Though choosing the latest and greatest playground gear is something the kids might be more qualified to do than Mom and Dad, creating a safe play space involves some hard-core parental planning. Play spaces need not be a barren patch of sand with a swing set and an assortment of outdated toys. Why not create a kid-friendly play zone in your backyard with a great view and room for adults to enjoy, as well?
First and foremost: decisions must be based on space limitations, local zoning codes and the needs of children who will use it. Plan now for later. Toddlers who need a safe place to swing now may one day want a climbing fortress or tetherball pole.
Selecting playground gear can be a challenge, with most parents looking for a fun setup that's safe for kids and easy on the pocketbook. While all-in-one setups have traditionally been made of metal or wood, most new structures are a combination of materials. Parents can customize playground equipment to fit their family.
Choose a fort for climbing made of treated or wood-fiber material with a longtime warranty. Add some metal climbing structures, such as popular domes and monkey bars.
Plastic surfaces that don't fade like their early counterparts are an improvement over metal slides that cause burns. Other add-ons, available through a handful of local retailers and online, include tetherball poles, seesaws and adjustable basketball nets.
For sandboxes, be sure to check for fade-resistant plastic or treated wood and insist on a lid to keep neighborhood cats at bay and to keep sand clean. If you have access to water, you can install misters for use on hot summer days.
Built or bought, playground equipment should be constructed only after checking with local zoning codes. A play site must be level, with good drainage, and care should be taken to comply with property setback requirements and other codes.
For great resources on the actual use of your space, landscape designer Pauline Hoskinson of Galbraith & Associates, Inc., suggests websites and literature provided by playground manufacturers. They may provide detailed setup instructions and required safety zones. "Usually at the end of slide or swing areas, there's a required safety distance between a particular feature and any other features or objects like trees or fences," Hoskinson says.
Remember to plan for those inevitable falls, as well. Playground coverings vary, each with a different list of ups and downs. Rubberized pea gravel offers great shock absorption, but young visitors might insert pieces into tiny noses and ears. Sand is a clean surface, but can wind up in eyes and attract neighborhood cats in search of a litter box. Area playground gurus say they lean towards recycled rubber, wood fiber or fake turf. A newer product, engineered wood fiber, is splinter-free, shock absorbent and attractive.
Landscape designer Jeff Adamson says artificial turf eliminates the need to mow beneath climbing towers and avoids unsightly patches of dead grass beneath swings. "A lot of people are going to artificial grass, especially for small areas like playgrounds. It's too hard, with a playground, to keep the grass from dying," he says.
Whichever surface you choose, be sure to provide enough material to meet safety needs, says Hoskinson. "The depth you need will depend on the fall distance of the highest feature that you have."
In addition to a nice play structure, plan for plenty of open space and the comfort of playground users and spectators. "It's good to have a visual separation between the play area and the rest of the space," Adamson says.
For playground beautification — yes, there is such a thing — choose plantings that are colorful and sturdy. Avoid plants with thorns or prickly leaves and plantings that are poisonous or attract unwanted spiders or bees. (For a quick reference list, visit the Cornell University website, www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants/alphalist.html)
Waiting 10 or more years for adequate shade won't help kids ready to play now, says Adamson. 'Raywood' ash, planted in a well draining area, can be purchased about 8 to 10 feet tall and will grow to more than 20 feet in just four or five years. "Most maples are lower maintenance and grow pretty fast," says Adamson. "I like the 'Queen Ann,' and the 'Norway.'"
Avoid the slower growing Japanese or sugar maples that require too much water. Another shade option, plan play space near existing evergreens, or plan to plant them, for year-round shade and color.
Most importantly, plan a space both adults and kids will enjoy using.
"If you do it right," Adamson says, "it will get a lot of use and everyone will spend time there."