Playhouses in the woods

June 30, 2019


A red-shouldered hawk cried out on a cloudy morning as it flew above Scot Pipkin during his walk through a forest of magical playhouses. 

That's where he found The Hives. 

Not your usual playhouse, The Hives consist of two redwood spheres with wide steps that go up and around the structures' exteriors. Kids can walk up those to an opening at the top and descend on more steps inside. 

"I can guarantee my 20-month-old twins will be climbing on this!" Mr. Pipkin, 36, told the News-Press as he smiled and looked at the structure at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. He works there as the director of education and engagement. 

The Hives is part of "Garden Casitas: Playhouses Designed with Nature in Mind," an exhibit featuring six imaginative playhouses of various shapes and sizes. 

Casitas is Spanish for "little houses." The exhibit officially runs Monday through Dec. 31, but is having its soft opening this weekend. Families can bring their kids today to play in everything from a humansize recreation of a woodrat's house to a special home made from a tree burned in the Thomas Fire. 

Children in the supervised exhibit can safely climb on or around some of the houses, which are surrounded by soft, thick mulch in case of unexpected landings. 

"I talked with folks who have been coming to the garden their entire lives,"Executive Director Steve Windhager told the News-Press as he walked with Mr. Pipkin. "They talked about how much fun the garden was when they were kids and that it has seemed to have become a somewhat stodgy place at times. “We wanted to recapture that sense of youthful exuberance and fun in the garden," he said. "We wanted to get kids out in nature and find a way for kids to enjoy the gardens again." 

Mr. Windhager, 48, said the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden called for submissions for "Garden Casitas" in late 2018 and selected the artists, landscape architects and builders six months ago. 

He said the houses are made from wood or other natural materials and that a few contain steel for support. 

Mr. Windhager led the News-Press to the first stop in the exhibit, a "Loose Parts" area where kids can build their own forts out of branches or walk on a secure balance beam made from a fallen oak tree that the garden repurposed. 

The next stop is Cali-Pop, designed and built by Cal Poly Pomona student Philip B. Gann of West Covina. Mr. Gann created a redwood house inspired by a California poppy. 

"This is actually his master's thesis," Mr. Windhager said. "It's a wonderful play structure. You can hide in it. There are a lot of nooks and crannies." 

The next house, the Rings of Time, is made from a 150-foot-high cottonwood tree that was burned when the Thomas Fire struck Taft Gardens & Nature Preserve in Ojai. The structure's shingles were handmade from the tree. 

Marc Whitman of Whitman Architectural Design and Tara Saylor designed and built the house. 

During the News-Press' tour, Tim Case, a Ventura resident who has done work for the Taft Gardens, was inside the house doing some final touches. "This is made from one of the first trees at Taft Gardens," Mr. Case, 51, told the NewsPress. 

"It was killed in the Thomas Fire. I felled it and saved it. Instead of making firewood from it, we made this." 

He said the interior consists of maple panels. 

The railing along the house's steps and the frame around its opened entrance was made from a burned eucalyptus tree at the Taft Gardens, Mr. Case said. 

The next structure is the Halfling House. The blue, red and green laminated house is about the right size for one of the lovable short people of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit." 

The house was designed and built by Frank Schipper Construction Co. of Santa Barbara. 

Kids can play house in the structure, in which there will be some furniture, Mr. Windhager said. 

The next house towers far above adults and kids alike. Big-Eared Woodrat House is a human-size recreation of woodrats' houses. 

Besty Lape, who designed and built the dome-like structure along with Crowley & Co., welcomed the News-Press into the home, in which the frame is a weaving of bended manzanita and California lilac (Ceanothus) branches. 

Like woodrats do in the wild, Ms. Lape, the garden's coordinator of living collections, and kids assisting her decorated the home with branches and leaves from a California bay tree. Ms. Lape said woodrats use the tree's distinctive fragrance to deter bugs. 

"I found three woodrat houses in this area, hidden in the bush," said Ms. Lape, 38, who noted it is illegal for people to destroy the protected species' homes without a permit. "Maybe the children playing here will discover them." 

The next house is The Hives, designed and built by Santa Barbara Botanic Garden volunteers. 

After that, the exhibit concludes with Understory, a circular fort designed and built by Akiko Wade Davis of Wade Davis Design and John Lambe Construction, both in Santa Barbara. 

Kids and adults will walk through outer and inner circles of Douglas fir posts to reach the redwood bench in the center. 

The fort is under a canopy of California bay, sycamore and oak trees, Mr. Windhager said. He said the exhibit's structures are designed to last at least through December and some may stay up longer.

He explained the garden will decide later what to do with those and that the area will continue to be used as an interactive space for youths.

"The concern is that if you don't learn to love nature when you're young, you're not going to be a conservationist when you're older," he said. "You have to get an affinity for it early on in order to care for it in the future."

email: [email protected] FYI "Garden Casitas: Playhouses Designed with Nature in Mind" runs through Dec. 31 at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, 1212 Mission Canyon Road. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

Admission costs $14 for adults and $8 for youths ages 3 through 17 and seniors 60 and older.

For more information, call the garden at 682-4726 or go to

Santa Barbara News Press Photos


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