Backyard Playgrounds

School will soon be out for summer and children will need something to keep them busy– preferably something out from underfoot. You can tell them to “Go out and play,” get back to potting orchids or code encryption, and hope for the best. If you live in a garden apartment complex or a city neighborhood, there may be a playground nearby; or an elementary school may be within walking distance, with its jungle gym, baseball field and nature trail. But if you live in the far reaches of suburbia, the young ones may look at you in disbelief and say “There’s nothing to do.”

What about a backyard playground? Spend as little or as much money as you like. A rope swing tied to a sturdy tree branch costs almost nothing. It will inspire hazy, golden memories for a lifetime. An Enchanted Castle or Wild West Fort built of scrap lumber is good for climbing, crawling, besieging and shooting with rubber-tipped arrows. A do-it-yourself weekend project, it will require tools and planning, and a well-stocked storage shed or a knack for scrounging. A sandbox can be as simple as four boards staked to the ground, a load of clean sand and a referee whistle. Badminton, volleyball, croquet, quoits, lawn bowling—they’re all good, available at a yard sale or your own basement, and easy to set up.
If you feel compelled to build something, check out the big box stores. Strangely, Toys R Us did not have any outdoor play gear when I visited the Charlottesville store. Kmart, Roses and Southern States also came up empty. At Wal-Mart, I hit paydirt. Metal swingsets, giant turtle sandboxes, plastic slides, inflatable buildings, wooden climbing contraptions, above-ground pools—they have it all. Some assembly is required, or maybe hours of grueling labor. Follow directions, and lay in a supply of cold beer.
Handy or ham-fisted, you can also go shopping online. Sears and Lowe’s sell playground equipment through their websites. You place an order and then go to the nearest store to pick up, or you can have it delivered to your home. Lowe’s also has a color brochure of the wood and plastic Heartland Premium Playsets, and they can arrange installation. Playworld Systems provides playground and recreation products to schools and parks, and presumably to parents. Play Mart claims to be “the leader in recycled plastic play systems.”
You will need a dry, level area large enough for the play structure and clearance all around. One manufacturer specifies a maximum of two percent grade. Since your new playground will be a magnet for neighbor kids, you will also need a policy, and not just the insurance type. When can they use it? If never, you may need a fence to secure the perimeter. Speaking of which, is the playground visible from inside the house? If your children are very young, uncoordinated, defenseless, or simply maladroit, adult supervision is a good idea.
Tim Reese of Bella Terra Landscape in Palmyra, Virginia has limited experience installing playgrounds. Still, he echoes the need for “a level area and visibility, e.g. from the kitchen sink.” Safety is another concern. “Anchor a swingset in the ground to prevent tipping, and bolt posts, beams and monkey bars together to withstand rough play. Cross braces help.” What happens to metal exposed to the hot sun all day? Shield it from skin contact to avoid burns.
“The backyard playground need not look like a penal colony,” Reese adds. “It can be integrated into your landscape, with shade trees, attractive fencing, a bench, and maybe a water feature.” Maybe not—very young children find water both irresistible and lethal. If grass is not possible, you can lay some soft material under a play structure, such as wood chips, mulch or resilient mats. Shredded rubber tires and gravel are not recommended. Bare dirt is the default material, of course, and sometimes just fine.
The Hope of Tomorrow will romp outside for hours and hours, day after day. Vigorous and active, away from electronic devices, they will avoid the plague of childhood obesity. In the fresh air and sunshine, their skin will make vitamin D, which along with exercise builds bone and muscle. They will absorb the Newtonian laws of physics through their bodies in motion. Think of the classic seesaw or teeter-totter, and what it teaches about levers, rotation, mass, and the force of gravity. As they take turns, give pushes, and plot amphibious assaults, children will learn the social arts of cooperation and sharing. The health benefits and educational value of the outdoor playground are screamingly obvious.
Try telling that to kids. All they care about is fun.
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville. He likes to watch children play—from a distance.

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