We all remember the childish desire for a secret camp, the long-lasting magic of beloved tales. The benefits of outdoor play hit the headlines following the Duchess of Cambridge’s ‘Back to Nature Garden’, co-designed with the Royal Horticultural Society for the Chelsea Flower Show and the RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival. With the notable inclusion of a den, tree house and bee-friendly meadows, the Duchess hopes to inspire families by showing how powerful green space can be, not just for physical and social play, but to help safeguard the mental well-being of children.
The playhouse market has expanded in recent years to cater for increasing demand in durable dwellings that blend into the landscape – or not, depending on your taste.
Simon Payne is PR & marketing director of Blue Forest, which specialises in tree houses and playhouses. The business was born out of his brother Andy Payne’s passion for den building while growing up in the Kenyan countryside.
“A bespoke treehouse is something that no one else in the world will have a copy of,” says Payne. “Our clients are lucky enough to have properties with large gardens and we give them the opportunity to put their own stamp on it.
“From a separate door for the fairies or five-metre inflatable water slide coming off the side, we are used to being asked for things never attempted before!”
While tree houses will require planning permission due to their height, not all land-based play structures do.
“We visit clients to see the site, help them to identify the best positioning in the garden (exposure to sunlight, shelter from the wind). If the house is intended for children, we ask them to get their colouring pens out and draw some ideas.”
Leading play equipment company Flights of Fantasy, based in Norfolk, has its own take on ornate wendy houses, crafted to become family heirlooms.
“We recently completed a beautiful little Tudor house, fully furnished with heating,” says founder Russell Bowlby.
“There is a significant tide of traditional awareness. Treated softwood is out of favour with the top end of the market and we only supply FSC English hardwoods and selected softwoods that are deployed in a manner that is appropriate to the nature of the timber,” explains Bowlby.
The business has become so successful that it now operates its own sawmill and remains committed to eco-friendly methods.
He warns people not to be complacent about planning regulations after several have been pulled up for flouting rules.
“Generally, and some of my clients would argue this, but that is wishful thinking on their part, if it is more than one-storey high, it needs planning.
“Generally, if it is under 4 metres tall, is not fixed into the ground and does not exceed permitted development parameters, it will not require planning as long as it is no more than one-storey high.”
For hands-on parents wishing to personally construct their playhouse, Waltons has a fascinating history. Founded in 1878 by bee-keeping lecturer E C Walton to make affordable beehives, by 1900 he’d branched out into wooden shelters, promoting the medicinal benefits of fresh air. The company then progressed to the sheds and log cabins of today. Playhouse models are delivered as flat-packed DIY kits.
“Interest in our higher-end playhouses has increased by a massive 98%. Customers are looking for high-quality, wooden buildings that last beyond the early toddler years in terms of size and design. We’ve extended our product range in response to this surge in interest,” reveals marketing manager Anna Sippel.
For cottage style ready-made designs, Richard Frost, the son of a toymaker, and his wife Kay founded The Playhouse Company in 2001. One of its smallest products is the Hidey Hole where children can let their imagination run riot within the safety of the garden; from £1,755.
Plankbridge in Dorset creates Victorian shepherd’s huts. The Snug model, from £19,000, is suitable for a variety of uses, including playhouses.
Founder Richard Lee gifted one of the handmade huts to Prince Charles for his Highgrove estate to mark Prince George’s first birthday. Lee did this to show appreciation for earlier help he had received from The Prince’s Trust to launch his now thriving business.
“Initially I was a furniture designer and maker; what was then the Princes Youth Business Trust helped support me back in 1994,” reveals Lee.
Two decades ago Lee spotted an ancient shepherd’s hut near Thomas Hardy’s cottage and saw the potential for reinvention. Lee describes his products as a: “Perhaps more quirky solution to the need for extra space. The ability of a hut to be used at a grandparent’s house, as a play den which will evolve as the years go by, or an art studio in the garden that can be utilised by boisterous children as required, has its appeal.”
With the cast iron wheels from a foundry in Somerset, the vast majority of huts don’t require planning permission due to their portable nature.
Another ‘den’ with instant wow factor is The Pod Father, designed by Landpod, from £4,595. Billed as a maintenance-free glamping pod, and planning permission-friendly thanks to all-terrain adjustable legs, the den has room to sleep two adults and two children. Landpod also offers a smaller model, the Cosy Cocoon, which can be towed by a car.
If a contemporary or continental outdoor installation is more your style to self-assemble, look no further than SmartPlayhouse designs stocked in the UK at Hop Like a Bunny.
They promise a stand out ‘sculpture for your garden’. The bright and airy Kyoto Junior, from £2,590, is inspired by Japanese avant-garde and is ready for you to assemble, as is the stunning Nordic-style Hobikken Twin, from £4,600.
Hours can be whiled away arranging these exclusive spaces and making fairytale memories as they play, entertain peers or simply seek some downtime, surrounded by nature.