As a parent, you are always looking for safe, fun activities to fill an endless summer day or help a toddler burn off some of her boundless energy. For more than a century, American families have flocked to public playgrounds equipped with swings, slides and climbing structures where kids can refine their motor skills and hone their social skills. The very first such playground was installed in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in 1887 [source: Erickson].
But sometimes the public playground is just too far away —loading and unloading kids from car seats can make even a short trip feel like hours — or you just need something to keep the kids occupied for 30 minutes while you throw together dinner. That's why so many families invest in a swingset, a scaled-down version of the neighborhood park right in your own backyard.
Here's the problem, though. Like most children's (baby dolls, bikes, video game systems), there will always be a compromise between the coolness level of the product and the amount of money you can reasonably afford to pay. If you go for the cheapest swingset, there's a chance your kids will lose interest in it well before it rusts to the ground in three years. But if you go for the really high-end model, your kids will have to charge the neighbors admission in order to refill their empty college funds.
To help you get the most out of your backyard entertainment investment, we've assembled some of the best advice on choosing the right swingset for your kids, and if you're lucky, your grandkids. Let's start with choosing an age-appropriate play set.
The Right Swingset for the Right Ages
It is a bittersweet fact that kids grow up, and fast. One of the trickiest negotiations when choosing the right swingset for your kids is to find a model that fits your child's play level now, but will also offer fun and challenging activities five years down the road. An 18-month-old can amuse himself for hours with an empty cardboard box, so a simple plastic slide or freestanding toddler swing is like Disney World. A 4-year-old, however, won't have anything to do with such "baby" toys.
To complicate matters, the average American family has more than one child, meaning you need to find a swingset that simultaneously satisfies kids ranging from toddlers to 10-year-olds [source: Martinez et al.]. You might find that the purchase of a swingset sparks the kind of conversation usually reserved for major real estate investments. Questions you and your spouse might want to discuss include:
- How many more children do you plan on having?
- Will the children be spaced pretty close together in ages?
- Do you want the swingset to supplement the local park or replace the need to go to the park entirely?
- Do you expect friends and neighborhood kids to also play on the swingset?
The ages of your children will affect features like deck height. The deck of the swingset is the main platform that kids ascend to using a staircase, rope ladder, climbing wall or other accessory. The deck is also where kids begin their descent on slides. The higher the deck, the steeper the climb and the faster the slide. The same goes for monkey bars. If the monkey bar level is too high or low, it will either be inaccessible for smaller kids or unadventurous for older ones.
The number of children playing on the swingset is another important consideration. If you only expect two children to routinely play on the equipment, then you don't need more than two swings, and they won't compete for space on a relatively small deck. But if you expect to entertain a small army of children, plus their friends and half the neighborhood, you will want a swingset with a number of different play "stations" like slides, forts, sandboxes, climbing walls and monkey bars.
Once you have a better idea of the age range and size of the swingset, it's time to talk numbers. How big is your yard, and how much swingset can you get for your money?
Finding a Swingset to Fit Your Budget and Backyard
One of the first practical considerations when choosing the right swingset for your kids is making sure that it will fit in your yard. For safety reasons, you need a relatively flat space free of overhanging tree branches or obstacles like rocks or logs. Measure the total square footage of the available space.
When you are shopping for swingsets, play close attention to the dimensions of the equipment. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends a barrier of 6 feet (1.8 meters) between all playground equipment and structures like homes or fences. If you have a swing, note the height of the swing's crossbar. The CPSC recommends a safety buffer zone of twice that height in all directions [source: Consumer Product Safety Commission].
Now let's talk price. The right swingset can provide years of entertainment value, so it's reasonable to spend more than the bare minimum on playground equipment. That said, every family budget has its limits, and paying the electric bill should always take precedent over a 12-foot (3.6-meter) deck with a zip line.
The least expensive swingsets are made of metal or plastic and can be purchased at big box retailers like Wal-Mart and Target for less than $150. For that price, you can get a metal Flexible Flyer model with a 6-foot (1.8 meter) plastic slide, three regular swings, a two-seated "glider" and a seesaw. This type of swingset is designed for younger kids — there's a weight limit of 105 pounds (47.6 kilograms) per swing — so it might get left behind as kids grow older. We should also note that the CPSC issued a recall of certain Flexible Flyer models in 2012 because the seesaw seats fell off [source: CPSC].
If you are buying a metal swingset, make sure it is constructed from galvanized steel with a rust-resistant paint [source: Gleisner].
Wooden swingsets are pricier, with the simplest models for younger children starting as low as $300 to multistory wooden wonderlands that retail for more than $15,000 [source: B.E.A.R. of PA]. Higher quality wooden swingsets are usually constructed from redwood or cedar because of their strength and natural resistance to rot [source: DoItYourself.com].
