Looking back, cubby houses played a big part in many Baby Boomers’ childhoods. They were often a combination of the sanctuary, think tank, clubhouse, and outlet for innovation. The current school-based STEM programs (building bridges with drinking straws etc.) try to simulate what happened naturally in our childhoods.
One of the most basic cubby house setups began with a simple cardboard box. If you had a large appliance, such as a new fridge, delivered, the box became a ready-made cubby. But even smaller removal boxes could be combined to create a substantial labyrinth of cardboard tunnels.
After moving to Melbourne in the early ’70s, my sister and I used the removal boxes to build a cardboard palace in the spare room. I remember even camping in it for a few nights. The disadvantage of box cubbies was that they could only be used on the inside, especially in Melbourne’s wet and cold winters.
Another inside-only variation of the cubby was a simple bed sheet or curtain draped over the kitchen table. Within minutes, the space usually reserved for feet, knees, and the occasional dog-seeking table scraps could be transformed into a fort, a cave, a pirate ship, or even a spaceship.
The inspiration for these impromptu cubbies might be an episode of Batman, a trip to the movies to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or a recent reading of an Enid Blyton Famous Five book. Accessories for the cubby, such as bowls and saucepans, were readily available from the kitchen, pending Mum’s permission.
An overgrown block of land with metre-high grass created an instant cubby house. By selectively flattening paths through the long grass, we built connecting tunnels. Funnily enough, with the innocence of childhood, I don’t remember having any fear of snakes, spiders, broken bottles, or any other nasties such as animal toileting deposits that might also be lurking in the long grass.
Growing up in new estates, building sites provided many raw materials for an improvised cubby. Building site larceny wasn’t necessary, as there was always a large pile of scraps and offcuts that the builders were glad to get rid of.
Some of our construction methods may not have met council building codes, but the innovative ways we were able to join odd bits of timber and roof sheeting with rope and odd bits of wire surely would have made our cubbies worthy of a second look from Kevin McCloud from Grand Designs. Because some of us were in new estates, there was always a vacant lot of land on which to build our architectural wonders.
Being lucky enough to live in suburbs with surrounding bushland, the bush cubby was always an option. Fallen trees and some saplings that were coerced by a tomahawk axe to become fallen were the usual building materials. Sometimes traditional building materials, such as a stray two by four were added to provide strength.
On one occasion, a mate arrived with a length of galvanised water pipe that he found in his dad’s shed. We were grateful until a family of redbacks emerged from one end. We bolted out of the bush, convinced that the spiders were capable of chasing us down the road.
Stone cubbies were a popular choice as some schools had a barren areas with hard ground and numerous pebbles. These were 2D cubbies that had floor plans created by lines of pebbles to mark the walls of rooms. One of the most regular tasks in these cubbies was sweeping the dirt floor with a tree branch.
The layouts were flexible, and new rooms could be easily added, provided you could find some spare pebbles. There was quite a bit of ‘wall stealing’ from rival builders. Playground duty teachers were quite happy with these cubbies, as the stones were too valuable to be used to throw at other children.
Tree houses, with their added height, were one of the more injury-prone cubby options. With the increased chance of broken bones, they probably kept plaster and sling manufacturers in business during the ’50s and ’60s. They ranged from a few bits of wood nailed to the tree trunk for a ladder with a modest platform in the closest fork, to palatial sky homes with corrugated iron walls and roofs.
Being elevated, these cubbies provided an imposing bolt hole when there was a “war” with a neighbourhood gang. In this case, “war” meant that the opposing gang began throwing blackberries at you or drenching you with water pistols. My father-in-law shared details of his gang’s tree house.
It upped the ante on dangerous heights by including a rope swing that swung out over a disused quarry. He said it wasn’t uncommon for some of his friends to lose their grip and fall into the rubble below, necessitating a quick dash to the nearby railway signalman to summon an ambulance.
Then there were the cubbies that dads built. My dad built us one in the backyard of our Frankston home in 1964. It was rather flashy while it lasted: two levels with a ladder and trapdoor leading to a viewing deck. Unfortunately, the combination of our house being built on a reclaimed swamp and the presence of feisty wood borers soon made the structure resemble the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
In the late 1980s, inspired by my dad, I built my son a cubby house. I used CCA timber and concrete footings, and I’m pleased to say it’s still standing 34 years later.
Today, cubbies are available in kit form at the big box hardware stores and come complete with instructions and all the necessary nuts and bolts. Someone will even come out to assemble it for you. I’ve even seen complete, ready-to-go plastic models you can get delivered.
This approach to the humble cubby seems as much fun as putting together a flatpack cupboard, and it robs kids (and mums and dads) of the joy (and sometimes disaster) of building something from scratch. But, I suppose, as we’ve evolved into a time-pressed generation, sacrifices to creativity must be made.
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