The Not-So-Magic Tree House

Hi Readers: Use this instead of coffee to get your heart pounding on a Monday morning: A tree house that has been delighting children in the Bondi neighborhood of Sydney, Australia, for six years could be torn down soon, says the Sydney Morning Herald:

Made by a builder, the Bondi cubby has attracted complaints ranging from the suggestion that vagrants have moved in, that people come from other neighbourhoods and spoil the quiet of the street, that the structure is unsafe, that the tree harbours spiders, and that children are left to play unsupervised.

Those against the treehouse are mostly concerned on safety grounds. Sylvia Grosslight, who has been in the neighbourhood for about 30 years, said: ”I don’t think it’s safe at all. I don’t know how well the wood has been treated and there are bugs in it.”

Those battling for its rescue are parents of children who find the controversy hard to fathom.

Hard to fathom? Ye gads! It’s so simple: Children should never come into contact with bugs, or spiders, or the natural world, or a tree (see post below), or anything not made out of plastic and screwed into the ground, which itself should be made of plastic and securely affixed to the earth’s crust with no protruding grommets. (Not that I’m quite sure what a grommet is, but it sure sounds right.)

Moreover, no child should be frolicking more than three inches off the ground, or three inches below another child (lest the smaller child be bullied), or more than three inches away from a loving parent or pre-approved caregiver who has undergone a background check and taken babysitting lessons and is at least 25 years old and willing to kill spiders.

As for a tree house — I know we will all start cursing the fact that liability laws will fell it in the end. But does anyone have any great ideas on how to change that? How to stand up for sanity and against the insidious idea that in life there is either perfect safety or untenable risk? In other words, that ANY risk at all is unacceptable?

I LOVE safety. But I think I’d love the tree house, too. And in my mind, they are not polar opposites. How can we get other folks to hold those two ideas at once: That something can be safe enough, even if it’s not PERFECTLY safe? How do we get that to sound sane again? — Lenore

P.S. Here’s an update. The tree house has been granted a temporary stay of execution.

No, this is not the treehouse in Bondi. But it sure is cool! And no photo copyright issues!

60 Responses

  1. It would be a pity to see it go if it’s indeed still safe or can be fixed up to be safe again if the wood it was built out of is too old. Kids are better than many think at doing things that look dangerous to adults who forget all the stunts they did during their own childhoods.

    This makes me think of Fairytale Town in Sacramento, CA. It was around when my mother was young, and I gather it hasn’t changed much.

    It’s been a few years since I’ve been there, but I love that they’ve managed to stay open despite all the lack of safety precautions on many of their attractions. The Crooked Mile there was my oldest daughter’s favorite part when she was younger. A somewhat narrow path going up and down, curving all over the place, and no handrails. Kids go charging through there and somehow manage to pass each other when needed, and have a blast.

    It’s one of those places I hope manages to stick around for a very long time. Not perfectly safe, but a great way for kids to challenge themselves.

  2. I’m reading “there are bugs in it” as “there are bugs living in the rotting wood”.

    A treehouse that is made of rotting wood a couple of metres off the ground is a real safety risk, in a kids-are-in-it-when-it-collapses-and-they-fall-amongst-the-debris sort of way.

  3. would they prefer the kids build a fort in the middle of the woods somewhere? at least this place is in a neighborhood.

    Honestly – too much safety means that the kids will never learn to be safe on their own and will engage in even more dangerous behaviour or stunts. Why? All the safety gear that they have keeps them safe! ARGH!

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Lenore Skenazy, TKInman. TKInman said: The Not-So-Magic Tree House « FreeRangeKids: Hi Readers: Use this instead of coffee to get your heart pounding o… […]

  5. The idea that children are left to play unsupervised is not a reason to tear down the treehouse. If it really worries people so much, they should be supervising and find out the “risks” aren’t all that bad. But they don’t think it’s important — tearing down the treehouse takes a lot less effort.

  6. Stay of execution?

    North Bondi tree house saved

  7. A grommet is that metal thing in your shoe that the laces pass through.

    A couple of my friends had a treehouse when I was young; they’d built it themselves, and it had no ladder. That’s right; anyone who wanted to enjoy it had to *gasp* CLIMB!

  8. Sometimes I consider moving from the UK back to NZ where I come from just for a couple of years so my children can have a relatively carefree childhood. Then I read things like this and conclude that I might as well just stay here and fight the good fight.
    (Obviously NZ is not Australia, but I imagine the culture must be similar with regards to these sorts of issues).

