child going down slide backyard play set

Thinking of buying a backyard play set? Read this first

There’s been a spike in demand for backyard playground equipment now that families are spending more time at home.

For many families lucky to have an outdoor space, jungle gyms, trampolines, and other backyard toys have become popular products for hours of outdoor play and exercise.

According to Lori Wilks, office manager at Play Outdoors Canada, there’s been an enormous increase in interest and sales this year for all of their products, including zip lines, water toys, and jungle gyms.

Backyard jungle gyms are particularly coveted as their slides, swings, monkey bars, and ladders offer tons of play value and heart-pumping fun for kids of all ages.

Related read: How playground design delivers play “nutrition”

If you’re ready to invest in a backyard play set, read on. You’ll want one that will support kids’ development for this summer and beyond!

Involve your kids in the purchase

To get the most of your new play set, Wilks suggests bringing the kids with you when you’re shopping, and to think ahead to when they’re older.

“Let them try it out to make sure it provides the entertainment they need,” she says.

Find a set where features have multiple uses or have parts that can be swapped out to keep the kids interested and to increase the challenge as kids grow older, Wilks recommends.

Here are some features to look for to keep kids entertained and physically active this summer—and for years to come:

  • Items that will stir the imagination. Telescopes, steering wheels, and bells are a great nudge to invite creativity and dramatic play.
  • Rock walls and ladders get legs and arms climbing in coordination and develop muscle strength.
  • The climb up to the top of a slide, coupled with the thrill of zipping back down, can boost confidence and emotional development.
  • Overhead apparatus like trapeze rings and monkey bars encourage kids to take risks, while overcoming the challenge leads to a sense of accomplishment and higher self-esteem.
  • Swings help children learn body awareness and develop core muscle strength. Even holding onto the ropes or chains strengthens hand grip and finger coordination.

The Play Outdoors Canada website has tips for transforming your play set to keep the activities exciting and developmentally challenging.

Backyard play set safety tips

Before the kids start playing, make sure your backyard set is properly assembled and anchored, and placed above the right safety surfacing.

Stephanie Cowle from Parachute, Canada’s national charity dedicated to injury prevention, shared with Active for Life these important guidelines for backyard sets:

Anchor play sets properly

  • Home playground equipment is usually lighter than public playground equipment and needs to be properly anchored to prevent it from tipping or collapsing.
  • Cover or hide the anchors to make sure kids aren’t tripping over them.

Install shock-absorbing surfacing

  • There are several types of surfacing that can be used under playground equipment that will help protect children from serious injury. Wood mulch, wood chips, or shredded rubber mulch can be used under higher equipment, up to eight feet high.
  • For shorter equipment, additional options include sand or pea gravel. These loose-fill materials should never be placed over hard surfaces—such as concrete—that offer no absorption.
  • Surfacing that is not a loose-fill material, such as rubber tiles, should be installed by a professional and meet safety standards for the height of your play equipment.

Ensure proper safety surfacing depth and placement

It will depend on the play equipment, but there are some general guidelines Parachute recommends parents follow:

  • In terms of depth, for equipment less than four feet high, use at least six inches of surfacing. For equipment up to eight feet high, use at least nine inches of appropriate surfacing. It’s important to know that the fill materials will eventually compress because of weight and pressure.
  • Check and refill the surfacing periodically as it compresses and loose pieces move around.
  • The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends surfacing should go out six feet from the equipment in all directions. For swings, surfacing should go in front and behind, to a distance that’s twice the height of the top bar. For example, if your swing set is six feet high, place surfacing 12 feet in front and 12 feet behind the swing.

Look for additional safety features

When purchasing ready-for-assembly outdoor play equipment, look for a set that complies with the ASTM standard. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for safe installation and be sure to inspect the equipment periodically for hazards.

A promotional video from Play Outdoors Canada highlights some other safety features to look for when purchasing a set:

  • Recessed hardware so there are no exposed bolts where clothing could get caught
  • Wood that’s sanded on all four sides so it has rounded edges and corners
  • Solid construction for any rock-climbing walls
  • Walls that are no less than 32” high
  • Plastic-coated swing chains to ensure pinch-free fingers
  • Quality wood and hardware for years of safe enjoyment

Whichever set you purchase, make sure to follow manufacturer’s recommendations for the number of children and weight the equipment can support. Also, have an adult monitor the set while kids are playing. 

Related read: How playgrounds helped my special-needs son develop physical literacy

The importance of active outdoor play

The 2020 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth gave kids a grade of F (!) for both active play and 24-hour movement behaviours, and noted lower activity levels because of COVID-19 measures.

An hour a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity will help kids meet physical activity guidelines, and help them adjust to a summer without their usual routines, sports, and friends, and encourage healthy habits while at home.

While engaging in unstructured free play, kids are learning movement control, how to play within their own limits, and developing fine and gross motor skills.

Simply being outside can help reduce stress and anxiety, so spread on the sunscreen and let them out to climb and swing! In addition, increased physical activity will improve bone density, and heart and lung function.

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