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The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Best Playset for Your Family

You've decided to get a playset for your family - great choice! Your kids are excited for their new backyard swing set, but there are so many options to choose from that you're not really sure where to start. Purchasing a backyard playset is an investment you'll likely only make once. You want a set with features your kids will love for years, quality to last a long time, and a price tag that meets your budget. There's a lot to consider, but don't worry, we've got you covered with this ultimate guide to picking out the best playset that will make your backyard the best on the block.

Features  |  Adaptability  |  Materials  |  Safety  |  Installation


Features

Playsets are about more than fun and games for the kids - they are a great way for your kids to build muscles, develop skills, and get active. Playgrounds and backyard swing sets offer great opportunities for kids to build their gross motor skills, their vestibular sense, and their sense of proprioception (more on all that later). There are lots of features available on backyard playsets, and but some features offer your child more developmental advantages than others. 

Playsets are more than just swings and slides these days. As you're looking at all the features you can choose from, you'll want to think about how kids' play evolves and changes as they get older. Something perfectly suited for your two-year-old probably won't interest them in a year or so. Or maybe you have several kids of various ages that you need to please. Choosing the right play system is a balancing act; it needs to be safe for everyone yet have enough features to keep everyone entertained. 

Before we do a deep dive into all the features you can choose from, head outside and take some measurements of your space so you know the overall footprint you're working with. Some features (swings in particular) need bigger footprints than others for safety reasons.   

Here's the complete list of features to consider, including swings, slides, climbing features, and other play features:

Swings

Dad swinging young daughter on flat swing seat

Swings are the classic play feature, and they will keep the kids entertained for hour upon hour and for years to come, heck – even as an adult swinging still sounds fun! Swinging elements help kids develop their sense of proprioception, or the sense of where your body is in space. In addition to the traditional swing attached at two points, there are some other interesting variations available as well.

A few considerations to keep in mind as you’re looking at swings:

  • Swing Bar Height

To get right to the point, the higher the swing bar, the bigger the swing. Playsets designed for little kids (2-5 years old) have a 5-ft swing bar height. Swing sets designed for older kids have a higher (8-ft or even 10-ft) swing bar.

  • Swing Seat Type

    • Belt swing seats are the least expensive option, but let me tell you, they are not very comfortable for butts bigger than a 10-year-old’s! Belt seats are good for safety because they won’t hurt anyone when sent swinging with no occupant (why do kids love to do that?).
    • Rigid swing seats are usually made out of rubber or plastic and are comfortable for bigger butts (i.e., adults) too. Added bonus – you can use them for a variety of quick (and pretty darn challenging) ab exercises!
    • Baby/infant swing seats come in two basic types: the bucket seat that you see at a lot of parks and the molded plastic seat with full back support. Both do their job at keeping the littlest ones contained and safe, but for maximum comfort, we recommend the plastic style with full back support. In our experience, babies LOVE these swings and can contentedly swing (or nap) there for hours! With most sets, it’s easy to swap out a belt or rigid swing for a baby swing until your little one is ready for the more advanced option.
  • Specialty Swinging Elements

    • Gliders are a fun feature that allow two kids to play together. They’re typically recommended for kids 3 years and older.
    • Trapeze Bars are an easy and inexpensive attachment that can be hung on the swing bar to give the little ones a safe place to hang, swing, and do some monkey tricks. You can find trapeze bars in a variety of colors and styles, and they’re usually easy to hang on the existing swing attachment points.
    • Single point swing attachments, like a disc seat, can also be considered, but you’ll want to make sure you have plenty of clear space around the swing to keep the kids safe.

Slides

There’s no doubt kids love sliding! Slides can be enjoyed by all ages since there’s no skill needed to master this part of the playground! Similar to swinging, sliding can help develop the vestibular sense as kids move quickly down the slide and come to a stop. For littler kids, sliding also provides a challenge – they have to overcome the intimidating feelings at the top of a slide to enjoy the ride!

Blue rotomolded plastic wave slide
  • Deck Height

Slides are dependent on the deck height, which is determined by the design and structure of the playground in question. The standard for residential slides is a 10-ft slide attached to a 5-ft deck height, which can be used by kids of all ages. Slides are also made for 3-ft and 4-ft deck heights – which are well suited for younger kids. A few residential sets have 6-ft, 7-ft, and even 8-ft deck heights – which are better suited for older kids.

  • Slide Type

    • Wave slides are probably the most common type of slide. Instead of a totally straight slide bed, there are a few waves to add some extra fun!
    • Straight slides don’t have any waves, which I guess is pretty straightforward!
    • Spiral slides are a lot of fun! There are two types to choose from, open and enclosed. Most residential sets offer the enclosed type, and speaking from experience, these can be pretty challenging to assemble. Plan for some extra time if you go with the bolt-together enclosed spiral slide!

Climbing Features

Little girl climbing ladder on fitness playset

Let’s not forget about all the climbing features on your jungle gym! There are many of types of climbing features offering opportunities for physical development. Monkey bars help build upper body strength, climbing walls help build grip strength, and all climbing features help build gross motor skills! What’s not to love?

  • Ladders

    • Step ladders are common on swing sets because they provide an easy access to the play deck and slide.
    • Rung ladders offer a bit more challenge for kids due to their vertical position and they help develop coordination and balance.
  • Monkey Bars

Young girl swinging while watching her mom swing across monkey bars

Monkey bars are becoming one of the most popular features of playsets! They are a great place for kids to develop their upper body strength, improve gross motor skills, and improve hand-eye coordination. Find our more in our article all about monkey bars. The height of the monkey bars is the key feature you’ll want to consider: for 2-5 year-olds, the rungs should be 5-ft or less above the ground surface and for 5-12 year-olds, the recommended height above the surface is 7-ft.

