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Creating a great, fun play structure

Posted: April 30, 2010 10:41 p.m.
Updated: May 1, 2010 4:55 a.m.

fI start the creative process by brainstorming with the kids and the parents about what their ideal play structure should include.

When I design a play structure, I try to create loops of play that encourage the kids to run up and down the structure, wearing them out for a good night's sleep.

I like to work with the lay of the land. Frequently, the features of the landscape can enhance the design. A slide often works better on a slope, a hillside can be terraced to create a multi-level play area, and nestling a clubhouse next to the branches of a tree gives the kids a magical feeling of living in the treetops.

Certain elements are great kid-pleasers and I try to always include them: good solid swings, fast slides, rock climbing, jail bars, secret escapes, fireman's pole, rope net ladder, and a high-up place that works as a clubhouse (preferably with a roof). The younger kids are amused for hours with opening and closing the Dutch doors, and sending and receiving mail through the carved mail slot. The older kids are more interested in scaling the castle walls, and then flying through the air on a 100 foot cable ride, while being shot at by the water cannon.

Where's the best place to put the play structure? When the kids are little there's a temptation to put it too close to the house, but as the kids grow up, the parents will want a little space. I like to place the structure some distance from the house, but within the line of sight from a kitchen or family room window. I avoid placing the play area off the master bedroom or the living room. The point is to create a place where kids can be kids: loud and boisterous.

On one site, I broke through the deck railing near the playroom door and created a bridge over to the play structure. That immediately linked the two spaces together and kept the kids from running through the adult areas to get to the swings (See photo of Portola Valley Lookout at

Safety is of the utmost importance on a play structure. Parents need to be able to send their children out to play without worrying. We have incorporated many special safety features, such as making doors and shutters with one-half inch gaps all around so that little fingers won't get pinched. We also grind every surface of the redwood to reduce the possibilities of splinters and we round over all edges to make them smooth.

We are careful not to create any entrapments for a child's head or torso, nor any pinch points or dangerous protrusions. For all this, we use the testing equipment and standards specified in the ASTM Handbook for Home Playground Equipment (F1148-00).

For any openings on an upper level, such as for a fire pole, I add a safety gate with self-closing hinges, so no one can accidentally fall through the opening when the kids start horsing around up there.

It's good to be worried about structural support, such as putting a heavy bridge up over top of your kids and/or adding swings underneath (this adds lots of stress to the structure).

Here are some things to think about: Are your towers strong enough to support the bridge? Do they have any diagonal bracing to help them resist racking? Are they attached to the ground with concrete or strong metal stakes?

Use zone: The most important safety feature with any play structure is to make sure you have established an adequate "use zone" filled with adequate resilient surfacing material.

The "use zone" should be at least six feet of obstacle-free space all around the structure. The six feet is there to give the kids space to roughhouse without landing on a rock wall or any other obstacle. If there are swings, you need even more space: I try to leave at least 12 feet of space on both sides of the swings. This is because some kids will try jumping off the swings at full speed - in either direction.

Resilient Surface Material: I recommend filling the "use zone" with six to nine inches of bark chips as the most economical safety surface. While none of the choices - bark chips, rubber matting, pea gravel - are perfect, it is critical to plan for something to absorb the shock of an accidental fall. Experts have proven that the installation of a resilient surfacing material in the play area is by far the most important safety feature you can provide. Kids love to play hard and will eventually slip and fall. Most injuries can be avoided by always having a resilient surface that kids will "bounce" off of - most serious injuries occur on play equipment installed over hard surfaces (concrete, grass, sand when wet, etc).

Against our advice, some clients choose to leave just the grass, but usually after one season of play and too many scares, they replace it with bark chips. If you use bark chips or mulch, you can install a border, like a box, to keep the chips inside the play area. Or you can have the play area excavated the six to nine inches so that the bark chips end up level with the rest of the yard (a more expensive option). Most clients have a landscaping fabric installed between the ground and the bark chips to prevent weeds from growing.

Learn all you can before starting: I learned almost all my building skills from reading a lot of books and then just trying it. I highly recommend the Sunset books as a good starter - very basic with lots of pictures and diagrams. The Sunset books on decks give you the great starter info on building for outdoors: basic construction, footings, concrete. Books on gazebos will give you a lot of information on six and eight-sided buildings - all the angles, etc.

You can usually find these books at a Home Depot or Lowe's or the library. I like to browse through it first before buying so I don't recommend on-line shopping for how-to books. Some are just junk. For great do-it-yourself books on kid's structures, try David Stiles has written dozens of books for do-it-yourself backyard projects and he's very good.

Avoid bad products: When I started 18 years ago, everyone was building with the CCA pressure-treated lumber. It was labeled as "safe for use around children." But that lumber was treated with copper and arsenic! I just refused to believe it was OK for kids and insisted on using only natural redwood.

Redwood is a beautiful, strong, durable wood that will last for 20 years or more. With all the terrible information coming out now about pressure treated woods, I'm glad I listened to my intuition.

Another bad product is "mildicide." It's an additive for paints and stains to stop the growth of mildew. It's extremely toxic, especially to children. People justify using it because you use so little. But I figure, if just a little is working and stopping growth, then it's probably not good for children to be exposed to on their playthings. I can see it for the outside of a house (maybe), but not for children.

Stain is lower maintenance than paint: Regarding fun outdoor colors, I highly recommend our all natural, transparent, tung-oil stains (formerly Woodburst stains), which can be purchased online at our Color Store. Our tung-oil stains are great for exterior use.

I recommend a re-stain after three years, but most people wait five or six years. The nice thing about these stains is that they don't chip or peel, just slowly fade. I recommend that you sand all the wood smooth before staining, as this will avoid splinters and let the stain absorb better.

You will need to apply a clear coat of tung-oil on top of the color coat as a finish coat. The clear tung-oil protects the color and acts like a moisturizer for the wood. My color stains contain a higher quantity of artist pigment. They are expensive but a small amount goes a long way.

I mix my own 59 shades of color, ranging from earth tones to vibrant to pastel. You can also buy a set of my 59 stain colors on redwood chips in our online Color Supplies Store.


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