Seattle's Child

Your guide to a kid-friendly city

Kids can have fun being creative with hand tools and scrap lumber.

How to build a backyard playhouse with your kids

Work together on a plan, and assign age-appropriate tasks.

This could be the summer of the playhouse.

The kids of 2020 are spending more time in their yards than kids at any time this century.

As a result, many a family is putting work into making their yard a better place to be: with garden beds and patios, swings and trampolines (is that a good idea? Read more). And for some families, the plan involves a playhouse for the kids.

There are many options for how to go about building the structure, depending on your budget and your enthusiasm for DIY carpentry. You could work from a kit, adapt a garden shed kit, or design your own from scratch. It could be made of fresh plywood or fashioned from old pallets and construction scraps.

Whatever the plan, it’s best to involve kids right from the beginning, when it’s only an idea, says Loren Kite, program director for Kids Carpentry Seattle, a Columbia City-based business that in normal times teaches kids woodwork.

“They should have a say in what they’re going to build, where in the yard it’s going to be and what direction it’s going to face,” Kite says, in addition to input into all the details on to what materials to use and what it should look like.

“Kids are much more likely to play with something and take it on as their own if they were involved in the process,” Kite says.

In the regular world, James Brandalise teaches woodworking at Coyote Central. Typically, out of a five-day class, one day goes to planning.

“We spend one whole day designing and drawing and making cardstock models.”

A common pattern: Kids have many wild and impractical ideas at the beginning, and then end up making sensible revisions.

“Imaginations go wild and then temper down,” Brandalise says.

When it’s time to get to work, figure out how your kids can contribute.

Buying them tools is a good start. Tape measures are a good idea. So are hammers. Kite says that most big-box stores carry lightweight 10- or 8-ounce hammers, tools that happen to be perfectly balanced for young children, enabling them to bash in nails without doing too much injury to themselves.

And safety goggles can add to a kid’s excitement about the project, particularly if you provide each child a personal pair, Brandalise says.

While a 5-year-old can have a delightful time just drilling holes in a scrap of lumber, getting hands-on with the project they are building is very important.

“They’re going to be a lot more involved if they’re trusted with a task rather than just assisting,” Brandalise says.

Kids can manage a lot. Kite says a 7-year-old can tackle tasks involving an electric drill, for example, and may be delighted at the chance.

“The responsibility of letting them use a drill feels like a big deal with them.”

But for the very young, handing you tools is a useful task, too.

“It’s a way for them to learn the names of things and think that this is something cool I have never done before,” Kite says.

If you can figure out how to do it safely, consider letting them be creative with the materials. In normal times, there are “adventure playgrounds” where kids are alowed to make their own structures using scraps and hand tools. Many Seattle-area families have fond memories of adventures at Deane’s Children’s Park on Mercer Island (which closed its Adventure Playground program last year because of budget cuts.)

One option with a playhouse would be to supervise the framing, and then back off as soon as you figure the thing won’t immediately fall down.

Involving kids is not a tactic that makes sense if you are in a hurry. Kite recommends that when planning things out, you estimate the amount of work you can get done in an hour, and then cut the estimate in half, if you have a child with you.

But your child will have the experience of learning new skills, and the satisfaction of having built something useful.

“It’s going to be one of the things they remember,” Kite says.

More fun, at-home projects:

Kid-friendly crops for your summer garden
7 ways to make the most of all this time at home
How to get your kids more involved in cleaning and tidying
Life skills: What to teach younger kids and older kids/teens

About the Author

Fiona Cohen

Fiona Cohen lives in Ballard with her husband, two teenagers, a big vegetable garden and an absurd cat. She is the author of "Curious Kids Nature Guide," and is working on a new nature book for kids, to be published by Little Bigfoot in 2022.