The playset that Brett Johnson constructed will get some add-ons, including a zipline. The Caterpillar-style bed that Kevin Ridgely designed.

It’s a common refrain among parents: “I’d do anything for my children.” And while that’s certainly true of most, a few families are taking the phrase a bit more literally than others. DIY culture is on the rise, inspired by HGTV and similar home shows, as well as the show-and-tell nature of social media.

Take Baltomore-area mom Jen Simmons. She recently became an avid fan of the DIY site IKEA Hackers, a hub for creative updates to cheap-but-serviceable IKEA pieces. After seeing a hack for an activity tower made from a stepstool, she was intrigued — but thought she could do better.

“I loved the idea of it, that our boys could see what was going on at counter level, but I could see some structural weaknesses,” she says. “I started taking measurements and designing my own.”

As she began working on the project, however, she realized it was more of an undertaking than she had originally intended — but she wasn’t to be deterred. Realizing she needed better equipment, she began looking into tool rental before discovering a tool library. The community organization had exactly what she needed (a drill press and a miter saw for precision cuts), and she was back at it.

“What I thought would be a one-day project ended up taking two and a half days, but I really enjoyed it. I grew up watching ‘This Old House.’ I idolize Tom Silva,” she laughs.

Her son uses the tower every day, and Simmons says she wishes she had the time to build one more for her home and several others for family and friends. Besides the time constraint, however, she recognizes the other major challenge of DIY.

“People think it’s cost-saving, but it’s often not,” she says. “It takes a lot of money and time, but for me it’s a labor of love.”

This was partially the case for Brett Johnson, who’s currently building a large-scale playset for his son and daughter. The tree house-turned-swing set-turned-all-purpose playset (which includes slides, a tower, and a forthcoming tire swing, zipline and sandbox) has taken plenty of planning and effort, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s been quite a hit,” he says, both with his children and their friends. “I enjoy building stuff like this. There’s a lot of freedom.”

Johnson says he was able to get more “bang for his buck” by building the set himself. 

“If you have some building experience, you can build it stronger and better and save some money,” he said.

If you don’t have any experience, however, he said you’d better go with a kit.

But while that may be the easier route, it does limit creativity, as Kevin Ridgely knows. Ridgely, a building contractor, recently built a Caterpillar-style digger bed for his three-year-old grandson, modeled after a photo his son-in-law had found on the internet. Ridgely scrounged for materials from his own construction jobs.

He says the project took about three weeks, including cutting, sanding and sealing the wood, as well as adding lights, painting it the signature Caterpillar yellow and applying genuine Caterpillar logos from a few of Ridgely’s friends at the company. (Fun fact: The hubcaps were made from stainless steel mixing bowls.)

Though the project was fairly advanced, Ridgely said his grandson helped.

“Once you explain something to him, he seems to retain it,” he says. “Even at three years old, he knows what the equipment is and what it does.”

He chuckles. “He’s going to help me build a shed for my wife this year.” JN

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