and playgrounds to play on the play structures, slide down the slides, and swing on the swings. I have been thinking about it for a year, imagining the towering playopolis I would construct — the hatches, the bridges from here to there, the decks, the ladders, the multiple levels.

Thing was, it kept not being built. Nor even started. Here again we see the perfectionist paralyzed by a vision he doesn’t know how to begin to make a reality. One day Angela and Mara had a play date with a little boy who had just a basic platform in his yard with a short slide and a canvas roof — one of those kits — that they’d gotten dirt cheap on Craigslist. The kids had a blast, and Angela urged me to just put up something simple like that, and do it in time for Mara’s birthday in early April. She’d held off a thousand times from buying something used on Craigslist because I kept saying I could build something better than that, sturdier, with cooler features, etc. I may even have said I could do it cheaper, but I’da been wrong about that.

I downloaded a simple plan for a play structure, slide and swingset from the Internet for $4.99 (Joel Houde’s customwoodplans.com). I modified it, of course, because we wouldn’t need the swing set and I figured that the original plans were  too short; Mara is tall for her age, and we wanted this to be a fun space for her for years to come. Mara started chanting about wanting swings, so we added that back into the project, which was starting to look frightfully expensive. Then I took my modified parts list and headed to Lowe’s. Had I known what I was in for I might have run screaming into the trees. I don’t have my dad’s confidence around lumber. He probably built my fort in a day. My project took considerably longer, as you’ll see. But I’m glad I did it. Here are a few photos of the process.

Mara tightens the first lag bold that makes the frame stand up.

Mara tightens the first lag bolt that makes the frame stand up.

Man constructs self into play structure. Curious onlookers look on.

Man constructs self into play structure. Curious onlookers look on.

The yard was a swamp all spring and the design had not called for a foundation. I set my posts on the ground just under the sod, so they were on firm clay, but the holes kept filling up with water. We built a French drain as a solution. <i>Trés elegant!</i>

The yard was a swamp all spring and the design had not called for a foundation. I set my posts on the ground just under the sod, so they were on firm clay, but the holes kept filling up with water. We built a French drain as a solution. Trés elegant!

The floor is on and the rails are going up.

The floor is on and the rails are going up.

I would have built a shake roof, but it had to get done this year, and both Mara and Angela preferred the festive look of the canvas top.

I would have built a shake roof, but it had to get done this year, and both Mara and Angela preferred the festive look of the canvas top.

Some friends had given Mara a windsock for her birthday thinking it might fit on the structure somewhere. For some reason I had left the ridgepole extra long in front, which turned out to be the perfect place to hang it.

Some friends gave Mara a windsock for her birthday thinking it might fit on the structure somewhere. For some reason I had left the ridgepole extra long in front, which turned out to be the perfect place to hang it.

The best part is sharing it with a friend -- 1966, 2009

The best part is always the same -- Mike Cale (ascending) and Matt, c. 1967; Lily and Mara, 2009

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5 Responses to “A simple plan”


  1. 1 Gramma June 8, 2009 at 04:34

    Great job. I’ll see that PopPop sees this. I’ll push him up the stairs and settle him here and let him take his time reading through this.

  2. 2 Jeni June 8, 2009 at 23:54

    That was living, huh?
    And I do remember smashing up hazelnuts and leaves (those were the toughest nuts to get into!!), and making fresh GREEN applesauce. Didn’t we feed it to the children as we crossed the prairie? That was in between Indian attacks, of course. (oops, not pc!)

    Do you remember the ropes that we hung from the tree branches to make the horses reins? That was soooo much fun!

    And didn’t we have a few s vs. boys fights? I’m thinking Anita, and whoever your pals were. Bet it got pretty too!

    Thanks for the memories 🙂

    • 3 jstwndrng June 9, 2009 at 03:17

      Thanks for the comment sis.
      Being 16 months my senior, you have an advantage in memory. I don’t remember the horse reins, but it’s brilliant, and I’m sure I was agog at your backyard creativity as always. I wonder was iit also your idea to jump off the roof until our knees hit our jaws and caused us to bite our tongues, or if I came up with that on my own. Hmmm…

      • 4 Jeni June 20, 2009 at 05:24

        Well, if you asked me that about recent activity I’d say it was Katie’s idea. But now that you mention it, I seem to remember…nah, couldn’t be me. Who knows? Gone in the mist of time…


  1. 1 Local labor and local harvest « Just Wondering Trackback on June 7, 2009 at 05:47

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