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Backyard playground ideas

A playground set in the backyard

Creating a mini-playground in a small yard takes a little planning. But once in place, it will provide your kids or grandkids with hours of entertainment and exercise.

Today's play equipment doesn't have to be gigantic. You can choose from a wide selection of swing-sets, slide sets, play towers and sandboxes that are big on fun, but small in size.

Consider size, materials, components, price and safety before you buy play equipment.

  • How much space will the play area require?
  • What is the best material ? plastic, wood or metal?
  • Do you want to buy the equipment or build it yourself?
  • How much do you want to spend?
  • What safety features should you look for?

Bigger isn't always better

When yard space is at a premium, the size of play equipment is an important consideration. Fortunately, manufacturers offer everything from small plastic play structures to downsized metal and wood play centers — complete with swings, tower and slide.

Older children love a basic metal or wood swing set that includes a couple of swings, a trapeze and a glider or swing horse. Several popular swing sets have dimensions of about 9′ X 9′ X 6′ and usually feature a glide ride, two contour swings and wave slide. If you have a little more room, look at mid-size play sets that include a slide, lawn swing or rocket rider. The set up dimensions are approximately 14′ X 9′ X 6′ for this type of play equipment.

For more activity in a small area, you might want some type of climbing gym. Most climbing gyms come with slides, ladders, platforms and even tents. A small sandbox or tire swing can also provide hours of fun for kids of all ages.

Once you've decided to add a small playground to your yard, it's time to think about the material that's right for your child — plastic, metal or wood.

Plastic backyard play sets are a great match for small children and small backyards. They are safe and can be easily set up or moved around. Little Tikes and Step 2 make mini-sized plastic playhouses, activity gyms, “climb and slide” sets, jungle climbers, wave climbers and swing extensions. You can find them online or at retail stores like Wal-Mart and Toys “R” Us.

If you decide on metal equipment, make sure it's galvanized or painted to prevent rust. Check to see that the metal used in the swing set is thick gauge steel. For example, the top bar should be as thick as a nickel and a dime placed on top of each other. Metal swing sets can usually support a weight limit of 75 pounds per child. Hedstrom is the best-known manufacturer of metal play equipment. You can find this popular brand at nearly every store that sells outdoor play sets.

Wood sets are sturdier, generally more attractive and very popular for home use. They last longer than plastic or metal play sets and support 120 pounds or more per child. Cedar, redwood and pressure-treated wood equipment withstands moisture and resists decay. You can find a large variety of wooden play equipment online or in specialty stores from manufacturers such as Backyard Escapes, Play Nation, and Detailed Play Systems.

Buy or Build?

Both metal and plastic play and swing sets are manufactured in a factory and bought from local stores. Shop around with your child to find out the “kid's eye view” of the equipment. Also consider size, safety and price.

Remember, you have to put it together. Most play sets can be assembled at home in a few hours. Although the price is usually fixed on plastic and metal equipment, be sure to ask for full delivered price before you buy.

Parents who choose wood play equipment have several options:

  • You'll save money if you buy a detailed “everything except lumber” kit and spend extra hours cutting and drilling the lumber of your choice before following assembly instructions. Be prepared to perform some basic measuring, cutting and drilling before bolting and assembling the wooden equipment.
  • You can also select the “everything included” wood play equipment kit that includes pre-cut and pre-drilled lumber. This doesn't require as much time to put together as the “everything except lumber” kit, but must still be assembled according to detailed instructions.
  • For more money, you can buy wood play equipment along with installation. Then you can sit back and watch the installers build the playground. This makes a good choice if you have more money than time, otherwise “do-it-yourself” kits are the way to go.

Several creative alternatives to standard playground equipment exist for parents who want to design and build child's play equipment from scratch. Go to your local library or surf the Net for books that can guide you through the entire building process – including project plans, material lists and building instructions.

Small wonders

Smaller play equipment that encourages imaginative play will likely hold your child's interest as well, if not better, than elaborate, expensive sets with a huge array of accessories. Before you buy a deluxe play system, ask yourself how much equipment your kids will really use. Chances are a simple play set – the kind with a couple of swings and a slide – will delight your child.

Don't worry if your backyard is too small for a swing set or play center. Kids can enjoy hours of imagination-filled activity in the smallest space. How about a simple sand box? You can make a mini-sandbox or buy one of the plastic “turtle” types with a cover made by Playskool or Little Tikes. Be sure to use play sand that has been screened, dried and sterilized, available at many home and garden centers.

Other backyard toys, such as a wading pool, ring toss, swirling plastic sprinkler, small plastic picnic table or even a 40-inch inflatable ball will encourage your kids to get outdoors and enjoy summertime activities. Try moving an indoor toy, like a plastic play kitchen, outside for a change. You may be surprised to see your child creating “mud pies” or other pretend “dishes” that would not be suitable for inside play.

Older kids might enjoy their own backyard balance beam. It can be simply made by covering a 4 X 4 with scrap carpeting. Be sure the carpeting is nap side down to provide cushioning and traction. If you use recycled carpet or lumber it should be free of contaminants or hazards like splinters, nails or sharp edges.

Home Playground Resources

  • features a huge selection of molded plastic play equipment. While visiting this site get a free backyard planner that allows you to adjust the height and width of your play area and add or subtract play equipment as desired.
  • is a good site to check out a variety of smaller backyard play sets.
  • provides everything to build a mini-play set or swing set, except lumber. This is an economical choice.
  • is loaded with swing set and home play equipment information. Click on the “For Parents” section, then go to swing sets and play equipment.
  • offers a few wood petite play sets designed for small backyards.
  • specializes in wooden forts, swing sets, swing set kits and home playground plans.
  • sells several “do it yourself” books that describe how to design and build children's play equipment, including:
  • Children's Play Areas, from the editors of Sunset Books
  • Build a Kid's Play Yard, Jeff Beneke, Creative Homeowner Press
  • Backyard Play Areas You Can Make: Complete Plans and Instructions for Building Playhouses, Forts, and Swing Sets, Paul Gerhards
  • Building Outdoor Play Structures, Lark Books

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