If you think a backyard play set is just for your kids, think again. Besides providing children with a steady supply of fun and exercise, play sets keep them within view so you know where they are and what they're doing--even when you're not there swinging with them.
When it comes to safety, current models have taken a giant step beyond yesterday's rickety contraptions. And they're far better-looking than the metal ones you might remember from your youth.
Showrooms and catalogs are filled with premium redwood and cedar play sets that are handsome enough to be the centerpiece of backyard landscaping.
Best of all, the latest play sets complement the traditional slide and swings with such additions as towers, covered slides and cargo nets that spark children's imaginations. Keeping children interested in the play set for years is important: Although basic models start at about $100, high-end play sets can easily reach $3,000 and up.
Function Follows Form
Play sets, also called gym sets and swing sets, come three basic ways:
* wood sets
* wood kits
* metal sets
Wood is the material of choice these days. Its natural look is more at home in a backyard than metal is. And because wood sets are modular, they free manufacturers to create new designs and add-ons, such as fire poles, funnel slides and ramps. That flexibility also makes it easy for homeowners to add accessories.
"Many people make the mistake of buying a small set that their kids outgrow in a year," explains Fred DeFines of Creative Playthings, a manufacturer based in Framingham, Mass. "Look for activities that will keep the children interested throughout their childhood."
Wood sets are the most convenient way to do just that. Also known as wood completes, they come with all of the necessary components precut and predrilled for easy assembly. The smallest tower measures about 6 feet across. A complete setup that includes swings, slide and tower can span 30 feet.
The most popular of these fall in the 15- to 25-foot range and are available in pressure-treated lumber, redwood or cedar.
Sets made of pressure-treated lumber cost the least--from $300 to $600. Many parents worry about the toxic chemicals in pressure-treated wood. But according to Scott Saxman, construction safety manager for Kaboom, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that helps low-income communities build playgrounds, most of those fears are unfounded. "Pressure-treated lumber is used in commercial playgrounds all the time," Saxman says. "Just be sure to avoid lumber that's oozing or has dried droplets kids can put in their mouths."
Pressure-treated wood can also be sealed with two coats of stain or sealer to eliminate concerns.
Another option is to buy a set made from a different type of wood.
Redwood and cedar play sets are a step up from pressure-treated sets when it comes to looks. Unfortunately, these elegant woods also raise the price considerably. For example, Cedar Works of Maine, based in Rockport, uses only northern white cedar for its play sets, which start at more than $1,000.
Before buying any wood set, consider how much you can spend with the accessories you want now and as the kids mature. For example, if you have young children, include toddler swings equipped with a safety harness, then replace them later with sling or standard seats (about $25 to $50). A 5-foot molded plastic slide will cost about $150 to $200.
Wood completes are sold at large retailers, dealers (look under playground equipment in the Yellow Pages) and directly from manufacturers. You can install the set yourself or arrange installation through the dealer or manufacturer, usually for about $200.
When shopping for a wood set, look for rounded edges for safety. Make sure that the structural supports are sturdy and that the connections are reinforced, especially where vertical supports join components that hold swings or gliders. Don't forget delivery; shipping isn't cheap.
Finally, remember that you should stain or seal a wood play set to preserve it. Some manufacturers, such as Creative Playthings, sell some high-end units prefinished.
Wood kits include only the accessories and directions. You supply the lumber and hardware, drill all the holes and assemble the set.
Kits, which typically range from about $75 to $400, are sold through most home centers with the idea that homeowners will buy the kit, lumber and hardware at the same place.
Look for kits that include a complete list of the lumber you'll need to avoid repeated trips to the store. Choose straight, check-free wood to help ensure a safe, attractive play set.
Installation times will vary with your skill. A simple model could take a few hours while some of the more complicated ones will take at least a few days.