  9. If there’s a legitimate worry, fix it, but don’t tear it down! I “love” the suggestion in the second article about posting an “unsafe” sign.

  10. It’s in a tree, there will be bugs. Heck, I have bugs in my house on occasion and I don’t knock down my house. Oh, wait, I have stairs in my house, too, and those could be dangerous. Oh wow, I just realized that I have ELECTRICAL WIRES running THROUGH the walls of my house. I have children living here! They could use the electricity and get damaged somehow.

    Off to go find a plastic hut in some sort of sealed-off dome thingy where there’s nothing dangerous…

  11. Out of curiosity, I took a look on Google Maps at the location given in the article. The street is short, so it didn’t take long to find the treehouse on Streetview. If it is the one I am looking at, it appears to be slightly more than a meter off the ground. Also, it isn’t even enclosed; more like a slightly elevated platform with railing around it. I’m not sure why this would be attractive to vagrants at all since it offers no protection from the elements. There is no ladder or tree climbing involved in getting to it, just 6 or 7 steps. It can hardly be called a treehouse in my book.

  12. They are not grommets, those are things they put in childrens ears to drain fluid, Lenore, you must be thinking of widgets.

  13. Is it possible that there are funnel web spiders about? Those things will kill you, and fast.

  14. Perhaps by spiders they mean the The Sydney funnel-web spider, whose bite sounds very nasty. If those are a concern, couldn’t they hire an exterminator?

  15. On the other hand, several years ago I knew someone (have since lost touch with this person) who had moved to Australia. She told me she got into her car one day and there was a spider the size of a frying pan in the backseat. She abandoned the car! Now, perhaps she was exaggerating, I’ve never been to Australia, so I really don’t know what type of spiders they have there, but if I was a mom in Australia I think I might be a bit nervous about spiders, too, if they do, in fact, have spiders that size! 😮

    Of course, I live in an area that has black widows and we get a ton of them at our house, especially in the sandbox and shed. My son knows what to look for and he’s careful, and when we sees on he tells me and I go after it with chemical warfare. So, maybe if I lived in an area with frying pan sized spiders I’d be used to it and treat them the same way I treat the black widow spiders that we have…I don’t like them but they don’t prevent me from doing stuff and they don’t prevent me from letting my son do stuff.

  16. They’d really have a conniption fit if they saw the tree house my 5 play in. It weaves in and out of 5 trees, with 4 different levels, a firemens pole, rope bridges, zip line and cargo nets. Most of their friends parents won’t let them play in it, although none of mine have ever gotten hurt…but on Friday, the 11 year old broke her wrist walking down the hallway at school. No tripping, pushing, shoving or untied laces involved..she JUST FELL! Because she’s my daughter after all, and we’re just spastic that way sometimes.

  17. I’m with Emiky – why is tearing it down posed as the one and only solution? What a way to demonstrate good problem-solving techniques to the children…I’m sure they’ll be quick to apply it to real-life situations.

    “Yes, Mom, that bully at school posed a potential hazard to my personal safety…so I killed him.”

  18. And Kristi, can I come play in the treehouse too? Please please please?

  19. Holy cow! Yeah, ok, if these are the spiders in the treehouse, I understand the fear!

  20. And here I was thinking grommet was a claymation dog…

  21. @Lenore…

    For some reason my second post, with today’s news update, won’t take.

    The funnel web lives mainly on the ground. There is an anti venom. Nobody has died from a bite since 1980.

  22. I think Billy Shakespeare got it right in “Henry VI”: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

  23. Why are we so worried about everyone else’s kids? If you don’t like it, don’t let your kids play there. Why is there an attitude of, If I don’t want it nobody else can. I don’t like radishes, but I don’t petition my local store to stop selling them.

    Elected officials all feel they need to justify their time in office by “doing” something. Sometimes the best thing to “do” is nothing. Sheez.

  24. I just read the link that gwallan posted. Seriously? All this because ONE person complained? I wish I had that kind of power in my town over stuff I didn’t like.

  25. Incredible. The park behind our house was taken down for many of the same reasons, except the spiders. In the words of my seven-year-old “It’s re -dic-a-lous!” How can we teach them safety if we never let them take any risks? That’s not smart parenting in my mind.

