Building Childhood Dreams: DIY Backyard Treehouses, Ninja Courses, and More

David and Jeanie Stiles, expert backyard DIYers, want to get both kids and adults outdoors to build, create, and play
By Rachael Dymski
Rachael Dymski
Rachael Dymski
Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She’s currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website, RachaelDymski.com
July 7, 2021 Updated: July 9, 2021

Few structures evoke the nostalgia of childhood like the treehouse.

As a child, one of my best friends had a treehouse, six feet up the oak tree in her yard, complete with a rope swing and a trapdoor. I lived for afternoons there, sipping lemonade and munching on pretzel sticks within the walls of her hidden kingdom. I knew that treehouse to be a pirate ship, a faraway cabin, a spaceship, and a mansion.

For years, authors, designers, and builders David and Jeanie Stiles have been inviting others to revisit the playfulness of their childhoods. With numerous projects and 27 books—including several on treehouses—under their knowledgeable belts, this do-it-yourself couple of East Hampton has made a career out of building backyard escapes and writing woodworking how-tos, in order to get readers outside and enjoying nature.

In the past year, the importance of being outdoors has become even more apparent for many families, as their options for extracurricular activities with their children had diminished. David and Jeanie’s newest how-to book, “Backyard Playgrounds,” comes at a perfect time.

“Today, more than ever, you have to get kids away from the screen,” Jeanie said. “If you can convince them that the outdoors is fun, they get addicted to that, and it’s wonderful.”

Jeanie and David Stiles in tree- high res
David and Jeanie Stiles. (Toby Haynes)

The Importance of the Outdoors

Outdoor play spaces have been important for David and Jeanie for most of their lives.

David’s love of building and creating began as a child in the woods of his New Jersey home. He attended a camp that excelled in building things and later became a counselor and shop director there. David proceeded to graduate from The Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, Italy, and Pratt Institute, where he received his degree in industrial design. He also works as an illustrator and draws many of the illustrations in their books.

Jeanie, a writer and photographer, loved exploring nature and climbing trees as a child in Kansas City, Missouri. As young parents, the two were passionate about creating outdoor spaces to play and explore for their own children: slides, firefighter poles, and of course, treehouses. They wanted to inspire creativity and imaginative play, as well as a love of being outside.

cargo net
Testing out a swing-into-cargo-net play structure. (Simon Jutras)

“When you have kids, you think, ‘What would make them happy? What would they love to do?’ We started answering those questions with our kids, and our journey continued from there,” David said.

The Stileses raised their children on a three-quarter-acre lot in Long Island. They have one treehouse in their backyard that was used by their children and is now used by their grandchildren. David enjoys watching his son crawl on his hands and knees to get into the treehouse with his own son.

Over time, the couple realized that their skills of writing and illustrating complemented each other, and that others might benefit from their knowledge and creativity.

“We would make enough and think, ‘We should just write a book about this,’” Jeanie said.

The couple reasoned that, if they were hoping to encourage their children to enjoy the outdoors, other families were likely doing so as well.

“We figured other people probably had the same problems and wanted solutions,” David said.

kids in treehouse
Even simple treehouse designs can offer worlds of adventure for children. (Marlie Meringer)

The Stileses wrote their first book about building treehouses in 1979. Called “The Treehouse Book,” it was complete with graph paper in the back for readers to design their own structure. Years later, the book was redone with photographs and titled, “Treehouses You Can Actually Build.” Since then, they’ve written four more books on treehouses, which David is convinced is some kind of world record.

Their newest book, “Backyard Playgrounds,” includes designs for treehouses, but also “ninja adventure courses” and other play structures, all with hand-drawn illustrations and step-by-step instructions. The book, which carries a spirit of playfulness, rekindles the excitement of being outdoors as a child with plans that are doable for even the most carpentry-illiterate adults.

warped wall
Jeanie Stiles in front of a completed warped wall, a must-have in any ninja adventure course. (Simon Jutras)

Building Confidence for Children and Adults

The reason that David and Jeanie resonate with so many readers is their playfulness, simplicity, and accessibility. If “Backyard Playgrounds” highlights any particular theme, it’s that you don’t need a lot of space to have a fun, creative backyard. All of the treehouses in the book can be built around one tree, and projects like the warped wall, ropes course, and obstacle courses all fit in a suburban backyard.

The Stileses split their time between East Hampton and New York and wrote the book for fellow New York families. They know firsthand that it’s vision, far more than physical space, that creates an interesting and appealing yard for children. Over the course of their careers, they’ve built rooftop playgrounds, school playhouses, and a tree fort in a Brooklyn brownstone backyard.

backyard playgrounds book cover
“Backyard Playgrounds: Build Amazing Treehouses, Ninja Projects, Obstacle Courses, and More!” by David and Jeanie Stiles (Skyhorse Publishing, $19.99).

They create the ideas and plans in their books together. They avoid computerized plans.

“The appeal to us of making a book user-friendly is David’s hand-drawn plans,” Jeanie said. “You’re working with the authors, who built this themselves.”

Jeanie shared that they receive many emails from parents who had built nothing before, some single mothers. Some had never operated a power tool.

“One woman bought a saw and was afraid to open the box when she contacted us,” she said. “She ended up building a beautiful guest shed.”

And the fruit of such labor is giving children a sense of accomplishment, according to the Stileses.

“If you could describe what is happening on the playground for children in one word, it would be a sense of achievement,” said David. “Kids want to get outside, to master a new skill, to learn new things with their friends.”

He believes the same goes for adults, who learn to build projects like the obstacle courses in the book—and then complete the courses themselves.

The Stileses dreamed up and filled the pages with challenges that appeal to children and adults alike: uneven monkey bars—which, they write, “are understandably popular with monkeys everywhere”—climbing walls, swings that launch into hanging cargo nets, and even classic lemonade stands. The two grew into adulthood, but never really lost their sense of wonder and imagination.

The rest of us, who long for our childhood treehouse days, are better for it.

To read more about David and Jeanie Stiles, or to purchase their DIY books and downloadable plans, visit their website at StilesDesigns.com.

Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She’s currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website, RachaelDymski.com.

Rachael Dymski
Rachael Dymski
Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She’s currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website, RachaelDymski.com