Play Sets: Enjoy a Park in Your Yard

Wooden play sets offer multiple options for hours of outdoor fun from spring through late fall. But before you buy or build, do your homework.

Play Sets

When today’s parents and grandparents were growing up, many backyards boasted a simple, inexpensive swing set made of hollow steel with a slide and perhaps a glider, cemented on grass or dirt. Today, families have many more choices, and wooden play sets that can be added onto as children grow offer multiple options for hours of outdoor fun from spring through late fall. But before you buy or build, do your homework.

Site and Sight
Another industry safety standard is to leave six feet of open space around the stationary part of the set. For the swings, take the height of the swing beam and multiply times two. So, if the beam is eight feet high, you’ll need 16 feet of open space with protective surfacing in the front and back. This zone helps prevent collisions as kids swing and shoot off the bottom of slides. Even if you’re starting with a small set, you may want to add to it later, so leave extra room to maintain that six-foot clearance around a larger set.

Plan a site you can see out a window, especially if your children are younger. Don’t plant the play set in the center of the yard either. Off to the side is better so the kids have enough room for a ball game, too, says independent builder Jeff Corner, of Grafton, Wis., who has been building play sets since 1989.

Ground Work
You’ll want something — not just grass — underneath the set that looks good, can handle plenty of wear and tear, and will cushion falls. The recommended ground cover depth is nine inches, Hendy says. To have nine inches after settling, for instance, start with 12. “Seventy-nine percent of injuries are from falls,” she says.

The most popular ground cover choices are playground wood chips certified by ASTM and pea stone. Wood chips are less expensive, but they will eventually rot and you’ll have to add more every year or two. Pea stone is harder to install, but drains better, lasts longer, and is less likely to get tracked into your home, Corner says. One danger from pea stone, however, is that your lawn mower can pick it up and spray it out like missiles. 

Slide into the Basics
A basic play set includes a slide and swing. Many companies, individual builders and kits offer modular designs you can add to later. “They’re big, modular Tinkertoys,” Tripp says. After the slide and swing, the next most popular components are climbers: monkey bars, rock walls or both. Other popular add-ons include gliders, tire swings, ramps, fire poles, steering wheels, and picnic tables. “Not only does adding on make the set fresh and interesting, but it breaks down the cost and keeps it age appropriate,” Gray says.

If you’re building your play set, plan on at least a weekend, probably two. Check the kit to see what’s included. “You may think you’re getting a set for $250, but then it doesn’t include the wood or the slide,” Corner says. He strongly recommends a miter saw, which gives “good straight cuts,” for do-it-yourselfers, even if you have to rent one.

For Safety’s Sake
Safety doesn’t stop with the protective surface. ASTM standards stipulate that ladder rungs and any openings should be either less than 3 inches or more than nine inches so a child won’t get stuck and choke. “It’s more difficult for young children to negotiate, but better a Band-Aid and a boo-boo than a tragedy,” Gray says.

Prevent children from wearing sports helmets on play sets. Since a helmet is bigger than the child’s head, Hendy says, a youngster wearing a helmet could get stuck in an opening he’s passed through many times without the helmet.

Other choke hazards are ropes, pet leashes, and chains. Don’t allow children to play with them on the set. To prevent falls, make sure you have a guard rail for elevated spaces 30 inches above the ground and a protective barrier on elevated surfaces more than four feet high.

Take Care
Proper maintenance is critical for safety, appearance, and durability. The most important task is to tighten the bolts twice a year because wood shrinks and swells with changes in humidity. “Look at Easter and back-to-school time,” Gray suggests. Depending on the wood, you’ll also need to reseal and/or restain the set every few years. “With California Redwood, that’s primarily a cosmetic decision,” he says. With other woods, restaining and resealing is important to preserve the wood.

With proper planning and maintenance, you’ll be able to pass your set on to the neighbor’s children in 15 years or save it for your grandchildren for generations of enjoyment.