Hellp me plan a safe backyard play area for Toddler
February 23, 2017 7:09 AM   Subscribe

I want to put some play equipment in our back yard for our young toddlers to enjoy this spring (2.5 and 1 year old). Please tell me how you planned a play area, purchased equipment and share any tips and tricks.

One of our challenges is that our backyard, while pretty big (.5 acre) is mostly on a slope so there's very little flat land. Pls advise how to overcome this challenge - what's the best material to put around play equipment (mulch, chips, something else?) Any suggestions on good resources/websites for DIY projects on creating a safe play space in the backyard for toddlers would be helpful. I've googled and looked at websites for the major home improvement stores and did not find much useful info on this topic.

Also, any tips on ensuring play equipment is safe for playdates and a related question: is it true if a child is injured on your property you're liable to be sued by their parents and if so how to safeguard from this happening? TIA.
posted by SanSebastien to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
When they are that little, I would just get a second hand plastic Step 2 climber (can be found on Craigslist pretty easily) and a sandbox that can be shaded. Maybe a push car that they can scoot along on and push with their own feet. They can't go TOO fast, then, and with a shorter climber, the less height makes it less dangerous when they fall.
posted by jillithd at 7:35 AM on February 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Seconding jillithd and I would add some water play. This could be as simple as a combination sand/water table or just getting some Tupperware, some cups of water, and paintbrushes. You'd be surprised at how long a toddler can occupy him or herself by "painting" the patio, the house, mom and dad....
posted by cooker girl at 7:40 AM on February 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

I wanted to add that a little playhouse can be fun for them, too.
posted by jillithd at 7:59 AM on February 23, 2017

The book Heaven on Earth has great suggestions for making outdoor play areas that make use of natural materials that are developmentally appropriate.

A thing I am glad I purchased is a high quality gymnastics mat that can be packed up easily but spread out outdoors (I found a 'tumbling mat' on amazon). Can be used at the bottom of a slide, can be used as a picnic mat, can be used for jumping down onto, we now use it to sit on and build lego and will take it outside again in the summer.

A giant tire that is too heavy to roll that they can climb up and into and out again would be great if you have a lot of space, the inside could be filled with sand for sand play. Some assorted dump trucks would be great.

My son loved playing with rocks and buckets of water at that age, just throwing rocks into the water, dumping them out, repeat, yes he could have hurt himself but they can hurt themselves indoors too. I don't think the slope is a bad thing unless it's extreme and filled with roots and bushes they can run into, if it's grassy they will likely have a blast rolling around.

Kids at that age also love and need a lot of movement and love swings for that reason, you end up pushing them until they're older but they love it so much.

The only thing my son has really hurt himself with is one of those bouncy balls, he was less than 2, bouncing on concrete and smashed his face. Everything else including racing around on a sturdy push car (I recommend the vintage ones that aren't very fancy) has been fine.
posted by lafemma at 8:02 AM on February 23, 2017

Re the suing, yes, "you" certainly would be liable for injury to a guest on your property in the common law jurisdictions I'm familiar with; but "you" = your home insurance. The way you protect yourself - in addition to making things as safe as you can*, which you're doing, so good for you - is to have good home liability insurance; which you should have anyway. More than you think you need.

If you build a sandbox make sure there's a convenient way to cover it. Nothing's more gross than outdoor cats pooping in your kids' sandbox.

