How to Build a Playhouse, Dollhouse or Fort

How many little girls and boys would love to have their own little playhouse, dollhouse or fort located in the backyard? I know I would have loved to have had my own little fantasy hide out, that I could have decorated and played in, as I grew up. I have thought about simply starting a business where I prefabricated doll houses or forts, whichever was required, and ship them out to the children of the US. I used to, as a young Dad, construct various things for my children, taking it for granted that this inherent ability was something that most Dad’s had, and they could also construct various structures for their children. As I matured into a grandparent, I realize that a lot of what I took for granted is not in the skill set of the average Dad anymore. So I thought I would try to simply describe some various simple techniques that would enable today’s Dad, to also build a fort or doll house for their children, if they wanted one.

Of course, there is always the alternative. You can simply hire the local handyman to construct that playhouse, at your home, based on whatever type of design that your children would like. I personally take a lot of joy in making it for them myself, but then again, I am quite old!

I will list a number of initial thoughts for creating a playhouse for your children. The actual construction procedure will be explained later on this webpage as well as the recommended fasteners to be used. It is important that each of these facets of constructing the structure be somewhat understood to allow you the opportunity to create this playhouse. It is also important to understand that as long as the structure is safe and child friendly, no matter how the quality turns out, the kids will enjoy and appreciate the idea that this structure was created by their Dad, just for them!

  • One of the easiest methods of providing a doll house or fort for your children is to shop at the local big box, builder supply stores. Wait for them to place one of their simple outside sheds on sale and purchase this for the structure. I will describe some creative methods to decorate and enhance the structure, but in this manner, you will succeed in obtaining the building. In many cases, the sheds can be purchased as a kit that needs onsite assembly. In this manner, your children will have the illusion that you are building the structure for them onsite. If you decide on this method, maybe your interest in the modular concept of building will be enhanced for your new home! See modular building webpage for additional insight into this type of construction.
  • Plywood and framing is the standard method to construct a shed, playhouse, dollhouse or fort. I would suggest that exterior grade ½ inch plywood be used with standard 2 X 3 studs for the framing of the structure. This construction would require some additional advanced carpentry skills and expertise than some of the other thoughts I have, however there is nothing special, regarding this type of construction that would cause an issue, if attempted.
  • Insulation board, zip ties and glue. I tend to like this concept. There are numerous, different insulation boards, that can be purchased from the local supply store and will work perfectly to construct a simple playhouse. These panels are available in various sizes; however the easiest is the 4 X 8 panels.   The framing for this type of playhouse, if not subjected to heavy traffic and loads, can be eliminated by simply a gluing the individual insulation panels together. The use of a temporary mechanical support created by either embedded nails or staples to hold the panels in place as the glue dried will allow the structure to be constructed without a separate frame being constructed.
  • Particle board that is found on sale can be used in place of the more expensive plywood, with the 2 X 3 wood framing creating the supporting structure. This particle board can be installed with nails or screws and will create a very structurally sound playhouse for the children.
  • Screen panels. Many of the home centers have large screened panels that are specifically constructed for use in screened porches and patios. If these panels are used for a playhouse, the actual sides of the structure can be covered with plastic to provide an opaque watertight side panel and roof. Creativity would have to be used to utilize these panels as a playhouse; however, I feel that with some creativity, the panels could be an interesting method of constructing the playhouse. The connection of the panels could be achieved by using the various aluminum fastening products available at the local hardware store. If you are real creative, the use of hinges to connect the panels would allow the structure to fold up upon itself for storage and transportation.
  • Another method of creating a playhouse is to use hay bales for the sides and any type of roof structure that might be available. The roof structure could be 2 X 4’s over the top of stacked hay bales, with plastic sheathing for the roof, or even the use of an insulated panel over the top of the stacked hay bales. The hay bales should be stacked to allow the sun to lighten the interior of the playhouse and allow visibility for supervising adults.
  • A technique that most people don’t consider is the basic assembly of the structure’s frame from PVC plumbing pipe and glue. When shopping in the big box stores as well as the smaller hardware stores you will witness various sizes of white PVC piping. This piping is easily cut with a standard hacksaw and miter box and can be fitted into specialized connector pieces that are also available at these stores and are extremely reasonable. I won’t specifically tell you how these pieces of piping can go together, but your creative side could construct almost any shape and size imaginable. Simply gluing these pieces together, and covering them with a tarp, plastic, or even attaching pieces of foam insulation board with zip ties to the assembly, can make an awesome play structure!
  • Find an existing structure that you can simply construct a lean to up against. A lean to is a structure that uses an existing structure to act as one side of the structure. In most cases the roof structure leans on the side of the existing structure. A simple play structure could be constructed of PVC piping installed in a patterned fashion to form a roof assembly that could be covered with a sheet or other fabric or plastic sheathing. In this manner, the actual structure is supported by an existing structure and the issues of stability and sturdiness are less tenuous.

The basic idea of this entire discussion, is to create a playhouse that can be a dollhouse, a fort or any combination of the two in the simplest manner possible. This will allow your children to have a place of their own for playing and decorating. You must be creative to allow the use of materials that are readily available and to maximize your own creative talent.

Remember the kids will appreciate any type of safe structure that you can build for them!

Some hints on the construction of your playhouse, fort, doll house or whatever your kids would like to identify their play structure as.