    As for the spiders, I know they have poisonous spiders in Australia, but why not teach the kids to identify them and what to do about them? Where we live in Canada, spiders are more of an unfounded phobia. I recently took a group of Scouts , ranging from 5 to 14 years old, winter camping. We had a cabin in the woods that we well populated by mostly dead dandy longlegs. One girl, about 10 years old, was terrified of them and wanted to go home. Telling her that they were harmless was useless so, we went on a group spider hunt. Armed with winter boots for smashing, she killed her first and second spiders (both already dead, but she didn’t believe it.) It didn’t take long before her fears were gone.

    I’d rather empower my kids with knowledge and smart decision making than shelter them from everything their (our my) imaginations dream up as evil.

  26. One of my favorite memories from childhood was when my dad and I made a two storey tree house on a vacant wooded lot in our subdivision in southern Florida. It had to walls or railings, and a rope swing a good 15′ off the ground, and I never once got hurt because I learned how to be responsible and smart in potentially risky situations. Nowadays my dad would probably get ticketed and have to take it down. Sad.

  27. Perhaps the single person who does want the cubby-treehouse to remain should take it down and put it in their own backyard for the children to enjoy not on the states watch.

  28. I don’t know, concern about spiders seems… well founded. Doesn’t Australia have the top three most venomous spiders in the world, along with nine of the top ten most venomous snakes (or, just as accurately, all of the top nine!) and the two most venomous rabbits?

    Spiders in Australia = scary stuff.

    But then, I guess if you have to live there already you might as well get used to it.

  29. Seriously, post a sign that lists the potential “dangers” and says “play at your own risk.” Done and done.

  30. If they treat the play house for the bugs, then it will be considered exposure to toxins, I guarantee it!

    When some grumpy people want to get rid of something, they’ll go to any lengths to do it. Sorry, but they will probably win.

  31. Australia contains poisonous spiders and risky people. Tear down Australia NOW!

  32. I didn’t understand the true magic of treehouses until we built ours. it’s hard to get how cool it is until you play in it with a kid.

  33. Over the past six years, how many kids have died while playing in this tree house?

    Is “Sylvia Grosslight” from Moorestown, NJ?
    She sure sounds just like the inspectors who are harrassing Sue Maloney who runs the “Children’s School” there.

  34. Are there parents in the community/neighborhood who want the playhouse? Who owns the land it is on?

    Seems to me that the simplest solution is for parents who want to save the tree house to setup a system of checking on the tree house. They can check stairs for stability, look for any protruding nails or whatever, and do a quick sweep with a broom for spiders. Generally, spiders like a peaceful and quiet area and won’t settle where there is constant human activity. Ditto with vagrants. And knowing an adult might show up at any time for a spot check might help to keep kids “unruly” behavior in check, too.

    Honestly, the first thing that came to my mind was those wipe-off signs you see in restaurant bathrooms that tell you when it was last cleaned and checked for toilet paper. Perhaps a dry erase board inside the fort or on the tree that shows a parent has been by every 4 or 5 days to check things out would soothe the complainants?

    Just a suggestion…..

  35. My older brother, and my step siblings and myself built a tree house in an apple tree as kids. My mom refused to look at it because she was sure it was going to fall. It did hang over the neigbor’s field, but he just plowed around it. There was a bee’s nest in the tree too – I was the only one who got stung – once, and I learned not to swat at the bees.

    When we lived in Santa Cruz area in CA, I had a few of those Little Tyke plastic structures. They would get FULL of black widows and earwigs. My kids were never bit, but they did leave the spiders alone. We took them apart and sprayed them off every so often, but if we had been as afraid as these people, the kids never would go outside.

    My bet is, if they tear it down, that the kids will still climb anyhow, and will probably go higher than they had before. The parents who are concerned should just make sure their kids are not allowed to play there, then everyone will be happy.

  36. Yeah, I took the bugs comment to mean that the wood itself was inhabited by bugs, which means it was either rotting, or susceptible to rot. I don’t think we should dismiss the possibility of safety issues quite so quickly — some thing really ARE unsafe. A treehouse with unsound timber would be high on the list.

    That said, I agree with everyone else who says inspect it, fix it if possible, tear it down only if it is rotting to the point of unsalvageability — and then let people build a new one, if they have the interest and resources to do so. “Tear this thing down” is not the only way to deal with *potential* safety issues.

  37. Kristi – do you have pictures? Or an instruction manual for building one just like it?

  38. Ha, just read the update and saw that one of the councilwomen said the same thing I did; just put up a sign.

  39. What a cool idea to have a neighborhood treehouse! If it was once built by someone who knew what they were doing (as it must have to have survived all the years of use), then surely some maintenance should not be too extensive… I hope the treehouse gets to remain a site for children in that area. Good luck!

