Randy Popkin, 53, stretches a measuring tape along a wooden board and hands 6-year-old Elijah a pencil as father and son work together under the shade of two large black oak trees in the backyard of their home in Santa Rosa, Calif.
“OK, you’re going to mark the wood right here at exactly 24¾ inches,” Popkin instructs.
Elijah carefully draws a line on the wood and gets an approving nod from his dad. It’s the first of many measurements—and memories—to come out of the family’s treehouse building project that they began last summer.
“It’s gonna be a pirate ship!” Elijah says of the stack of lumber that sits in the Popkins’ backyard. “It’s gonna have a rope bridge and a crow’s nest and all kinds of stuff on it.”
Popkin shrugs his shoulders. “Hey, it’s what he wanted,” the father says, adding that the treehouse is modeled after an 18th-century sailing vessel.
A backyard project that seems to bring out the kid in everyone, building a treehouse creates more than a fun play space for children. It provides a way for families to form bonds, pass down lessons in construction fundamentals, and encourage respect for the outdoors.
“This really isn’t about a treehouse,” Popkin says. “It’s about spending time together.”
The idea came to Popkin, a veterinarian, when he and his wife, Melissa, 34, a nurse, realized that their long work hours made it difficult to carve out regular fun family time with Elijah. After some brainstorming, the family initiated “treehouse Tuesdays”—one day each week dedicated to spending time together, beginning with the building of a treehouse.
Last July, family and friends helped Popkin hoist and position the first beams of the treehouse into place between the two oak trees. Then, over the next few months, father and son, joined occasionally by Elijah’s uncles and cousins, worked together to give shape to a tree-worthy pirate ship.
Popkin tried whenever possible to teach Elijah age-appropriate construction skills—from screwing down deck boards to getting a feel for a nail gun.
“The nail gun weighs about as much as he does, but if I stand behind him and let him hold it, he thinks he’s doing it himself,” Popkin says. “I don’t see any point in telling him otherwise.”
Bjon Pankratz, 32, and his wife, Laurel, 30, of Franklin, Tenn. (pop. 62,487), never had a family treehouse while growing up—a void they decided to fill with their own children, Silas, 7, and Eisley, 4.
Mentioning the possibility one day to Silas, Pankratz says his son “just lit up” at the idea of building a treehouse. “That’s when I knew I had to do it,” he says.
Beginning the backyard project in the spring of last year, Pankratz allowed the design to evolve with input from his family. “I had no idea what it was going to look like,” he says. “When I started, I was thinking I’d build something that looked like a glorified deer stand.”
Over the next four months, Pankratz cut limbs off the anchoring pine trees, cleaned old windows, bought lumber, and scrounged up building materials wherever he could. Early in the process, Laurel suggested adding a separate level for their daughter, turning the treehouse into a double-decker project for both kids.
“The special moments for me were when the kids were helping me build it,” says Pankratz, a massage therapist. “They would come out and honestly wanted to help me because they knew I was doing it for them. That meant a lot to me.”
He put the youngsters to work. His daughter helped him cut wood and paint her bottom floor pink, while his son pitched in with the framing. “I took extreme precautions, but my son wanted to use the framing nailer, which spits out big nails,” he says. “I would draw a line and he would go at it.”
Today, the treehouse is a favorite hangout for Silas, Eisley and their friends, and Pankratz remembers the construction experience with fondness.
“Being the dad, building it was the memory maker for me,” he says. “Now they get to enjoy it and make a lifetime of memories from it.”
When Rick Rossi, 39, set out to build a treehouse with his kids, he found himself reminiscing about working as a teenager alongside his dad to paint his grandfather’s garage.
“My grandfather gave me a $100 savings bond to thank me for that work,” recalls Rossi, of Natick, Mass (pop. 33,006). “I’d kept it all these years and decided to cash it in to help pay for my kids’ treehouse. So this treehouse is sort of an extension of what my dad and I did for my grandfather. And now I’m passing it on to my kids.”
Rossi began preparations for the tree-house in 2009, scouring the library for treehouse construction books and asking his children, Luke, 8, and Julia, 6, to draw ideas for the design. The next summer, he began construction between two large oak and three small pine trees.
“I got several books from treehouse experts David and Jeanie Stiles, and they talked about how important it is to include your kids,” says Rossi, a campus minister at Boston College. “So I knew it was going to take longer to build with them helping, but really that was the whole point.”
At the lumberyard, Rossi showed Luke and Julia how to choose the right building materials. At home, he tutored them about tools.
“I got to show them how to hold a hammer and drill the screws in,” he says. “I wanted them to have that sense of ownership and to feel proud of it.”
When the treehouse was finished several months later, the kids were thrilled. Luke says his favorite part is the trap door, while his sister loves climbing up and down the rope ladder.
The family celebrated their work by bringing their flashlights and sleeping bags into the treehouse for an overnight stay. “It was a great memory,” Rossi says.