Swing Shift: Backyard Playsets Evolve

New safety guidelines for backyard playsets mean that manufacturers no longer can hang swings from monkey bars. So swings typically now hang from beams, and monkey bars are an optional feature.

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CedarWorks

When it comes to backyard-playset safety, you might say that manufacturers no longer can monkey around with where they hang swings and trapeze equipment.

All manufacturers of playsets now comply with an international standard that says no equipment should hang from horizontal climbing bars (also known as monkey bars) because of risks that children could get tangled in chains or ropes. As a result, most manufacturers of playsets eliminated monkey bars as standard equipment, which means that you’ll have to pay extra if you want to add the playground staple to your backyard.

Meanwhile, one manufacturer introduced a twist on playset expansion that allows you to connect a series of playsets over time rather than just add features individually. The playsets grow with your child in the form of longer slides, higher decks and taller climbing walls.

In general, prices for backyard playsets and playhouses increased slightly compared with 4 years ago. We found that the prices for multipurpose playsets increased little or remained flat among most models. Playhouse prices, however, increased by around 10 percent over the past 3 years across the industry, says Dan Schlabach, who is president of Little Cottage. He attributes the price hike to an increase in the cost of raw materials—particularly wood—and also to higher regulatory costs.

PLAYING IT SAFE. Swings and trapeze bars typically were fastened to a thick overhead beam (typically a 4-by-6 beam) on playsets. As recently as 4 years ago, a common design had the swings placed under monkey bars that were constructed to be part of that beam. That changed in June 2009 when product-testing organization ASTM International revised its voluntary standards for residential playsets to prohibit the attachment of swings and trapeze bars to a beam that includes monkey bars.

The change in the standard was prompted by the death of a child who fell off monkey bars and was strangled by the trapeze bar that hung underneath it. Eliminating attachments underneath monkey bars removes the risk that kids will be strangled by chains, swings or a trapeze bar below if the kids fall off the monkey bars, says Marcye Bears, who is vice president of Bears Playgrounds, which is a playset manufacturer. Not having swings under monkey bars also takes away the risk that kids will be hurt by a fall if they stand on the swing to reach the bars, Bears says.

“That’s been the biggest change to the design. We still have monkey bars, and we still have swings. They’re just not together,” Bears says.

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Manufacturers tell Consumers Digest that they initially placed the monkey bars over swings and trapeze bars because it allowed them to build the same size play structure for multiple activities. Before ASTM revised its guidelines, about 90 percent of backyard playsets had monkey bars over the swings, says Barrett Brown, who is president and co-owner of manufacturer CedarWorks.

Danny Bears, who is co-owner of Bears Playgrounds, says the strangulation danger that was posed by hanging swings under monkey bars “was not self-evident” until ASTM raised the issue. Manufacturers didn’t believe that attaching swings to monkey bars was potentially dangerous, he says.

Today, swings and trapeze bars are attached to overhead wooden beams that are purely structural. The beams don’t provide any play function. Although the ASTM standards are voluntary, manufacturers adhere to them. Of the 150 backyard playsets that we evaluated, no model had a swing or a trapeze bar that was attached to monkey bars, although we found some swings that are attached to bridges that connect playset components. The bridges that have swings hanging from them also have walls that prevent a child from falling and getting tangled in the swings, however.

Monkey bars still are offered on playsets, but now they typically are an option that costs about $345. You should know that the monkey bars that are sold today are designed to attach to models in a way that expands the footprint of the playset. Today’s monkey bars typically protrude 10 feet in front of or behind the base of the playset, which means that you’ll have to account for that large of a footprint if you add monkey bars. However, because you typically have to have at least 10 feet of clearance in front and 10 feet of clearance in back—clearance should be twice the length of a swing to avoid hitting anything—you probably will have the room for monkey bars if you have swings, Brown says. Monkey bars also can be positioned parallel to a slide, but they still will extend from the play structure by several feet.

Meanwhile, Swing-N-Slide introduced a new twist—literally—to tire swings. In summer 2011, the company introduced its Vortex Ring Swing ($99), which is a large plastic ring that swings and spins when a child sits or stands on it. Unlike conventional tire swings, which have no bottom, the Vortex Ring Swing has a floor that can be adjusted so a child’s feet will touch the floor when he/she sits on the ring, says Georgia W. Tippens of Swing-N-Slide. No other manufacturer that we interviewed indicated that it was working on a similar swing.

EXPANSION PLANS. If you want a starter playset that can be attached directly to larger playsets as your child grows, you’ll be happy to know that CedarWorks introduced a line in February 2012 that delivers such capabilities. Other manufacturers allow you to connect individual playsets via a bridge, monkey bars or a tunnel, but those options require more space for your play structure. In introducing the Frolic line, CedarWorks becomes the first manufacturer to create different playsets that don’t require a connecting bridge or tunnel. That’s worth noting, because such a design reduces the overall footprint of the playset.

It isn’t clear whether other manufacturers will introduce expansion modules that are similar to CedarWorks’ Frolic line in the years ahead, but we know that you’ll pay quite a premium for such expansion capabilities today.

For example, you’ll pay $1,140 alone for the starter playset (Frolic 4) that’s designed for children who are age 2 and under. That model has a toddler swing, a slide and a deck that’s 30 inches off the ground. For an extra $5,490, you can add two subsequent stages that deliver a 28-foot long x 17-foot wide x 13-foot tall structure that has two decks, two slides, three swings, a climbing wall and other accessories. You also can buy all three separate playsets as a combined unit (Frolic 6) for the same total price, $6,630.

The only benefit to buying all of the components at once might be price, because no guarantee exists, that you won’t pay more to buy the additional phases in the years ahead. Brown acknowledges that prices are subject to change if you buy Frolic 4 in 2013 and additional connecting playsets in, say, 2018. “Generally, we have years when there are no price increases and some years with a couple percent increase,” he says.

CHANGES ON DECK. Another shift in playset design is an increase in the number of models that have enclosed play areas, like a treehouse or a playhouse has. As a result, you might pay nearly $5,000 less than you would have 4 years ago to buy a playset that has an enclosed deck.

Enclosed decks are similar to treehouses or playhouses in that they have walls, windows and a roof, but they’re part of a play structure that typically also includes swings, a slide and other accessories. Treehouses and playhouses don’t include those accessories. Enclosed decks are an alternative to more-conventional open decks, which have rails and open space directly under the roof or canopy.

Four years ago, the least expensive enclosed-deck model that we found cost $6,650, but today you can pay as little as $1,799 for a model that has an enclosed deck. The big difference in price is all about size and materials. The least expensive model—the Homeplace Collection Vista Playset—has a footprint of 230 square feet, and the enclosed play area is made of plastic. The most expensive model—the Eastern Jungle Gym Fantasy Tree House ($6,999)—has a footprint of 384 square feet, is made of cedar and has exclusive features among models that have an enclosed deck, such as monkey bars.

In other words, playset manufacturers increasingly have you go outside to play inside. 

Brett S. Martin, who is a frequent Consumers Digest contributor, has written about home-improvement products for 15 years. 

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