It’s a place children can first savor the sweet taste of independence.

A place off limits to adults.

A place to curl up with a book, study insects, or pat the rough bark of a tree that becomes, in that moment, a companion in play.

We’re talking about tree houses, of course. As parents try to navigate the world of play for their kids during the COVID-19 pandemic, some have no farther to go than their own backyard, where children can scamper up to their place in the trees.

“During covid, it’s been a life saver,” said Jess Kriel, a school social worker whose three children not only have a tree fort, but a whole entertainment complex with swings, a trampoline and zipline.

The first section went up about three years ago, she said. Her husband was planning to cut down three pine trees. He cut down two and then stared thoughtfully at the third, remembering their kids had been asking for a tree fort.

He and his dad saved the tree and built a treefort in it as a birthday present for their kids, who all have summer birthdays, Kriel said.

“They are always adding to it,” she said. “Last Labor Day, my friends down the road, their boys were too big and they wanted to get rid of their playset. The four guys brought this playset over and connected it to the tree fort.”

Another time she went to town and came back to discover the addition of the zipline.

Now that society has relaxed its health restrictions somewhat, the neighborhood kids have also been coming over to play, she said. And the playset has proved attractive not just to kids, but to adults. Her children’s godmother conquered her fear of the zipline.

“Grandpas and grandmas and moms and dads,” she said. “When it gets late at night and everybody’s over here, everybody gives it a whirl.”

The Kriels aren’t the only family that realized the importance of the back yard during the pandemic. Carol Klimek of Garfield said her husband was off work in March and April when quarantining started, so they decided to put up a tree fort with a slide for their two children, Lilly, 9, and Jack, 5. Lilly helped build the slide, which was wood covered with a tough plastic. They added a Ninja warrior slack line.

“It gave them something to do,” Klimek said.

A new trampoline gives the tree fort some competition, but they still use the tree fort every day, she said.

Just to emphasize that tree forts are for kids, Keith Gilbertson and his neighbor, Dave Sailer, built a tree fort this year that includes a gate that locks from the inside.

“The grandkids can lock out the parents and the grandparents,” he said.

Adults can still reach over the side rails to unlock it if necessary, but the point remains: It’s the kid’s space. They also added a mailbox at the bottom, and sometimes kids find letters from their grandmother.

Sometimes, parents use scrap wood to build the forts. Other times, they loop in lumber yards. Gilbertson went to Alexandria Lumber for his supplies, and Jason Breitzman, sales manager at Hilltop, said he has been asked to bid on a 96-square-foot treehouse that would include a wrap-around deck, windows that open and top-end siding.

“I think when it’s done, it’ll be a very nice tree house,” he said.

City permits are not required for structures that are smaller than 200 square feet, and that includes tree forts, said Alexandria City Planner Mike Weber.

How to build

Many families say they check out YouTube videos when planning their tree forts. Other sites offer tips for a sturdy fort:

  • Avoid trees with shallow root systems. Consult an arborist if necessarily. (homedepot.com)

  • In areas of strong winds, build in the lower third of the tree. (familyhandiman.com)

  • Put the load over the base of the tree, not on one side. (familyhandiman.com)

  • Install railings to prevent falls, and add a layer of mulch on the ground in case of falls. (www.homeselfe.com)

  • Cover up nails or screws to prevent scrapes and cuts to your children. (www.homeselfe.com)

  • After bad weather, check that the tree fort remains sturdy. Double check nuts, bolts, and brackets to ensure they are holding the treehouse firmly in place. (www.homeselfe.com)

Tips for healthy trees

Tree forts harm trees when they involve drilling holes into a trunk or resting the weight of the fort on the branches, say Alexandria tree advocates Carol and Marty Strong.

Holes can introduce pests and diseases that can kill the tree, and the weight can weaken it.

To minimize harm, they suggest building the tree fort around the tree, with the weight of the fort resting on posts that are anchored in the ground, and leaving room for the tree to grow.

Which tree to use?

Online tree resources suggest using oaks, maples, or other deciduous trees that lose their leaves in the winter, because they tend to grow more slowly and have denser, stronger wood as a result.

Or, maybe one that otherwise might be taken down.

“If you have a tree you can afford to lose, that would be the one to use,” Marty said. He also said homeowners should keep in mind safety and liability issues when planning their fort, as neighbor children might want to use it too.

However you build your fort, the Strongs recommend removing it when it is no longer needed. That will give the tree a chance to heal.