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.

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.

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”.


Being a Grownup

This story is from my new position as a playworker with Santa Clarita Valley Adventure Play and took place on their adventure playground, Eureka Villa, which is just starting up.

Siblings are harder to read than kids who’re just friends. Siblings have had their entire lives to build up dynamics that are deep and have shared understandings of their rules for their relationship that may or may not make sense to an outsider (healthy or not).

Oscar and Rudy were no exception. This wasn’t the first time I’d met them and I’d already seen and been warned that they fight. A lot. Today, S was swinging on the tire swing, doing tricks and seeing what different ways he could use it. He narrated his tricks loudly within my earshot, which I took as an invitation to be his audience, so I was sitting on the edge of the swing area looking on. First, he stood on one side to get the swing to flip up, next, he stuck his head through the middle – which looked to the viewer like a reverse groundhog head popping down out of a hole, and then he stuck his feet in the inner tire and lay his body across the top facing up with his hands out. His creativity led him to fall off at one point and need to walk away for a few minutes but he came right back and started all his tricks again.


Then, his younger brother Rudy waltzed up.

Rudy clambered onto the swing while Oscar said, “Rudy! I’m using it right now”

Rudy: “It doesn’t look like you’re using it.”

Oscar: “I am! I want to use it alone!”

Rudy: “There’s room for me to use it with you!”

Reasonable all around, I’d say. Until Oscar started trying to shove Rudy off – since his spoken arguments weren’t being effective! I stepped closer to keep an eye on it. It almost looked like wrestling: they were both laughing as they shoved each other. Oscar tried to push Rudy’s feet off and Rudy tried to stay on. I tried to get a read on it by saying, “I’m not sure if you’re play fighting or real fighting.” To which Oscar said “real fighting” and Rudy said “play fighting” and Oscar was giggling the whole time. As it progressed Oscar’s shoves got harder and Rudy’s kicks more pointed. I was uncertain, but it started looking like too much, and since I normally step in at any physical aggression I decided to intervene.

I told Rudy I wouldn’t let him kick his brother. After some negotiation he got off, but not to cede the swing; he came back with a metal pipe to ram Oscar with. I stopped that too and Rudy’s focus switched from getting a turn on the swing to getting me to let go so he could hit his brother with the pole. I felt over my head and doubtful of my practice but unable to see a way out. In the end, Rudy got kicked in the face and ran away. Oscar left soon after. No one seemed pleased with how it went down, least of all me. Nothing like that sinking feeling of having messed up but not knowing how it happened! Upon some quick in-the-moment reflection, I decided I shouldn’t have stepped in. Neither boy had looked to me to help them out. This was a new site with new kids and I hadn’t quite calibrated to it all yet.

When I saw Oscar walking by the hay bales alone a little later I saw my opportunity to make it right. I went up to him and apologized for my bumbling in before. I said how I saw that he’d been enjoying coming up with swing tricks alone and I wish he had been able to keep doing that. He said, “It’s okay. We [him and his brother] fight all the time.” I responded that I think I probably should have just let them fight and he agreed with a shrug. It wasn’t much but I felt we’d made a connection.

Later that day Oscar was back on the swing alone and continuing his trick work. I was watching again and Rudy came over again. I resolved not to intervene this time. Oscar and Rudy began to fight over the swing again and for a few minutes they pushed and shoved and argued just like before. To my surprise, a few minutes later Oscar agreed to Rudy’s suggestion to do two-person tricks. They played that way for a long while.


Later, Rudy left again, leaving Oscar on the swing and me still stationed as his audience. Oscar paused his tricks and talked to me from the swing about all sorts of things: his dog, medieval knights, school. He talked as if I were a friend now.

The relationship between a playworker and child is unique. It’s one of trust and earned respect (as opposed to the kind of “respect” that is actually obedience that adults usually demand from children). I felt the beginning of an authentic relationship with Oscar start, one where we weren’t adult and child but person and person. I think that by allowing Oscar to see my thought process that day he came to see me as a real person that he could work with. I also think that by my apologizing to him and ceding power to him he was able to be more flexible and gracious later when faced with the same decision about his brother wanting to join him. Trust begets trust.