The advantage of many wooden swingsets is their modular construction, allowing you to expand or accessorize the play set as the kids grow older. Note that if you're considering one of the larger and more complicated wooden swingsets, you may want to pay extra for professional installation. Even experienced builders require 12 to 24 hours to assemble one of these monsters, so imagine how long it would take you [source: Gleisner].
Now let's talk about one of the most important considerations when choosing a swingset: safety.
Swingset Safety Guidelines
Around 200,000 American kids visit hospital emergency rooms each year with injuries sustained on playground equipment [source: CPSC]. Whether you're buying your swingset new or searching for a deal on Craigslist, make sure you know the most common swingset safety issues.
The majority of serious injuries related to swingsets — and even the occasional fatality — involve falls onto hard surfaces. When you are choosing your swingset, think about ways to create a safe play surface. The CPSC recommends building a raised bed consisting of at least 9 inches (22.8 centimeters) of "loose fill material" like wood chips, shredded rubber mulch or sand. Since the fill material will settle over time, it will need to be replenished or replaced to maintain that 9-inch buffer.
All new swingsets sold in the U.S. should conform to safety standards developed by the CPSC. But if you are shopping for a used swingset, please keep these safety criteria in mind [source: CPSC]:
- Look for lightweight swings, because they are less likely to cause injuries by accidentally striking a child in the body or head.
- All platforms or decks higher than 30 inches (76 centimeters) should have a guard rail.
- The space between rails should either be smaller than 3.5 inches (8.9 centimeters) or larger than 9 inches (22.8 centimeters). Otherwise, a child can get his or her head trapped between the rails.
- The rungs on a step or rope ladder or rope net should follow the same size guidelines.
- Make sure that there aren't any sharp edges, protruding bolts or open S hooks that can cause injuries or snag clothing.
- Tire swings that rotate 360 degrees should be in a separate area from the swingset to avoid injuries.
- Don't buy a swingset where swings, gliders or other accessories are suspended from the monkey bars. If children fall from the monkey bars, they can get tangled in the swings below.
For lots more information about backyard fun and child safety, check out the related HowStuffWorks links on the next page.
Author's Note: How to Choose the Right Swingset for Your Kids
I still remember the day we bought our daughter her very first piece of playground equipment. She was only 18 months old, but judging by the increasingly taller pieces of furniture she summited in our living room, she showed great promise as a competitive alpinist. We sought out a simple climbing gym with a slide where she could hone her daredevil skills. I was thinking 50 bucks, tops. Nearly $300 later, we were driving home from the toy store with a box strapped to the top of the car that was nearly as big as the car itself. After hours of setup, I encircled the thing with rubber mats and let her at it. She was in heaven. Our daughter recently turned 8, and I don't think I've given her anything that brought her more happiness than that giant plastic play set. As it did for toddlers number two and three.
- DoItYourself.com. "Advantages of Using Cedar Lumber." (June 7, 2013) http://www.doityourself.com/stry/advantages-of-using-cedar-lumber#b
- Erickson, Amanda. "The Politics of Playgrounds, A History." The Atlantic. March 14, 2012. (June 7, 2013) http://www.theatlanticcities.com/arts-and-lifestyle/2012/03/politics-playgrounds-history/1480/
- Gleisner, Tina. "Swing Sets: Research Before You Buy." Online Community of Women Home Owners. (June 7, 2013) http://www.hometips4women.com/swing-sets-research-before-you-buy
- Martinez, Gladys; Daniels, Kimberly; and Chandra, Anjani; "Fertility of Men and Women Aged 15–44 Years in the United States: National Survey of Family Growth, 2006–2010." National Health Statistics Reports — Center for Disease Control. April 12, 2012. (June 7, 2013) http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr051.pdf
- Raloff, Janet. "Danger on Deck?" Science News Online. Jan. 31, 2004. (June 13, 2013) http://www.cpsc.gov//PageFiles/122146/324.pdf
- U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. "Is Your Home Playground a Safe Place to Play?" (June 7, 2013) http://www.cpsc.gov//PageFiles/122140/pg1.pdf
- U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. "Outdoor Home Playground Safety Handbook." 2005. (June 7, 2013) http://www.cpsc.gov//PageFiles/122146/324.pdf
- U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. "Troxel Recalls Flexible Flyer Swing Sets Due to Fall Hazard." July 11, 2012. (June 7, 2013) http://www.cpsc.gov/en/Recalls/2012/Troxel-Recalls-Flexible-Flyer-Swing-Sets-Due-to-Fall-Hazard1/