  • Climbing Walls

    • Climbing ramps are usually set at an incline and serve as an access point to the play deck. These are great for younger children to develop their climbing skills. Molded plastic hand holds
    • Rock walls are set perpendicular (or nearly perpendicular) to the ground surface and offer a more challenging climbing experience. Some rock walls are taller and don’t necessarily lead to anything, the point is just to climb around!
  • Rope Features

    • Climbing cargo nets are a fun and inexpensive feature to give kids a fun challenge. They can be used as access to the play deck or as a stand-alone feature.
    • Climbing ropes are another fun and challenging addition for older kids. Kids love the challenge of climbing a vertical rope, and it can be great for building muscle!

Other Play Features

We’ve covered the basics, but the other options available for playsets seem nearly endless. There’s something for everyone!

  • Playhouses are set at ground level and offer a fun space for pretend play.
  • Clubhouses or play decks are set above grade and offer some type of enclosure.
  • Sandboxes are a good addition to give little kids a place for sensory play. As a mom, the mess associated isn’t my favorite, so keep that in mind when deciding where a sandbox should be located.
  • Picnic tables are a useful add-on to allow a spot for a snack or some quiet time drawing or coloring.
  • Telescopes, steering wheels, and spinning tic-tac-toe. Ok, let’s be honest here, these features are plastic junk that your kids will never look at after the first day. My 4-yr-old looked through one of those fake plastic telescopes and said, “this thing doesn’t even work!” You can’t pull the wool over their eyes. Don’t waste your money on these things.

 


Installation

Three adults work together to assemble a metal playset

You’ve narrowed in on the features and materials for your backyard playset, but there’s a few more things to consider when it comes to installing your chosen swing set. We’ll walk you through finding a playground suitable for your space, how to prepare your yard for the set, and how to actually assemble and secure the set!

Space requirements

You can find a play structure for any size backyard! There are sets designed with a small footprint for tight spaces and there are huge sprawling sets with every feature imaginable for those wide open backyards!

Regardless of the size, for maximum safety the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends a 6-foot clear zone around all sides of the playset. If your set has swings, you’ll need a little more clear space. Guidelines recommend a clear zone extending to the front and back of the swings a distance of twice the arc of the swing. For example, if your swings are hung 8-ft above ground and the swing seat itself is 1-ft above ground, the swing arc is approximately 7-ft to the front and 7-ft to the back. Double these measurements in each direction and you get a clear zone with a total distance of 28-ft; 14-ft to the front of the swings and 14-ft behind them. As you’re shopping around online, most playset listings will include the footprint dimensions. This footprint doesn’t include the additional safety zone, so be sure to factor in the additional 6-ft perimeter and swing safety zone when you’re taking measurements.

That brings us to the next step: measuring your site. It’s always a good idea to get out in the backyard and take some specific measurements of the space you’re planning to dedicate to a playset. For ease of installation, you’ll want to choose a section of your yard that is as flat as possible. Nearly all playset manufacturers recommend that the equipment be installed on level ground with a very limited tolerance for slope. If you yard has a significant grade change, you may need to level it before installation. In some cases, you might be able to dig some of the upright feet into the ground, but be aware of how this changes the height of certain elements above the ground surface.

Preparing your yard for installation

Once you’ve decided on a perfect set, you’ll want to prepare your yard before the set is delivered. As mentioned, you made need to have the site leveled. You’ll also want to think about what type of surface you want under the playset. The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that all swing sets and playsets be placed on an impact attenuating surface to prevent severe injury from falls. In backyards, grass is probably the most common surface, but there are other options that are safer and easier to maintain. Things to consider are long term maintenance, cost of installation, and long-term use of the site (i.e., if you are planning to take the playset down in a few years, you’ll want to consider something that can be removed easily).

  • Wood Mulch

    • PROS: Inexpensive, widely available, reduces weeds, easy DIY installation
    • CONS: Degrades over time and needs to be replenished occasionally to maintain shock-absorption
  • Pea gravel

    • PROS: Long-lasting, provides good drainage, relatively inexpensive, easy DIY installation
    • CONS: Not as easy to walk on and tends to get stuck in shoes
  • Artificial turf

    • PROS: Long-lasting, low maintenance, and shock-absorbing if set on the appropriate substrate. For maximum safety, choose a type of artificial grass with impact-attenuating qualities designed specifically for playgrounds
    • CONS: Expensive, might need a professional to install
  • Rubber Mulch

    • PROS: Long-lasting, provides excellent drainage, reduces weed growth
    • CONS: Expensive
  • Rubber Tiles

With any of the abovementioned surfacing options, you’ll want to consider removing any grass, adding a substrate if needed, and laying landscape fabric/weed barrier down before installing the playset. For an in depth look at surfacing options, check out this article

Assembly time and difficulty level

As you’re shopping around for playsets, you’re probably also thinking about assembly. You’re either the do-it-yourself type or you’re the hire-someone-to-do-it type, and you know which you are! Going the DIY route can be rewarding and, in some cases, pretty simple. Hiring someone to assemble is also… Keep in mind that you’ll likely need at least two able adults for assembly and several hours or a couple days to complete installation.

There are a couple types of playsets for sale on the market:

  • Domestic playsets – which are generally sold direct from the manufacturer and are pre-drilled and sometimes partially pre-assembled. Basic DIY skills needed and a day or so to assemble the entire set. Because these sets are typically sold directly from the manufacturer, if you run into any questions during assembly, these companies typically have customer support to assist you.
  • Imported playsets – manufactured overseas, flat-packed for shipping. Every piece – each deck board, railing slat, and roof piece - will need to be identified and screwed or bolted together. You’ll need strong DIY skills, a weekend or two, and a tall glass of patience. These are the types of playsets sold at the big box stores and big online retailers.