Image on the outside; imagination on the inside

Playhouses are a great way to spur your child's imagination — he or she can create a private, individual world inside one. Playhouses have become increasingly popular over the past two decades, and are an easy alternative to the hand-built tree house.

Why a playhouse?

As kids grow, they begin to discover small bits of independence, and while parental supervision is always recommended, playhouses offer a way for you to put a little perceived distance between you and your child. They're also a great way to keep your child's play focused in one main area, reducing the mess and helping ensure his or her safety. Finally, outdoor playhouses encourage your child to play outdoors while giving structure to that play. Your child gets all the benefits of sunshine and fresh air without the dangers of running around the neighborhood.

What do playhouses look like?

Children's playhouses come in a great variety of styles. Outdoor playhouses tend to be made of wood or plastic (or both) and have a large, solid frame. Wooden playhouses often come with real wood doors and shutters and look almost like a genuine house (on the outside, at least).

Depending on what you're looking for and how much space you have, playhouses can range in appearance from a small shack to a sprawling mansion — there are even playhouses that look like castles, churches and farm buildings. If you have the budget, you could even get a custom-built playhouse that's a replica of your own home.

Playhouses can add a decorative touch to your yard or garden. Your child might even like planting and caring for a small garden or reserving a spot forcontainer gardening next to his or her "house," allowing you to involve your child in caring for the yard and keeping it tidy. With the right care and attention, an outdoor playhouse can be both stylish and fun.

Can I build my own playhouse?

There are a number of playhouse kits available on the Internet that provide parents the opportunity to "build" a playhouse without the hassle of measuring, cutting and fitting together the pieces. However, despite the pre-cut pieces, these kits are still moderately difficult to assemble and require actual tools (usually just hammer and screwdriver). Some of the kits for wooden playhouses include paint for customization.

If a kit isn't hands-on enough for you, there are also playhouse plans and blueprints available online. These simply give you the list of required materials and general instructions for construction — it's up to you and your imagination (or your child's imagination) what you do with the playhouse from there.

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