*the bugbear for backyard injuries is trampolines.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:43 AM on February 23, 2017

If you are the handy/DIY type, you will find that if you carefully watch Craigslist and the like in your area you will find people who are desperate to have their giant, fancy play equipment taken away (because their kids are grown or they are moving or whatever). Frequently it'll be for free if you will come and disassemble it yourself.
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:43 AM on February 23, 2017

My kids are 6 and 3.5, and while we just moved to a house with an "actual" play structure, the thing they loved most in the backyard of our previous home was the dirt pile leftover from digging a French drain. This thing was created when the older one was an infant and we never got rid of it because it was a consistently awesome toy for my kid and his friends. (I did have to warn playdates to bring extra clothes.) Seriously -- just a big pile of dirt, shovels, and buckets. The kids scrounged sticks and plant matter for bringing their imagination to life. As they got older, they were allowed to turn on the water barrel to get water for mud pies. They dug "for fossils," found worms, made "soup," and all sorts of stuff. And, they were generally safe, plus the cleanup got me some time where they were happily playing in the bath afterwards. Highly, highly recommend.
posted by linettasky at 9:15 AM on February 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

If you're looking for structures to buy I highly recommend Cedarworks. We have a small one and it was easy to install (we have deep wood chips in the fall zone) and while our kids can't be there unsupervised yet (they're three and one) they LOVE it. Slide and two swings is all we need.
posted by lydhre at 10:32 AM on February 23, 2017

My super awesome daycare provider's biggest hit was a beach ball (like this one) pin-pricked to make about a dozen tiny holes all over, hooked up to a garden hose. The water shooting out through the tiny holes under pressure makes for an unpredictable sprinkler that dances erratically, to delighted screams of all.

If you are worried about getting sued in excess of you home owner policy, you can get a personal liability umbrella policy - they offer high liability payouts for relatively cheap.
posted by rada at 10:55 AM on February 23, 2017

I also vote for a Step 2 Climber (Craigslist and yard sales have these often) and a water table. But I mostly came to say you should avoid pea gravel. I've never known a toddler or small child who didn't love scooping and shoveling those small rocks, which is great in the "keep them occupied" sense, but terrible in the choking hazard sense. Wood mulch should be fine.
If you have a clothes line, one fun thing you can do is create a tent by draping a sheet over the lines. Place another sheet on the ground and you have easy, safe sun cover.
posted by areaperson at 10:56 AM on February 23, 2017

(Trigger warning here for some grim data, but I thought it might help--since you're asking about safety, it's good to know what the threats are. )

According to the CDC, falls are the #1 leading cause by far of nonfatal ER visits for all American kids under 9. They're curious and uncoordinated and fall off of and against things.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission agrees: "The most recent study of 2,691 playground equipment-related incidents reported to the CPSC from 2001-2008 indicated that falls are the most common hazard pattern (44% of injuries) followed by equipment-related hazards, such as breakage, tip over, design, and assembly (23%)." So you definitely want to make sure that everything you put down is sturdy and stays down.

That last report actually has a lot of useful information. There's a chart on page 7 with examples of age-appropriate playground equipment and for toddlers they list:

• Climbing equipment under 32” high
• Ramps
• Single file step ladders
• Slides
• Spiral slides less than 360°
• Spring rockers
• Stairways
• Swings with full bucket seats

They also have a list of what to put down re: mulch/chips etc.

They say no:

• Trampolines
• Swinging gates
• Climbing ropes that are not secured at both ends.
• Heavy metal swings
• Multiple occupancy swings – With the exception of tire swings, swings that are intended for more than one user are not recommended because their greater mass, as compared to single occupancy swings, presents a risk of impact injury.
• Rope swings – Free-swinging ropes that may fray or otherwise form a loop are not recommended because they present a potential strangulation hazard.

Now this report is for public playgrounds and some of it is technical but I would imagine it all would apply at home too.

I can also say FWIW that I have some neighbors who have an amazing play structure with swings and a climbing wall, and none of the kids who play there use it. They all use the sandbox, the kiddie pool, and run around playing tag. So you really might not need much more than what's been suggested for sand and water play.
posted by epanalepsis at 10:59 AM on February 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

My wife decided to build a sandbox in our small backyard but fill it with rubber pellets instead of sand.

Bad idea. Apparently the rubber pellets were the perfect breeding ground for spiders. I went out once and there were thousands of them, so many that it looked like the ground was moving.

And I hate spiders.
posted by tacodave at 2:02 PM on February 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

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