Ready for Swings and a Slide? Don't Take the Plunge Hastily.

By Denise DiFulco
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 14, 2008

When it comes to outdoor play sets, one size or type definitely does not fit all. Choosing the wrong setup for your family can be costly and even dangerous.

That might sound alarmist to some. How hard can it be to pick out some swings and a slide? But the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that as many as 50,000 children end up in hospital emergency rooms annually because of injuries on home playground equipment, about 80 percent of them as the result of falls.

Statistics probably aren't uppermost in your mind as you explore stores, catalogues and Web sites that offer enormous and enviable fortresses of fun. Even if you're considering a modest setup, there are questions you should ask before making your choice.

1. How much should I spend?

A customized play set can cost as much as a compact car. But you can find safe, durable sets for a few hundred dollars at mass-market retailers, though Will Stoltzfus, vice president of HomePlace Structures, says their quality varies and the options are fewer.

HomePlace, based in New Holland, Pa., sells painted wood and vinyl-clad play sets online and through its catalogue, in addition to supplying such retailers as Costco. Stoltzfus says the advantage of going directly to the manufacturer is customer service. "You get someone to walk you through the process and help you design a set specifically to what your needs are," he said.

The base price of HomePlace's 30-by-42-inch loft with a slide and ladder is $1,195, with swings costing an additional $600 to $700. Options such as bridges, rock walls, tube slides and fire poles add up quickly, and Stoltzfus says the average customer spends about $3,500. The company's most expensive preconfigured set costs $11,400. The price tag on some custom models can go up from there.

2. Does my yard have the proper clearances?

There should be at least six feet between a play set and any obstacles, such as fences, walls or trees. But that's not always possible in residential areas, says André Henderson, a certified playground safety inspector for Gaithersburg-based Maryland Materials, which has installed hundreds of school playgrounds in the Washington area.

"There's an ideal, and there's a reality," he said. "And the reality is that a lot of back yards don't have a lot of room."

For swings, the recommended leeway is twice the height of the structure both in front of and behind the swings. If you don't have enough space, you might want to reconsider the size and scope of the play set.

3. Is the set I'm considering appropriate for my children's ages?

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