The Suffolk deputy head teacher building tree houses to benefit mental health
PUBLISHED: 15:29 15 February 2019 | UPDATED: 15:33 15 February 2019
Jonnie Besley, a deputy head teacher, is passionate about the effects of tree houses on our mental and physical wellbeing | Words & Photos: Jonnie Besley
Nothing captures the magic of childhood like a tree house. Some of my happiest memories as a child are of building one with my dad, in a large walnut tree in our garden, and of spending countless hours in it with friends.
In and around it we climbed, whittled spears, made bows and arrows, told stories and planned adventures. We were always covered in cuts, bruises and mud, but our childhoods were exciting and our imaginations were stirred.
From the mists of mythology and ancient history, we have been fascinated by trees and have made our homes in and among them. Tree houses have always fired our imagination and had a special place in our hearts.
Think of tree houses that feature in children’s literature, stories such as Swiss Family Robinson and Lord of the Rings. Many of us grew up reading about The Secret Seven and their adventures revolving around the all-important tree house. More recently, Mary Pope Osbourne’s Magic Tree House series, and the books by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, starting with 13 Story Tree House, have delighted young readers.
Tree house stories recognise that children and families need to spend time in nature. For generations of children, these books have offered a fantasy of unsupervised creative spaces where they can control their own adventures, face dangers that test them and engage with others in a less restricted way. Tree houses are the stuff of fiction and wild imagination, but for a growing number of us they are becoming a reality.
I have always loved carpentry and recently built a tree house in my garden as an outdoor space for the whole family where we can spend the night, enjoy views of the garden and surrounding countryside, and where our children can play for hours with their friends.
Not only has it become a much-loved feature of the garden but it is providing us with special family memories. I know that my children will never forget the first time we slept in it together with our spaniel Rollo, just as I know that they will never remember achieving their highest score on a computer game.
I’ve been amazed at the reaction I get from people when I tell them that I build tree houses in my spare time. I used to brace myself for ridicule, like admitting that you still take a teddy bear to bed with you, but it’s not just children whose eyes light up when the topic is raised.
Seemingly very grown-up grown-ups are captivated by the whole thing. The nation has been discovering a new love for tree houses and has started enjoying them on a bigger and better scale than ever before.
During the past decade a number of companies have sprung up specialising in the design and building of beautiful, bespoke tree houses and many of these have grown and are flourishing.
Blue Forest (blueforest.com) has grown into a big business building luxury tree houses for private clients, schools and hotels. Squirrel Design (treehouses.squirreldesign.co.uk) started when one man built a tree house for his children and then got commissions from friends.
So, what’s caused this recent interest in tree houses and why are people increasingly prepared to part with large sums of money in order to stay in one or own one for themselves?
We live in an increasingly pressurised world with less time and space to enjoy the soothing and inspiring effect that being with nature can have. Life is faster paced than ever and rarely do we make time to stop and enjoy simple pleasures.
The growing concern throughout the world about the mental health of children is well documented.
Research shows that, pressured by influences such as exams, changing relationships, celebrity culture, body image and social media, one in 10 children aged between five and 16 have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem. The problems of child obesity are also well known and linked to our increasingly sedentary lifestyle.
The term ‘snow-plough parenting’ is sometimes used to refer to those of us who sweep all obstacles from the path of our children and ensure that they never have to face failure. While this stems from love of their child and a desire to protect, it can contribute to producing young people who are joining ‘the snowflake generation’ who ‘melt’ at the first sign of adversity.
We need to build resilience in our children so that they grow up equipped to deal with the reality that life is not always easy, and that it’s OK to fall, get up, dust yourself down and carry on.
Unstructured time outside is a great way to develop resilience as well as creativity and physical health. Many children are growing up in a world where they are not allowed to get muddy or climb trees, yet parents allow them to sit for hours in their bedrooms interacting with a virtual world of computer games and social media.
Unsupervised screen time can enable children to see and learn about things before they should and it can rob them of their innocence and of the magic of childhood. Many parents would rather their children were playing outside, exploring the natural world, feeding their imaginations and learning how to assess risks for themselves.
They might come home with some cuts and bruises, but isn’t that better than the unseen damage caused by gazing at a screen for hours on end.
Richard Louv coined the phrase ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods. He spent time researching how children and their families interact with the natural world and concluded that the modern world has ‘scared children straight out of the woods and fields’ and that a modern culture of fear favours safe regimented sports over imaginative play.
He argues that all of us, especially children, are spending more time indoors, which makes us feel alienated from nature and more vulnerable to negative moods and a reduced attention span.
Thankfully, there is a growing understanding of the importance to us all of interacting with nature. More schools are embracing the Forest School movement and seeing the positive impact of outdoor learning. Many more families are realising the importance of getting off their screens and outside into the open air.
The allure of sleeping outside, whittling sticks and roasting marshmallows seems to be stronger than ever and this must be, at least in part, a backlash to the technological world in which so many of us find ourselves submerged. More of us are waking up to the magic of time outdoors, time with family, time to imagine, to reflect and to nurture a sense of adventure.
Surrounded by natural light and the sound of the breeze rustling in the leaves as you fall asleep and birds chirping just feet away as you wake in the morning captures the adult imagination every bit as much as that of a child. And with busier and more stressful lives than ever before, climbing into the canopy and being with nature for a while is much-needed tonic for our souls.
For children, a tree house can provide an opportunity to play outside, to develop relationships, to learn and create magic but it can also become a spectacular focal point in the garden with real wow factor for adults to enjoy.
My wife and I often sit on the deck of our tree house on a summer evening with a glass of wine as we watch the sun set and, with lanterns and candles, it continues to be a romantic place to relax and chat late into the evening. Liminality, I’ve recently discovered, comes from the Latin word limen, meaning threshold.
Somehow, being raised off the ground and surrounded by the foliage of trees enables our minds to enter a liminal space where we are on the threshold of what can feel like another world up in the air, but connected to the earth.
The world of education is waking up to the importance of getting young people outside, more parents are seeing the sense in investing in a tree house at home to get their children off their screens and outside where they can be healthier in body, mind and spirit and the British tourist industry is discovering how lucrative tree houses can be for their businesses.
There is nothing that captures the magic of childhood like a tree house but, when designed beautifully and built with the finest materials, they appeal to the inner child in us all and provide just the escape we need from our increasingly stressful, risk-averse and sedentary lifestyle.
We need more tree houses in our lives so bring on the tree house revolution!
The glamping industry has exploded during the past decade with organisations such as Cool Camping (coolcamping.com) and Canopy and Stars (canopyandstars.co.uk) directing families to the best venues in the UK. Companies such as Bell Tent UK have emerged offering beautiful canvas tents and accompanying accessories such as bunting, lighting and even wood burning stoves.
Glamping businesses are investing in unique camping spaces such as yurts, shepherd’s huts and lodges. Many of them have found for themselves that, while tents and yurts are always popular, there is little to rival the allure of a tree house.
A quick online search reveals a growing number of glamping businesses and hotels with tree houses proving best-sellers. West Lexham in Norfolk offers a choice of six treehouses. Each one is unique and guests can’t get enough of them (westlexham.org).
Jonnie Besley is deputy head of a Suffolk prep school and builds tree houses in his spare time. If you are interested in commissioning his next project then get in touch with him on 07818 444 591 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org