  40. I want to go to Kristi’s house, please. Kristi, you can get my e-mail from Lenore if you want to invite me.

  41. So it took only ONE person to complain that they are in this predicament. Is this ONE person that special that they have to make the world evolve around him/her? But that’s all it really takes these days. ONE bad apple to ruin the bunch. I say just get rid of that ONE bad apple, and everyone is happy. Rather than try to save that ONE bad apple at the risk of making things worse for the whole batch.

    Man, why don’t people put this much effort into helping world hunger, UNICEF, any childrens’ foundation, or something as simple as making a community better (that’s community, NOT one person). If it only took one person to stir the hornets nest to get officials to do something, imagine a whole community. BUT instead of tearing something down because of someone’s misguided sense of self-righteousness, why don’t put the effort in making something that benefits the whole community. Especially the kids. Oh that’s right…it’s not really about the kids, it’s about the feelings of selfish adults.

  42. @ Kim – Yes, most of our wildlife will kill you. The spider your friend described was probably a Huntsman – they can get very large and like to turn up indoors. They are scary, but not poisonous.

    It didn’t even occur to me what many other readers have said, but yes, Sydney Funnel Web spiders are extremely venemous, very aggressive, and have been known to kill people with a bite. We also get redback spiders and a few others that are also dangerous. Treehouses are probably a great place to find them.

    We also have snakes… Most of our snakes will kill you. We have something like 9 out of 10 of the most venemous snakes in the world, and plenty of those aren’t exactly in out-of-the-way areas, either.

    Playing outside in Australia can be a dangerous business. That being said, as long as there’s an adult present to call an ambulance, I can’t see a kid dying of being bitten by anything in an inner city suburb, close to so many hospitals.

    @ Eric S – The article only quoted “ONE” person. The words around the quote suggest that there have been a number and variety of complaints over a period of time, presumably from multiple people.

  43. The treehouse is truly awesome, but there are no plans. It is the result of my truly talented husband and our 5 kids imaginations. I’m currently in Afghanistan, but will see if he can email me me some pics that I can post on the Free Range FB page. Just for reference though, think “Ewok Village!” We have always embraced the “free-range” lifestyle, but didn’t know that’s what it was called. We called it being KUNTRY.. Our herd currently free ranges on 150 acres in Kentucky bourbon country, but have lived in Italy, Germany, Japan and Korea. The United States is by far the most restrictive country we have called home, as far a rearing free range children goes. So, to all who asked..YES, you are welcome to play in the treehouse anytime you’re in Kentucky (it’s nice and quite at night when you just need a break). We also have horses, chickens, cows, goats, dogs, and a mean guard turkey named Drumstick. There are caves to explore, a 40 acre lake to swim, canoe and fish in, miles of trails to hike, and a huge front porch swing for summer nights and sipping bourbon while the kids chase fireflies. It is truly our slice of heaven, and we consider it the best gift we could ever give our children.

  44. I understand the fear that there might be spiders hanging out in dark corners and such, but wouldn’t that be the case in any structure?

    I know around here, Black Widows, Wolf Spiders (not venomous, I don’t think, but big suckers with nasty bites, nonetheless), and Brown Recluse spiders, along with Copperheads (as well as ticks and various other disease-carrying pests, and large animals, such as bears), are a fact of life. You learn what to do around them and what to do if someone gets injured by one. It’s also my understanding that in places like Arizona, where other dangerous animals, such as scorpions, are even in the house, you do things like check your shoes before putting them on.

    Think there are spiders in it? Check it before playing, especially if no one’s played in it that day or for a few hours. Think there’s rotted wood? Replace the boards. Not sure if the wood’s been treated properly? Treat it! Tearing it down should be a last resort.

    Uly – Wait, rabbits can be venomous? Tell me you’re joking.

    Kristi – Okay, now THAT’S a treehouse. I so want!

  45. Oh, my goodness, Kristi, I’m just going to become 8 years old again and then move into your house.

  46. wow.
    You rocked on that one, Lenore.
    I think sometimes, we are losing the battle – are becoming divorced, so to speak, from the natural world.
    Damned shame – because as weird as it gets, the kids are actually capable of fighting a pretty good battle agains becoming de-naturalized.

    Does a kid feel safe or non-threatened because some sanctified authority tells them they are, or aren’t? Can it be scientifically measured and does it look good on a spread sheet? Can it be risk-managed? Will the stock go up?

