Spring is here, and trips to the playground often become more frequent. Some parents choose to try to replicate the playground experience in their yard with an outdoor play set. Although a play set is more of a luxury than a necessity, it can be an investment that your child will enjoy for many years.
Backyard play sets have come a long way from the metal and hard plastic standards of our childhood. Many are now made of wood and have forts, climbing walls and picnic tables. All those added features come at a price, though: More elaborate sets can cost thousands of dollars.
Parents should consider spending more for higher quality materials and safety features, but not for more elaborate play equipment, according to Rachel Rothman, technical director of the Good Housekeeping Research Institute.
• Cover the ground. More than 200,000 children are injured on public or private playground equipment each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most are from falls on ground that has not been covered with a protective surface. Cover the area with bark or rubberized mulch, play sand or pea gravel to cushion a fall, Rothman said.
• Watch out for entrapment hazards. Avoid climbing nets that could trap children. Any opening above the ground should be less than 3 inches or greater than 9½ inches, according to the GHRI.
• Inspect the play set regularly. Check that there are no missing parts, corroded metal, rotten wood or peeling paint, Rothman said. Check slides to make sure they are not too hot, she said.
• Go with the pros. To make sure your set is put together correctly, Rothman suggests letting a professional assemble and install it, particularly with more complicated play sets.
• Clean and reseal the wood. Every couple of years, give your play set a light power washing and apply a coat of sealant to protect the wood, said Buddy Humphreys, manager of the Play N' Learn Playground Superstore in Columbia, Md.
• Tighten bolts. Wood expands and contracts with changes in temperature, Humphreys said. So starting in the spring and about once a month during warm weather, check all of the bolts and other pieces to make sure they are tight.
Low, medium, high
We asked Humphreys of the Play N' Learn Playground Superstore to recommend three play sets at different prices. Here are his suggestions. Prices include delivery and installation and all sets are available at all Play N' Learn locations.
• The Fort. This model is made of cedar and includes an 18-square-foot deck, a 10-foot wave slide, a step ladder, a rock-climbing wall, a picnic table, two swings and a trapeze bar. $1,799.
• Playcenter Grande. Also made of cedar, this model is taller and made of thicker wood than the original fort. It has a 25-square-foot deck and an 11-foot Alpine slide with a rock-climbing wall, a rope ladder, a tire swing, two belt swings and a rope-and-disc swing. $3,299.
• Woodplay's Outback Series 5-foot Combo 3. This set is made of redwood, which is stronger and more durable than other kinds of wood, Humphreys said. In addition to the 25-square-foot deck, 10-foot wave slide, rock-climbing wall, rope ladder, tire swing, two belt swings and a rope-and-disc swing, this set also has monkey bars. $4,999.
• Think about the future. Instead of buying a play set that will suit your child's needs right now, Humphreys said, consider how he will grow and change over the next few years and buy something that he will be able to use for a long time.
• The classics never go out of style. Rothman said the Good Housekeeping Research Institute has heard from parents that it's better to stick with swings, gliders and slides than to jump at a fad such as rock-climbing walls. "Kids like the traditional things and whatever they have, they're going to be happy with," she said. "They're going to be just as happy and entertained with the basics."
• Get good wood. Humphreys suggests investing in cedar or redwood instead of pressure-treated pine, spruce or fir. They don't have chemicals added to them, making them safer for children. They also hold up better over time, resisting rot and decay better than pressure-treated woods, Humphreys said. Cedar is more affordable than redwood, he said.