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Play it smart

Do your homework before investing in backyard equipment for the kids.

Cristina Bolling
cbolling@charlotteobserver.com

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Selecting just the right play set for your family might be a tad tougher than a cruise down the slide. With so many options to mull and factors to consider – children's ages, yard size, safety hazards, materials and cost – getting the right set to fit your family could take a little time. So ask a lot of questions before investing in equipment family and friends will play on for years. We've done a lot of the homework already.

AGE- AND FUN-FACTOR

What's fun and safe for 10-year-olds won't be appropriate for the toddler set, so consider your audience. That said, don't forget that your child will grow. Try to buy a set you can modify over time, possibly by removing part of a tower railing and installing a fireman's slide or a rock-climbing wall.

For kids from 18 months through 2, keep any tower as open as possible with slats instead of solid walls, so adults can watch from the ground. Ideally, towers for this age should be a maximum 5 feet off the ground. But if you want the play set to still be exciting as the kids grow, a 6-foot tower might be better.

Scott Milford, owner of Charlotte Playsets, a Backyard Adventures dealer, and www.kidsmulch.com, sees dozens of kids every week and installs play sets for new neighborhoods, so he knows what kids find fun.

On his must-have list: a two-child back-to-back glider, which kids ride like a horse and can accommodate either one or two kids. Kids use their arm muscles to push themselves back and forth, so they catch on quicker to the motions than with traditional swings. They're good for ages 2 and up, but older children love riding them, Milford says.

For older kids, a rock-climbing wall with colored grips, or rocks, is extra fun, Milford says, because they can play games using patterns of colors as they go up and down.

Not recommended for kids under 4


Tire swings are heavy and could easily knock kids over if they get too close to someone swinging


Trapezes are difficult for the youngest children to master and could pose a dislocation hazard for young kids with loose shoulder joints


Fireman poles require lots of upper-body strength and are usually 18 inches away from the top platform, making it hard for kids with short arms to get on them properly


Rope ladders, which require greater coordination and can easily frustrate younger kids.


Monkey bars, which require lots of upper-body strength and can be dangerous if a young child climbs to the top but can't get down.

MATERIALS

If you're buying a wooden swing set, redwood and cedar are generally the hardiest woods, experts say, followed by pine. Some warn against PVC-covered wood because it could rot on the inside but look normal on the outside.

Most commercial play-set manufacturers stopped selling sets made of pressure-treated wood in 2004 after preservatives that were used, chromium, copper and arsenic, were found to be dangerous. Some sets now may be treated with preservatives believed to have low toxicity. If you buy a set made from natural wood with no preservatives, remember that you'll have to clean and stain or paint it periodically.

If you have a choice of colors of plastic equipment, such as slides and swings, choose yellow because it stays cooler in the hot sun.

Be sure to check your play set's weight limits. Some lower-priced sets have fairly low weight restrictions on swings and other parts, and use by adults can damage the set. High-priced play sets often have no weight limits.

SURFACING AND LOCATION

Some people lay down a hefty layer of shock-absorbing surface such as wood mulch or rubber mulch at least 6 feet in all directions. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends 9 inches of wood chips, mulch or shredded rubber for equipment up to 7 feet high.

If you have swings, be sure the surfacing extends, both front and back, twice the height of the suspending bar.

Rubber mulch typically costs about twice as much as wood mulch, but it will almost never need to be replaced because it doesn't break down, Milford says. If it's purchased in a color instead of black, it doesn't get as hot in the summer sun.

If buying wood mulch, aim for cypress, Milford says, because it doesn't decay and it repels insects.

Teri Hendy, president of Site Masters Inc., a Cincinnati-based safety and design company, says parents often don't do a good job of making sure their yard is level and big enough for a swing set.

“I drive around and see kids swinging into a fence or into the side of the garage,” Hendy says. “Look to see what your kids are going to be swinging under. Can a child reach power lines or tree branches? Kids might get carried away and swing right into a tree limb.”

SAFETY CHECKLIST

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission offers these tips to make your home playground as safe as possible:


Never attach – or allow children to attach – ropes, clotheslines or pet leashes to play equipment. Children can strangle on these.


Check for hardware, like open “s” hooks or protruding bolt ends, which can be hazardous; Check for sharp points or edges.


Check for spaces that could trap children, such as openings in guardrails or between ladder rungs; these spaces should measure less than 3.5 inches or more than 9 inches.


Make sure that platforms and ramps have guardrails.


Install and maintain a shock-absorbing surface around the play equipment.


Remove tripping hazards, like exposed concrete footings, tree stumps and rocks.

Source: www.cpsc.gov

BUYING A USED SWINGSET

Classified ads are good ways to buy or sell a swing set in good condition. With a higher-quality set, you'll be able to take it apart and reassemble it without much damage. But if the set is more than 10 years old or isn't high quality, give it a hard look. Some tips:


Find out what type of wood a wooden swing set is made of, and what year it was made. Wooden sets bought before 2004, especially those made from wood other than cedar or redwood, may have been pretreated with the preservatives chromium, copper and arsenic. (Such wood is sometimes referred to as CCA.) The arsenic rubs off on kids' hands and clothes and soaks into the ground when it rains, according to the EPA. Arsenic has been associated with lung and skin cancer.


If the brand is currently on the market, it'll be easier to find parts and accessories.

What they cost

At Lowe's, $1,695 will buy a Heartland Play Systems swing set with a fort, vinyl canopy, slide, rock wall and space for three swings. At Costco, $1,700 will buy a Sunray Playset made from redwood and cedar that includes a raised fort, solid roof, picnic table, swings, slide and tic-tac-toe panel.

At Charlotte Playsets, a Backyard Adventures dealer, sets range from $1,200 to $52,000 but most customers spend between $5,000 and $12,000, says owner Scott Milford. These sets are made from redwood and are easily customized, assembled on-site and come with a lifetime warranty. They have no weight restrictions, so adults can play without worrying they'll break the equipment.


Purchasing special surfacing could add more than $1,000 to the cost.

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