Value of tree house adventures

The tree house
The tree house. Photo: ODT
The public reaction to the Mosgiel tree house saga is overwhelming, and that is no surprise. The order to tear down the house was "ridiculous".

This is a story laced with ironies and is a tremendous symbol for modern concerns about over-the-top rules and fears about wrapping children in cotton wool.

There is little sympathy for the neighbours, who themselves feel vilified in this matter, and who raised the issue of the house with the Dunedin City Council. There was little public understanding as well for the council itself, although a "solution" on Wednesday, to a large extent, came to the council's rescue.

Votes in an online poll on the Otago Daily Times website early in the week overwhelmingly caned the council for its stance.

It is sometimes useful, however, to try to see matters from an unpopular point of view. In this instance, the council said it did not make the building laws but was required to uphold them. It said it did not go looking for issues like this but when it received a complaint was obliged to follow that up.

The structure did not fulfil any Building Act exemptions, the council believed, so the rules had to be enforced. The original complaint had been about privacy, but that was not a factor in the council's decision.

Nonetheless, was it possible to find a way around the strictures of Act? There is a clause in it which allows the local authorities powers of exemption if the building is "unlikely to endanger people" or other buildings. There is plenty of room for interpretation there. Of course, there are risks in a tree house and from children falling. But there is wriggle room in the words "unlikely" and "endanger".

The children climbed the plum tree before the house was built, and there were no platform or safety rails then.

The other way out of the clutches of the Act is via the exemption for "private household playground equipment". The problem here is that "no part of the equipment" can exceed 3m above the supporting ground level. But, again ironically, it is the safety rail on the house that pushes 20cm past the 3m. Remove the rail and the house would be less safe but perhaps complying. Perhaps rails might be secured across the tree but separate from the structure.

The council, sensibly, says it will not be cracking down on tree houses and only followed up complaints. That was not much use, though, to the Mosgiel family.

Janice Norman-Oke, speaking for her family, and herself a health and safety consultant, has said her father, who built the house, is not fit at the moment to take it down.

However, the council staff and Cr Mike Lord, this week came up with a sagacious solution to take the heat from the issue. Cr Lord and Mosgiel Rotary Club members will rebuild the tree house to make sure it meets building code requirements.

Here's hoping, therefore, that people do not complain about other tree houses. This "solution" is wonderful for the Oke family but might be hard to replicate repeatedly.

If the children fall from the tree house, even if it is rebuilt slightly lower, they will be hurt. From 2m-plus they could easily break bones. In that sense they are "endangered".

But part of growing up should be testing limits, learning about risks and experiencing them. Rather than "endangering" them, children acquire knowledge about the world that makes them safer. It is far better to learn the consequences of heights and bangs and misjudgements as they grow up than think themselves bullet-proof in their teens in a car travelling far too fast.

The real world is a far better teacher and far more realistic than e-games, movies or cartoons. Wrapping children in cotton wool does them no favours.

Adventures, and the stimulation of imagination and personal interaction, like those from fun with the Mosgiel tree house, are to be encouraged not squashed.


 

Comments

The 'Real World' is not one of Tree Houses,.or houses. While you may be referring to children's rights to be injured, no one wants that, as some sort of life lesson. The Real World is also managed by Adults, who put teams of children in harm's way, as happened with Otago harbour rowers, and the fatal North Island valley expedition in a Storm. This has nothing to do with the innocent tree house, but your argument conflates risk with proven negligence.