Child's Play, Grown-Up Cash (exerpts)
The New York Times
July 21, 2011
Even in a troubled economy, it seems, some parents of means are willing to spend significant (if not eye-popping) sums on playhouses for their children that also function as a kind of backyard installation art.
There are a number of companies and independent craftsmen that make high-end playhouses, which can cost as much as $200,000, and come in a variety of styles, including replicas of real houses, like the Schillers', and more-fantastical creations like pirate ships, treetop hideouts and fairy tale cottages. And many of these manufacturers report that despite the economic downturn, they are as busy as ever.
Barbara Butler, an artist and playhouse builder in San Francisco, said her sales are up 40 percent this year, and she has twice as many future commissions lined up as she did this time last year. Not only that, but the average price of the structures she is being hired to build has more than doubled, from $26,000 to $54,000.
"Childhood is a precious and finite thing," Ms. Butler said. "And a special playhouse is not the sort of thing you can put off until the economy gets better".
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Dan Burnham, who retired as chairman and chief executive officer of Raytheon, the defense systems manufacturer, in 2003, wanted something elaborate for the 187-acre retreat he and his wife, Meg, have in the Santa Ynez Mountains outside Santa Barbara, Calif. So he hired Ms. Butler in San Francisco to create a site specific structure.
"I wanted another reason for the Grandkids to come over," said Mr. Burnham, 64. "Also, I wanted to be able to go up there on Sunday morning and read The New York Times Magazine.
The multilevel house Ms. Butler built for him in 2007 incorporates 3 trees into its complex design, which includes a trap door, a swinging extension bridge and winding stairs. It also has a gabled roof made of corrugated tin, an interior with hand-carved rafters and beams, and windows made of shatter-resistant laminated glass. Connected to the treehouse with a zip line is a second, fortlike structure with carved finials and flagpoles, as well as a rock wall, a firefighter's pole and a slide.
"We've got chairs arrayed all around it, so we can watch the kids run, climb and scream" he said. It's adorable and worth every penny."
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But those who don't have that kind of space (or disposable income) should not despair. Parents don't have to spend a fortune to encourage the kind of unstructured, imaginative play that helps develop higher-level problem-solving skills and emotional security in children, child psychologists say.
Steven Tuber, a psychology professor at City University of New York and the author of "Attachment, Play, and Authenticity," notes that while "over-the-top playhouses may do something for the parent's sense of grandeur," they certainly are irrelevant to the child's needs and desires for a play space."
"They are unlikely to get in the way of the child's imagination," he added, but "they do nothing to further it."
Earlier this year, Katie Lagana, 37, and Mathew Aubin, 36, a couple in Milford, Conn., bought a bright yellow playhouse for their 6-year old daughter, Penny, and 5-year old son, Oliver. They spent $3,400 on it - nothing close to the cost of the Pirate Ship, but still a considerable sum for Ms. Lagana, who works as a marketing director for a publishing company, and Mt. Aubin, a stay-at-home father.
But the fun the children have in it, Ms. Lagana said, is priceless.
"It's the center of activity and the main attraction for play dates," she said. "There'll be pretend pies made out of sand on the windowsill one day, and then it's a vet clinic with all the stuffed animals out there the next."
Like many parents who buy playhouses, whatever the price point, Ms. Lagana said her goal was to inspire her children to play outside and to foster their creativity. "Playing a video game, kids do what it tells them to do," she said. "A playhouse is all about using their imagination."
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