Feminist Treehouse

The girls built it themselves.

One treehouse has led to another at Eureka Villa, which is perfect, because while I had a hand in setting up the first one, the second one came entirely from the children. From one girl in particular, in fact, who I’ve been told had been wanting to make a treehouse since long before I arrived.

She and a group of willing helpers – inspired children were drawn from all over the site who wanted to be a part of a great idea – hefted a pallet into the horizontal crotch of a branch on the elderberry fort. Playworker Jeremiah gave a hand with the pallet, leveled it out a bit, and stayed close to help with the hammers, nails, and saws.

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Princesses in the new treehouse.

Meanwhile, I was back at the first treehouse, where two boys were relishing having the run of the place. They hammered on bits of wood and rope more for the process than the result. When the nails didn’t quite go in they called them hooks and were quite pleased. Since they hadn’t quite gotten the hang of hammering and often needed help I stayed close until two older boys came over and the younger two accepted their offer of help. I backed off to the edge of the play frame until I was satisfied that the older boys would be enough help to keep the younger ones safe and then left altogether.

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First treehouse.

By that time back in the elderberry bush, the new treehouse pallet had been secured, boards had been nailed to the gaps, and two older girls had started working on decorating with fabric and small wood scraps. When I went over to check out their progress I was told firmly that this treehouse was for girls only and that they were playing “pwincesses” (they both practically fell over giggling at their purposeful mispronunciation).

I was reminded of the girls-only treehouse when I saw a talk by exhibit designer Margaret Middleton at the Association of Children’s Museum’s “InterActivity” conference last week. She spoke about femininity in children’s space design. Margaret explained that most children’s museums try to be gender neutral, but that our culture’s “gender neutral” tends to skew masculine. Femininity, of course, is not the realm of girls alone. We all express ourselves with a combination of masculine and feminine indicators. What then, are we telling boys, girls, and non-binary children, by valuing straight lines, neutral colors, and hard edges over curves, bright colors, and softness (not to mention sparkle, coziness, beauty, and nurturance) in the spaces we design for them? From the youngest age, children pick up on how masculinity is still much more accepted than femininity. Sexism runs both ways: if girls are expected to only be feminine, when they want to engage in traditionally masculine activities, then that’s sexist, but it’s also sexist to value a girl who acts masculine higher than children who embody feminine qualities. It’s just as feminist for a girl to demand respect in a princess dress as it is for a girl to demand respect in a construction hat.

It’s just as feminist for a girl to demand respect in a princess dress as it is for a girl to demand respect in a construction hat.

While adventure playgrounds are ostensibly designed by children, adults still have a role in what materials and tools are available – by extension, what activities are possible. Many adventure playgrounds feel decidedly male; they are dominated by construction and built structures, and loud play, including wrestling and war games.* Having a place where that kind of play can happen is very important, for both boys and girls and everyone in-between, but it’s also important to ensure that there are places where all genders can be cozy and quiet, for there to be sparkly cloth and tulle for making costumes, and for the adults in the space to make clear through what we provide and how we act that masculine and feminine play are both welcome (and both acceptable for a child of any gender to engage in).

The boys at Eureka Villa never said that the first treehouse was theirs, and several girls had helped build it, but it had been almost exclusively incorporated into boys’ play narratives thus far. I am so glad that the girls felt empowered to make their own space and fill it with colorful cloth drapery, jewels, and “pwincesses”. Adventure playgrounds are intended to be places for children to be and become exactly who they are. If there are children who like to be feminine, then how powerful it must be to be able to build a place for that when they need it. The girls built a treehouse, yes, and simultaneously they built themselves a place to be the exactly who they were right then, and right then, they were pwincesses.

*Jackie Kilvington and Ali Wood have written about the gendered politics of adventure playgrounds in the excellent book, “Gender, Sex, and Children’s Play”.