That one looks like a beehive, Winnie-the-Pooh-ish but about 12 feet tall. Or is it a giant, fissured egg?
And that little house just beyond the path appears … icy.
More certain in theme: the piratically inspired structure perched high above the water, what with the skull-and-crossbones atop its lookout.
Let the season of outside play and imagination begin.
First: Kids, go outside. And don’t come home until suppertime.
OK, parents never say that last part anymore. But it’s also never been truer that children need time and opportunity to play and to imagine, to be outside and away from their screens.
All of which was a motivator behind the inventive playhouses now dotting the fields, wooded areas and an island at Powell Gardens. The botanical garden east of Kansas City put out a call to designers for “forts and fairy houses” and received a dozen enthusiastic responses. Seven were picked to be built in the gardens. They went on display Saturday and will be in place through Oct. 7.
Actually, not just “on display.”
“This is not something you stand back and look at,” said Alan Branhagen, director of horticulture at the gardens and a member of the team that picked the winning designs. “We were looking for creativity, but ‘interactive’ was critical, for kids and adults.”
Branhagen, like a lot of the adults involved in the exhibit, was taken back to his wonder years, when roaming the neighborhood and beyond was the norm and building hideouts was a typical pastime.
“We cut saplings and made really cool forts,” said Branhagen, who is 50. “That was a part of my childhood. Now adults have a lot of concerns about safety.”
Indeed, safety concerns and the allure of technology have led to a big deficit in outdoor time for many children, seriously limiting physically active and creative play.
The statistics are piling up: Children today spend half the amount of time outdoors as children did two decades ago. They invest some 55 hours a week indoors using electronics.
A study published online in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine in April reported that only 51 percent of parents said they took their preschoolers outside for a walk or to play once a day or more. Of interest: Parents of boys were 16 percent more likely to take them outside daily than were parents of girls.
Sarah Hampl, pediatrician and medical director of the Weight Management Program at Children’s Mercy Hospital, lauds Powell Gardens’ focus on outdoor play through its fort exhibit. Children are spending more than seven hours a day with electronic media, she said, even though the recommendation for those over age 2 is less than two hours a day.
Kids are more active when they’re outdoors, bottom line, Hampl said. And the benefits are many and well-documented. Being outside improves both physical and mental well-being and helps kids concentrate better when they are back indoors, she said.
“It’s important to provide opportunities for creative ways of playing,” she said. “The forts give kids a little bit of structure to build on for making up their own games. For some kids the fort is a fort and for others it becomes a castle. And they’re going to be playing all over those structures.”
The playhouse projects certainly fueled the imaginations of the designers.
Ryan Warman and the team from Davison Architecture and Urban Design started their imagining of a fort, “Light Wings,” with the notion of an egg form and an idea to use salvaged 2-by-4 boards in the construction.
Home-building results in piles of leftover 2-by-4s of random lengths and angle cuts, Warman said. They collected such throwaways and arranged them around an egg-shaped frame. The honeycomb effect was a bit of a surprise as it took shape, he said.
Denise DiPiazzo, an Overland Park sculptor and architect, started her creative process with thoughts of a translucent birdhouse, and then imagined it big enough to play in. Polycarbonate panels of the house’s walls and roof became sheets of ice, and the “Ice Haus” became the home of Powellina, the Great Ice Fairy.
“In her realm, ice freezes in the summer and not in the winter,” DiPiazzo said, a good thing as the weather heats up. “If you’re imagining you’re in an ice cube, you’ll feel cool.”
David Greusel and his team at Convergence Design saw the lake at Powell Gardens and felt certain a pirate ship had gone aground there. The industrious pirates had scavenged materials from the ship and built a fort on “Skeleton Island,” otherwise known at Powell as Goose Island.
“You wind your way around the island to find the fort,” Greusel said. “The crow’s nest is a full story above the ground, so you can survey the surroundings and spy marauders.”
Trevor Hoiland and colleagues at 360 Architecture liked the idea of a fort that seemed to vanish, so their “Mirror-Mirror” is made of stainless steel that hides by reflecting its surroundings.
“It’s like disappearing under the blankets draped over furniture,” Hoiland said. “You think nobody can see you.”
Children, of course, will dream up their own stories about the forts and houses, which is the point.
And parents might be inspired to build a playhouse or fort in their own backyards, although most won’t have a design team to help.
Mark Stewart of Platte City recently bought a swing set-fort kit from a big box store and assembled it for his 4-year-old daughter. (Kimball and Laura Hales, who make up one of the fort design teams, sell modular playhouses through their company, Play Modern.)
“It said to allow 45 minutes to inventory the parts and 10 to 12 hours to assemble, and it took every bit of that,” Stewart said. “I think the person who named and packaged the parts didn’t communicate with the person writing the directions.”
But it was worth it, he said.
“After dinner she right away wants to go outside,” he said. “She loves to run around and to pretend. She’s good at imagining. She’s calling the fort her treehouse.”