A great playhouse is an inherently malleable space — whether a store-bought structure, a homemade creation, or one constructed from a kit of parts. The best invite creativity and inspire kids to transform the space into a restaurant, a home, a spaceship, or simply a cozy nook to relax in.
Experts who have studied the role of building forts also say that creating a child-size haven in an adult-size world serves a developmental purpose. It not only provides a place for imaginary play but also a feeling of safety — as well as privacy, something we rarely think of a 4-year-old needing.
The pandemic may have accelerated the need for kids to have these bite-size spaces with families cooped up and needing to find ways to stay entertained at home. Janos Stone created the flat-pack, pop-up playhouse Children’s Haus “out of the necessity to keep my kids active and creative in the early days of COVID.” Many of the parents we talked to bought playhouses for the same reasons and have seen these structures take on new life and new forms again and again. Below, you’ll find a mix of play tents, play couches, cardboard fort-building kits, and wooden indoor and outdoor structures.
This Under the Sea Play Tent comes out every Saturday morning for the weekend breakfast ritual that Dwell creative director Suzanne Lagasa has with her 5-year-old daughter. “It’s perfect for us because it’s easy to assemble and can be put away in seconds.” Her daughter fills the tent with her stuffies and decorations and makes herself at home. It’s also made of water-resistant polyester and takes its shape from a set of foldable poles.
Nicki Sebastian, a photographer based in L.A. and mom of two, recommends this green-and-white striped circus tent designed by her friend Sarah Sherman Samuel for West Elm Kids. “The color scheme is full of pop but not garish, and the scalloped details make it worthy of installing in our shared living space as a permanent fixture.” Kids can drag pillows or poufs inside the spacious 49-inch-diameter interior, and the tent walls can be pulled open or fastened shut on all sides.
Each of the canvas Manimal tents Karin Schaefer sells at her shop, Acorn Toys, is handmade by artist Kristen Lombardi. “Our granddaughter Lela adores hers and uses it for quiet reading time with one of these sheepskins on the floor,” said Schaefer. The tent, with leather decorations and closures and poles made of sturdy pine, is gorgeous enough to work as a piece of home décor. It also comes in sage green and mustard as well as a version with acorn fastenings.
Another natural canvas option with roomier interior space is this Kid’s Concept Cotton Canvas and Wood Tent recommended by Fiona Montgomery, owner and creative director of the kids’ pajama brand Dodo Banana. For her two kids, she “needed something that worked well indoors and outdoors. We decorate it with garlands and charms and one can also paint it if they choose to.” The canvas panels can be rolled up all the way around, offering a variety of configurations.
If you like the look of this canvas tent or the Manimal one but are in search of something less expensive, consider the Pottery Barn Kids Collapsible Play Tent, the Tiny Land Teepee Tent, or the CocoonGift Solar System Teepee Tent.
The Nugget, the modular children’s couch that became a mom-group status symbol, is the open-ended play object of choice for Melanie Altarescu, a Brooklyn-based marketing executive and mom to a 3-and-a-half-year-old. “It has become a ramp for vehicles of all kinds, a clubhouse, a parking garage, and onward,” she describes, and also a surface for “getting his wiggles out.” The Nugget’s removable, washable covers — which come in dozens of colors — and ability to transform into a functional couch add to its appeal. “When it’s not in use for play, it’s set up like a couch and frequently becomes the place we curl up before bedtime for stories and snuggles.“
The Nugget’s fanatical fan base, and the fact that you couldn’t get one for much of the pandemic, has spurred an entire industry of copycat products, including the Foamnasium Blocksy, and FORT, the “building couch,” essentially a Nugget with magnets. The good news is that all these furniture-slash-toys are interchangeable, so mix and match as you like.
Claire Mazur, co-host of the podcast A Thing or Two, raves about Children’s Haus, a flat-pack playhouse made of 100 percent recycled plastic that’s easy to tuck away when your kid is done playing, making it ideal for her Brooklyn apartment and backyard. “It’s also waterproof and weatherproof, so it can live indoors or outdoors. You can draw all over it, and its design makes it especially inviting for all sorts of imaginative add-ons like blanket forts and sticker decorations,” describes Mazur.
Carol Wang, a real-estate agent, and her husband, writer Hua Hsu, were looking for a space-conscious option for their Brooklyn apartment and the Hearth Song Cabin Fantasy Fort Kit was a lifesaver for their son during the pandemic. With 32 22-inch square panels featuring realistic-looking wood lamination, the components can be configured into infinite permutations with windows, doors, gates, and roof components. “My son loves creating full rooms and furnishing them with all his toys, blankets, and pillows,” Wang describes.
Another DIY option is this 40-piece set from Follies made of vibrantly colored, silkscreened, non-toxic plastic and recommended by Strategist editor Winnie Yang. The pieces come in a variety of shapes and sizes, notching together without any additional hardware. “My daughter likes to use them to build a pizzeria; the cutout shapes (hexagons, triangles, semicircles) work well as pizzas, and the pieces lock together well to create a kind of countertop.” Like the Cabin Fantasy Fort Kit, these components can be stacked and tucked away once the construction is done.
We also talked to Children’s Haus founder Janos Stone about which playhouses he and his two kids loved aside from his own invention. “A great playhouse for me is one that has incredibly diverse flexibility in its use.” One of his favorites is the Wedanta Kids Ladder Wall, a sculptural play structure that mounts directly onto the wall and acts as a multiuse activity center. “I like the potential to transform it into a range of play environments while retaining its exercise components. It’s the only playhouse I’m familiar with that leads with activity.”
The set includes a rope ladder, trapeze, swing, pull-up bars, and a bench that supports a variety of activities for both kids and adults, offering a wide range of movements in a compact space. It can also be combined with a soft landing pad — like the Nugget or FORT, to create a more three-dimensional space.
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