  • The most important aspect is safety / make sure that the following always occurs;


  • Do not assemble a heavy or unstable structure. The use of plywood or other similar materials will result in a substantially heavy structure. If this is created, the fastening of the individual members must be true and accurate. The simple act of tying off the structure together to make it stand up, is NOT the way to construct this type of playhouse. Remember there will be children inside, leaning against it and maybe even climbing over it.
  • Make sure there are NO sharp edges or points from fasteners anywhere on the structure. This is very important and must be stressed over and over again. The children will be leaning, rubbing and climbing all over this structure. Make sure, if screws are used, the points do NOT project out, if nails, the same concern must be applied. If zip ties are used, make sure they are cleanly trimmed to remove the extra tail on the tie. A clever method of making sure there is nothing sharp, is to coat all the edges and possible exposed fasteners with liquid rubber, the same material that they use to dip the handles of tools into.
  • If the structure is permanently assembled and will remain outside, the tie down for wind stability is a necessity. There are several methods of tying down the structure. The easiest is to purchase the screw anchors that are used as tent tie downs. Make sure these are totally embedded in the earth or further protect them with either hay bales or some other type of protection. Fastened to these hold down should be rope that is threaded through the structure to hold down the sides, roof, floor, etc. The obvious safety issues caused by the use of rope must also be anticipated and managed. I would recommend that the rope be secured every 6 inches to the structure with simple plastic zip ties. Once again, make sure the tails are cut off to prevent any type of scrapping of jabbing. Another good method to tie down the structure is to place heavy concrete block alongside the structure. These can be used as ballast to hold down the structure with the same type of rope tie down as with the screw anchors. The best method to hold down the structure, is to build the structure on a heavy platform that can be used to permanently fasten the playhouse down to. In this manner, the entire platform will need to be upended by the wind, to cause any type of issue.
  • Visibility / the ability to see into the structure from the house or exterior porch is very important. You can never be too sure what will occur within the walls of your playhouse, and supervision by inspection is a mandatory requirement. There should be either plenty of windows and doors or make the sides out of clear plastic, install a clear plastic roof, etc. You must be able to visually see into the structure.
  • Make sure that any material used is non-toxic. Although the environmental protection agency has done a very good job in limiting any type of building material that has a high VOC ( volatile organic compound ) in the material, there could be old construction materials, materials hanging around in the garage, etc. that you may think satisfactory to use as a playhouse. Just make sure that there are no contaminants in the materials used.
  • Mold and mildew is another issue that must be managed. Do not use old plywood that has been stacked on the exterior of the home and has become moldy and covered with mildew. Constant water conditions will cause material to become moldy, and the last thing you want is to trigger allergic reactions or more severe symptoms, in the children playing in their new playhouse.
  • Material that has been painted, or covered with any type of sealant over protective coating, such as the old application of creosote, should NOT be used. Again there is no need to expose children to any of this type of material.
  • If the structure is sturdy enough and tall enough the children will want to climb it. Be aware of this tendency and ensure that the structure is stable enough to withstand the weight of children, and that if there is a fall; there is nothing that can harm the child at the bottom of their fall.

How can you decorate and enhance the structure once it is built?

There are several creative methods of decoration and enhancement, however, your own creativity is the difference between the structures constructed by the family, compared to the simply purchased structure. Some of my limited ideas;

  • Cut creative plywood or particle board shapes and creative designs, to be painted and decorated, to attach to the sides and roof of the structure. This can be as creative as your children’s imagination. Dinosaurs, flowers, airplanes, trains are only a few thoughts?
  • Attach small basketball hoops to the exterior of the structure, to stimulate some competitive games of hoop, around the structure.
  • Attach cork board to the exterior and interior of the structure to allow the children to attach drawings or school projects to this cork board.
  • Attach varying lengths of metal tubing to the exterior of the walls, to allow the banging of the various size tubes, creating a musical kettle drum type activity.
  • Drill holes in the exterior of the walls, or in the roof, to allow the tossing of bean bags, as a form of game.
  • Attach a special spinning wheel to the top of the roof, to demonstrate how the wind will rotate the spinning wheel.
  • Include open fabric mesh bags on the interior of the structure, to allow the children to store their toys, such as bats and balls in their own storage area. This will stimulate a sense of “clean up “maybe?
  • Create a sandbox in the structure to stimulate the use of trucks and other sand toys. If the sandbox is constructed in the structure, the sand will remain drier and cleaner, than if the sand was located on the exterior of the structure.
  • Install shelves and areas to store items, such as play pots and pans and utensils, to stimulate an actual kitchen.
  • Install a play kitchen or workbench with play tools in the structure.
  • If the structure is large and stable, attach a slide off the side of the structure, accessed by a ladder to the roof. This is only if the structure is very well constructed.
  • Install a toy telescope in the structure, and cut an opening in the roof for evening use of the telescope. If you are handy, you can actually create a sliding access panel in the roof to allow the opening only when the telescope is being used.

Obviously, there are several different creative and unique applications that can be created within the play structure. Sometimes it is fun to recreate, whatever work, Daddy or Mommy does during the day, within the structure, such as a play garage, or a play nursery school, etc.

Use your creativity, and make this a family adventure! The creation of a playhouse, dollhouse or fort can be a wonderful family activity that everyone can add their own creativity to.

The construction of a tree house is another matter entirely, and will be discussed on a separate webpage within this website. A tree house, although a lot of fun, creates an entirely different set of construction thoughts and ideas, as well as introduces a totally new set of safety rules and issues.

This webpage is devoted to the playhouse, fort or dollhouse that remains on the ground. It is not floating on the water, not suspended in the trees; it is simply sitting on the ground and creating an environment for the imagination of the young to take over.


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