    Perfect risk-aversion arrives (maybe) at the age of 25. They keep it in the cookie jar somewhere in City hall. What you do ’til then is anybody’s guess – but maturity, for gawdsakes…need not apply.

  47. Kristi:

    Here’s a thought. Every time a concerned adult wishes to pass some child safety law or rule, they should by law be forced to come and spend one half hour in your treehouse.
    Who knows? This might reduce planetary stupidity by as much as 10%!
    Think of the consequences………………………………..

  48. Kristi, if my husband could work from home, I would love to be your neighbor! Animals, trees, roaming around, and you have caves too! How cool! Our tiny piece of heaven is only 3 acres, but we still are able to have the animals that we want (at least until the zoning changes probably after those 300 houses go up a little ways behind us in what has been farm land for several generations.) I just wish we had trees big enough to do a tree fort, but that is the price of living in a desert.

  49. I hate those new plastic “playhouses.” The static electricity shocks the crap out of the kids and makes their hair stand on end. The worst thing is the fake “turf” they put underneath, made from recycled tires or some such nonsense. What is wrong with grass? Ugh.

  50. I like JP’s thpught on forcing them to play in the treehouse.

    My little brothers and their friends spent years making/improving/hanging out in a treehouse in the back. Only stopped last year because apparently at 17 it’s just not cool anymore.

  51. Uly – Wait, rabbits can be venomous? Tell me you’re joking.

    Yes, I’m joking. Well, about the rabbits. It’s true about the spiders and the snakes, and those are just the land animals. They also have the Australian Box Jellyfish, the most lethal animal known to mankind (please, no “man is the most dangerous game” commentary), but that at least is unlikely to be found in a treehouse. (Sharks, on the other hand, are currently swimming in the streets where its’ been flooded. Anybody still there may HAVE to go into a treehouse to get away from them!)

  52. But the point of all that is that living in Australia is already damn risky. The treehouse isn’t really making any huge difference.

  53. […] even at age 14 (see this), and who can’t possibly handle sleepovers (see this) or bugs ( see this) or bible stories (see this), are now being told they can’t handle Valentine’s Day, […]

  54. Australia is home to some of the most deadly spiders on earth. If a tree house children play in is infested with them, I can see this. But just the wood possibly being treated, that is lame. But please, poisonous spiders and small children are not something to screw around with.

  55. Hi Lenore,

    Unfortunately the cubby house has now been taken down by council workers. 😦 see:


    PS. It was great to meet you in Melbourne at the end of last year. Look forward to catching up in New York sometime. Jeff

  56. Council tears children’s playhouse down
    Jen Rosenberg
    February 17, 2011
    THE sign that said ”no grown-ups allowed” is gone and so is the treehouse. Waverley Council has dismantled the wooden cubby that had entertained children for eight years and divided a neighbourhood in the past few weeks.

    A note was put into letterboxes in Narelle Street, North Bondi, to tell residents that the council was due to follow through on its decision to remove the treehouse because it did not meet council standards.

    Nicola Bird, a parent and supporter of the cubby, said her children, Kiera, 5, and Ethan, 4, were at school and childcare when the workmen came. She said they were sad their playhouse had gone but did have the chance to say goodbye to it.

    Advertisement: Story continues below ”It’s a very sad looking little tree now,” Mrs Bird said.

    The treehouse had been part of the neighbourhood since a father, who worked as a stage and set builder, constructed the cubby for his children outside their house. But the tree was on council land and a building inspection, conducted in December on behalf of the council, found the structure to be dangerous and recommended it be taken down.

    The council has come under criticism for being heavy-handed and over-protective.

    ”I’m just sick of the way society is going,” said Mrs Bird. ”We live in a cotton-wool society … our kids can’t play any more like we did when we were kids.”

    The mayor, Sally Betts, said she was sorry the situation had been raised at council level, but once it had, and the treehouse was deemed unsafe, the council had no option but to remove it.

  57. […] Readers. Yup. The one we discussed a couple posts ago has been dismantled. Here’s the story. It was too dangerous, the local […]

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  59. […] Readers. Yup. The one we discussed a couple posts ago has been dismantled. Here’s the story. It was too dangerous, the local […]

  60. […] even at age 14 (see this), and who can’t possibly handle sleepovers (see this) or bugs ( see this) or bible stories (see this), are now being told they can’t handle Valentine’s Day, […]

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