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Huckleberry Hunt, homeschooled from birth, was 13 years old when he wrote "The Kids In Business" column for Homefires. He interviewed homeschoolers who either had their own businesses or worked in their family's business.

Kids in Business: Creating an Imaginative Toy Tree House

By Huckleberry Hunt

This interview is with George Lockwood who with the help of his sons, Galen and Cameron, and wife, Juliana, designs, makes and sells toy tree houses.

H: George, can you tell us what type of business you have and how it was started?

G: I design and make wooden toys for families. The name of my business is Lockwood Toys. I primarily produce a wooden tree house and accessories. Our business is the result of playing frequently with my two sons, Cameron, age 12 and Galen, age 7. We create fantasy games of adventure and exploration -- which led to making a toy tree house for our play. Friends would visit and comment on how great the tree house was, and suggested I make more to sell. I hadn't seen a tree house commercially available -- so I thought a potential market existed.

The initial idea was to make several as a home-schooling project. The boys would learn about carpentry skills, sales techniques, and money. Like all homeschooling projects, I would learn right along with them. Cameron and I took 7 tree houses to a Waldorf craft fair in San Francisco. We quickly sold them and had orders for 2 more. I like to say this was a homeschooling project that got out of control and became a business.

H: Did you continue to make them by hand and sell them at craft fairs?

G: Actually, I hand-made another 80, and began selling through retail stores. The Play Store in Palo Alto has carried them for 4 years. Now they are available in stores in Carmel, San Francisco, Santa Barbara and Honolulu. Sales were going well, but I couldn't keep up with the demand, so I looked into more efficient methods of manufacturing. I contacted suppliers to make different parts. One company cuts and drills all plywood pieces, another makes all the dowels. Other parts are handcrafted. I also arranged a central assembly location and hired help. Last year I manufactured 150 tree houses.

H: Do the boys continue to help even though you hire other people to assemble a portion of the tree house?

G: Yes. They still help with some hand-assembly and packaging.

H: How much does a store charge for a tree house?

G: Since I sell to them wholesale, stores control the retail price. I do know the Play Store in Palo Alto sells them assembled for $290.00 dollars, and less for the non-assembled (assembly instructions are included).

H: What do you think people find so appealing about your tree houses?

G: A tree house is something familiar, but uncommon. Seeing a tree house seems to evoke lots of imaginative play. For adults and older kids it may call to mind the Swiss Family Robinson story. We are excited about being on an island and having to create our own little world. For others it seems to evoke images of elves and fairies living in the upper part of the tree, with gnomes and trolls living below. Struggles and battles can go on between the two groups the play is only limited by your imagination.

H: Can you describe your design, accessories that are available, and how they contribute to play?

G: The tree house is about 4 feet tall, with a branch through the center of three levels. It is topped with a leafy green canopy. The multiple levels include: the underground; an intermediate level that has a little stoop part way up with ladders; and then the platform level up above. It comes with two sets of pulleys and winches for hoisting little wooden buckets (included) or other objects. Additional accessories for purchase include: a tram car; another pulley system to take buckets to other parts of the play area; a rope bridge that can be attached to the tree house; and rock walls that expand the design.

H: What age group are you targeting?

G: There are some potential choking & strangulation hazards for children under three. So it is for ages 3-13.

H: Do you have plans for expansion?

G: I plan to continue the business as long as it remains fun and works for the family. At this time, I am interested in expansion to other stores throughout the country and Europe. There are some other toy ideas that I might consider producing as well. My brother lives in Seattle and has made wooden toys for his son. By profession he is a cabinetmaker. He made a pirate ship for Galen that has provided great play alone -- and also between the ship and the tree house, and all the occupants. Lots of adventures, battles and explorations. So I have envisioned my brother and I working together with our sons, making an expanded toy world using the tree house, boats, rafts and castles.

H: How do you expand further geographically?

G: I plan to attend an international toy fair in New York to display the tree house. Retail store owners there, view products for possible merchandise in their stores. Another idea for expansion is to sell directly to the public through catalogs or via the Internet.

H: It has taken you a number of years to develop your business to its present size, why is that?

G: It has been a long evolution, but I have worked steadily on its development. I have a full time practice as a clinical psychologist, so I had to work part time to develop Lockwood Toys. The slower pace has allowed for feed back from families as they played with the tree house that contributed to ideas for its design.

H: Your products are wonderful. Have you always worked with wood?

G: I was raised in a family where we learned some wood working skills. As an adult I did a little bit, but had not invested in the tools that are required. My brother, the cabinetmaker, encouraged me to develop some of my toy ideas. Additionally, I wanted to create a wooden toy that had appeal to both children and adults -- a toy that would encourage family play and trigger imaginative play. There are a lot of toys that separate parents and their children. Toys that are plastic with bright primary colors are exciting to kids, but may be a turn-off to parents. Toys that are made of things from nature have a tendency to appeal to both parents and kids. This can draw them together for play. It was important to me to expose my children to toys that are aesthetically appealing. Toys made of wood have innate beauty and stimulate creative play, while allowing us to be less alienated from nature.

H: Thank you, George. Now, for our readers, the following stores carry Lockwood Toys, tree houses:
The Play Store in Palo Alto, California; 650-326-9070
The Ark in San Francisco, California; 415-268-4010
Sandcastles in Carmel, California; 408-626-8361
A Child's Delight in Santa Barbara, California; 805-899-1166