Warm weather will arrive any day now. Which means it's time to look at ways to get the young ones into the fresh air and sunshine. But having fun should go hand in hand with being safe, so here are a few things to remember when you shop for backyard play equipment:
Need to know: What type of play set is age-appropriate for your children and their playmates. If your child can't reach the equipment or would need to be supervised constantly while using it, it is not age-appropriate.
An ounce of prevention: Don't buy something that the children will "grow into" - many playground accidents are directly linked to times that little ones use big kids' equipment. If you don't want to spend lots of money every couple of years, look for a set to which you can add higher and more sophisticated equipment (like monkey bars) later on.
If there are several ages to consider, buy special swings (which you'll push) for the toddlers. And to keep them from climbing a big-kid ladder, remove the lower rungs so they can't reach it.
Material world: For children age 5 and younger, heavy-duty plastic is probably the most age-appropriate material. Other materials (wood, metal) are fine for older children. Slides should be made of plastic, since metal can get dangerously hot in summer sunshine. Swing seats should be made of a soft material like canvas or rubber to avoid serious injuries if the swing strikes someone in the head.
Which wood will it be? Redwood, cedar and cypress are pricey, but they're durable and tend not to be injected with preservatives that might be called into question in the future. (For example, chromated copper arsenate, a pesticide once widely used to treat wood, now has been linked to cancer in children.) Whatever wooden equipment you buy should be free of sharp edges.
Check into composite lumber for steps and other nonstructural uses, since the composite doesn't splinter and usually requires little or no maintenance.
Punch list: Even pricey woods will need to be coated regularly to reduce wear from weathering. They'll also require checking for slivers of wood that could embed themselves in little hands. Connectors should be rust-resistant and rounded off, to keep clothing from catching.
What will it cost? Price depends on the design sophistication and materials used. Expect to spend $500 to $1,100 for a mid-range, good-quality play set.
Space matters: Don't try to squeeze playground equipment into a place that won't accommodate it, such as up against a chain-link or wooden fence. Swings and slides need room, and many yards just cannot handle them.
Some assembly required: If you plan to put the play set together yourself, seek out how-to information in advance. If you don't think you can manage the job, hire someone to do it for you. If you forge ahead, be sure to follow the directions.
Anchors away: Just digging holes and dropping in posts is not the proper way to anchor a play set. Manufacturers' specifications should be followed to prevent the equipment from coming out of the ground with use. If you don't follow the instructions to the letter, the warranty is typically voided and the manufacturer absolved of any legal liability in the event of injuries.
Ground cover: A deep soft surface will cushion the impact of falls from the play set and help prevent injuries. That surface should be made of sand, rubber mulch, or wood chips and should be 6 to 12 inches deep under swings, climbing gear and slides. Higher equipment needs deeper surfacing. Thick rubber mats also can be used; these work well on concrete or asphalt surfaces.