When my husband Ryan said he wanted to build a treehouse a few years ago, I was fully on board. In fact, it had been a dream of both of ours for quite some time. We were avid watchers of the show Treehouse Masters, and the star Pete Nelson even lived in the next town over from us where some of his first treehouses were turned into a local bed-and-breakfast. Despite having seen a number of elaborate treehouses on the show, Ryan and I agreed to a simple, modest one that wrapped around one tree that could serve as a magical place for our toddlers.
A few weeks into the process, I was surprised to see the base and deck were looking much larger than I expected — not to mention it was extremely high off the ground.
“This treehouse is a bit more elaborate than we talked about,” I said to Ryan one evening. “And it’s taking up all of your free time.” He was a few weeks into the project with a buddy of his by this point and there was no end in sight. I was already missing time with him on the weekends as much as I was missing a break from our two toddlers.
“Listen, I miss spending time with you guys, too. Do you think I want to be out there in the rain every weekend for hours? But it will be worth it. Just trust me,” he said confidently.
We didn’t know at the time just how much those words would ring true. About seven months later, the completion of the treehouse coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s served more functions than we could have ever predicted.
During a time when we couldn’t have birthday parties with anyone other than our immediate family, we’ve filled the treehouse with balloons and created magical celebrations in the trees. For Easter, we created a trail of eggs that led the kids up to the treehouse where they found their baskets filled with treats. It’s been the perfect hangout for our three teenagers, and I’ve even used it as a writer’s retreat on countless occasions. Perhaps the most surprising way we’ve used the treehouse is for a preschool for our two youngest children.
This didn’t happen right away though. In fact, when fall came last year and my Instagram was flooded with children standing next to letter boards for their first day of “preschool” at home, I could think of nothing I wanted to do less. Just the thought of attempting any sort of preschool prompted anxiety for me. I worried that anything I’d set up for my kids wouldn’t be “Insta-worthy,” so why even try? Then I reminded myself of a principle my husband, Ryan, and I learned working at the Central Intelligence Agency: “Perfection is the enemy of the good.”
Through intensive analytic and operational training, we had to learn to know when good is good enough. For example, it may not be worth staying up late to write the perfect paper or operational cable if that meant you’d be too tired to successfully execute your operational training exercise the next morning. In addition to teaching this principle to our kids, it’s one I find I continually draw on myself while parenting.
With this in mind, I committed to a two-day-a-week “preschool” for our kids in the treehouse and named it “School in the Trees.” Each week we focused on a theme, and I got ideas from a variety of resources, including my sister, a first-grade teacher with a wealth of experience and knowledge. (Shout out to all of our amazing teachers who work so hard every day, especially through the pandemic!) I told myself that the moment this became stressful or too much would be the moment I would take a break or be done altogether. And those moments did come. Some weeks we only met once, and others, we didn’t meet at all. But some way, somehow, we didn’t just survive nine months of our little school in the trees — we thrived.
If you’re considering home-school in the fall or just want to do more activities with your kids this summer, but you don’t know where to start, here are three things to keep in mind:
● Don’t try to do it all yourself. I say this as someone who needs this reminder on the regular. We had one other family in our “preschool pod,” and after initially trying to do it all myself, I found that it was much easier and more enjoyable to divvy up the work with the other mom. Rather than being intimidated by others’ social media posts, consider reaching out to them. I started messaging those moms telling them what a good job they’re doing (because we know moms don’t hear this enough!), and I asked them where they got certain ideas and/or materials for crafts. You may be surprised by how helpful people are when you reach out.
● Don’t feel like you have to buy a new book for every unit you’re doing; consider borrowing the book from your library or a friend; you could even query your neighborhood Facebook group to see if anyone has copies. Consider how you can incorporate outdoor locations to learn about different topics like weather, nature, animals, agriculture, etc. Take advantage of the flexibility that at-home learning can provide and remember that kids can learn through play and experiences, and you don’t even need to fill out a permission slip for the field trips!
● Operate from a place of strength. If there are areas that you’re drawn to naturally or have previous work experience, and your kids are at ages where their curriculum is flexible, you can cater your lessons and activities to those areas. For example, it’s important to both Ryan and me to expose our kids to the world — geographically, culturally and linguistically — at fairly young ages because it played such a large part of our adult lives at the CIA. This is something I feel comfortable teaching about, and it’s also important to me. While I focused on teaching my kids important skills that they’ll need for kindergarten like the alphabet and counting, I didn’t let that dictate what we did. Instead, I prioritized teaching the kids about the world and found ways to incorporate the rest along the way. Is there an area of expertise that you have or a hobby that you enjoy? Perhaps you’re an artist or a dancer — you can look for ways to include that into your lessons. Or maybe you worked in STEM and can find opportunities to integrate that into your kids’ math and science lessons.
Most days at School in the Trees, I had no idea what I was doing, but you know what? I did it anyway. It wasn’t perfect, but it was ours. It turns out my kids didn’t need all of the perfectly curated Instagram images I had grown accustomed to seeing on my feed. What they needed instead was pretty simple: Dedicated time to learn through play and crafts without the everyday distractions. They weren’t the only ones who learned something this school year. I found that when I remind myself that good is good enough when it comes to parenting, the results can be pretty great, especially for my kids. And while I was relieved to wrap up our home-school last month, my kids already miss it. I haven’t decided what I’ll do come fall, but who knows? Maybe I’ll continue our School in the Trees for another year.
Whether it’s playing in a treehouse or building a fort in your living room, when we spark magic for our kids, we’re making memories, and they’re learning along the way. They may not remember every pillow fort, and maybe you won’t either, but they will remember the feeling that they had when doing those things with you.
At the end of the day, so much of parenting is trial and error. If we don’t try something, we won’t know if it will work for our family or not. It’s easy to sit on the sidelines while we scroll through seemingly perfect posts, but don’t let that stop you from creating your own content, even if your kids are the only ones who will ever see it. And remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect.