How to make DIY tree blocks – or not. Willow branches for the fort building win!

Our neighbor, Martha, over the back fence at our Learning Treehouse program, has two AMAZING globe willows. The trees are gorgeous, however a few years ago we noticed they were starting to get so big that some of the lower branches were growing into our fence. I approached Martha and offered to have my husband prune the trees for her in exchange for the branches. She probably thought I was crazy, but I was looking for a cheap way to make some tree blocks for our outdoor space. I heard that willow tree branches were ideal so this was great karma for the service I so graciously offered my husband to perform.

I recruited several family members to come help with the project and we set to work. It didn’t take very many branches before we had more than enough to work with.

*This project happened on a Saturday when no children were in care. The branches were falling that way because we were cutting them off the tree and the gap in the fence was part of some repairs we did on the fence that day. The branches were moved and the gap in the fence were fixed before children came back to the program.

I chose branches that were between 3-6 inches in diameter. This size was the most efficient to work with and was the right size for the blocks I planned to cut.

Willow tree bark comes off fairly easily when it’s still green, but I found using this tool made the process even quicker.  I used the tool to pry up a piece of the bark and then I could pull off large sections all at once.

We set the partially stripped branches across the bridge. The kids soon discovered this was the beginning of an amazing hideaway!  I think this is the point my idea of the project started to change.

Originally I was planning to make a set of blocks similar to these: or these:  I already had lots of the round tree cookies in our outdoor space so I was hoping to add some blocks with some more interesting shapes like these my friend at Hand In Hand made:

As I watched the kids start to play with the branches on the bridge, I realized that there might be more potential with the branches as they were. I left the branches at the Treehouse for a few weeks until they kids at that house were bored of them.  At that point we hauled them over to my house.  We finished cutting off the smallest parts of the branches and leaves.  This is what we ended up with:

Aren’t they beautiful?? Even if I had been set on making tree blocks I don’t think I had the heart to saw them apart once I got them cleaned up.  So we set them next to our sandbox and I was SO excited to see what the kids did with them!

And they sat there. For-ev-er. Have you ever had the experience where you imagine what the kids will do when they see this amazing thing you have for them….and then they basically ignore it? Well that’s what happened with the branches. The kids came out and played every day as usual. They didn’t even notice my beautiful branches that had taken me a whole weekend to prepare for them!

I’ve learned though sometimes it just take a bit of patience. So I bit my tongue and waited. Then it was spring break.  And the school kids were here….

Someone set up a very simple fort. Ok, I admit that someone might have been me. I wanted to see if a simple invitation might spark some interest from the kids.  At first it didn’t have a lot of traction, but somewhere along the line the kids realized the potential.

They built elaborate structures together.

My son used them in a way I hadn’t considered and made it his own private hideout.

We’ve had them in our environment for almost two years. The play continues to expand. Now the kids often add sheets or blankets to make the structures more interesting.

Sometimes they make very tidy teepees. Often they throw together whatever they can in any way that will stay standing.

The branches are a few years old now and not quite so new and shiny.  They are grey, weathered, and showing signs of sitting outside for two four-season cycles.

I have found these particular branches are quite heavy and large for my toddler and preschool set.  Perhaps next time I’ll cut some smaller branches that my younger kids can handle. In the meantime it actually works out quite well.  There is some wonderful cooperative play that happens when the school age kids are here in the afternoons and summer time.

They often still sit stacked up on the side of the sandbox and I’m OK with that too. They are there when the kids need them.

So the funny thing is I never did get my tree blocks completed. I started this project because I felt like they were more money than I wanted to spend.  DIY seemed like the more economical way to get blocks. However as I was writing this post I realized how much time and work would have gone into the blocks had I actually completed them. Considering how valuable my time is at this point it would be much “cheaper” to just buy them. The branches were totally worth the time and effort. If you want tree blocks, I’d probably just buy them. (Insert LOL emoticon….haha)

This set from Constructive Playthings is really lovely.

There are several other sets of different sizes and finishes to choose from on Amazon as well. 

Have you ever had a project turn out totally different than you imagined?  I’d love to hear about it!  Comment below with your thoughts!

*Post contains affiliate links.

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