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See our Swing Set Buyer's Guide for pricing information and brands

Welcome to Swing Sets 101

Introduction

A swing set is one of the most exciting purchases you will make for your family. But most families will only ever buy one, so how do you know what to look for to make sure you get a swing set that meets your needs, fits your budget, and won't result in swing set regret? With 35 years' experience designing, manufacturing and servicing swing sets and playsets, we can tell you pretty much everything you need to know to choose the swing set that's right for you.

But why would you trust us to give you unbiased information about the very product we sell?

Here's why: We know that we make some of the very best playsets in the world. And we also know that different families have different needs and interests and that a CedarWorks playset may not be the right fit for everyone. When well-informed parents know their options and decide that another playset company would be a better fit, we understand. But when parents make a decision that they may later regret because of a lack of good information, that's unfortunate for the family and for us as well.

And that's why we created Swing Sets 101: to provide you with useful, unbiased information to make a well-informed decision and get the perfect set for your family, whatever playset company you may choose.

An investment in family

Thinking about buying a swing set can be a little anxiety-inducing. You have probably never bought a playset before, and you likely have concerns about the size and cost as well as how it will look in your yard.

The good news is a swing set can be one of the best investments you make for your family. It will be the launchpad for thousands of hours of fun and memories. And, as you research different playset manufacturers and retailers, you'll find that swing sets come in all different sizes and configurations as well as price points, and they definitely don't have to be eyesores. A beautifully made swing set can even enhance your yard.

Better yet, research shows that children need unstructured outdoor play for their health and development. It helps them improve their gross and fine motor skills, maintain a healthy weight, and develop their attention and listening skills. Through active, unstructured play, children learn to be creative while also developing their physical, intellectual and emotional skills. A good swing set provides the kind of play that kids can grow on. And did we mention it's fun?

There are a lot of options on the market for swing sets to fit every yard and every family. If you start your search with all the information found here at Swingsets 101, you are sure to find the right set for your family.

Swing sets and playsets: a 30-second history

Swing set? Playset? Play system? Jungle Gym? Our information guide is called Swing Sets 101 because "swing sets" and its variants are the most common words used for the wide range of products that include swings. Yet there are as many as a dozen other terms that also describe these products. Here's how it happened:

Simple swings have been enjoyed since the time of the ancient Greeks, but playground equipment that would be more familiar to our current time only began to appear during the early 20th century. The term "jungle gym" was trademarked in 1920 and jungle gym climbers along with multi-position swing sets became commonplace in public areas through the 30s and 40s.

It wasn't until the post-war baby boom that the classic metal-frame backyard swing set appeared. These products evolved for several decades to include a wide variety of swing types, slides, and even small jungle gym components, yet the focus remained on swings and swinging.

Then, during the 70s and 80s, a new family of products came along that were made of wood and featured play forts, climbing accessories and slides as well as a variety of swings. These new products were called many things: playsets, play gyms, play systems, and more. More than just a swing set, these products focused on the full range of physical and social play.

Our guide will generally use terminology that most accurately reflects the nature of the products being described. Thus, products that are almost exclusively dedicated to swings and swinging will be called "swing sets" while products that include play forts, jungle gyms, climbers, or other structures will be called "playsets".


What to Know Before You Buy

Your family is constantly changing

Today, you may have one child who is two-years-old. But what about three years from now? By then, you will obviously have a five-year-old whose interests and abilities are vastly different than when they were two, but you may also have a second child — or even two! And what about in ten years? You will certainly have older kids, and you may have still have younger kids. You get the point.

School playgrounds have it easy. The same age range of kids use the same playground every day and every year. The composition of kids on the playground never gets any older, and they don't get any younger either. Because of this, public playground equipment can be designed for either 2-5 year olds (preschool-Kindergarten) or 5-12 year olds (school age).

Of course, none of this is true for a backyard swing set. If you were to purchase a swing set that was perfect for your two-year-old today, it is unlikely to still be perfect for them at six years old. And if you were to think ahead to when your kids are 10 years old and buy a swing set today that is only suited for that age, chances are it would not be appropriate for your two-year-old right now.

Some of us "experienced" parents here at CedarWorks can attest to the fact that kids grow up and that it happens more quickly than you can imagine. This is just something to remember whether you are choosing a swing set, surviving a melt-down at the grocery store, or anything else we do as parents.

In a nutshell

"This too shall pass" is pretty much the mantra of veteran parents, and it's helpful to keep in mind when buying a swing set. Your kids are growing everyday, so you want a playset that can meet their needs now and in the future.

How kids play as they grow

Like pretty much everything about kids, how kids play on a playset changes over time. That being said, there are some general phases of physical play and social play that most kids go through.

Ages 0-2 years

It starts with just being pushed in an infant swing, but before you know it, sometime between the ages of 1-2 years old, kids will begin to explore climbing and sliding if age-appropriate play elements are available. Though they will want to try out the big kid swings with very small pushes, most toddlers still prefer big pushes in the baby swing.

Social interaction at this age tends to mostly be bonding with parents or adults who are closely supervising or participating in the play activity.

Ages 2-5 years

Activity on the playset explodes during these years as kids test their balance, strength, and coordination. They will begin to climb ladders, angled climbing walls, and ramps of increasing size and difficulty. They will transition from sliding down small slides while holding a parent's hand to sliding down larger slides on their own. And they will master the art of "pumping" the swings.

During these years, kids will also begin to interact socially with peers and siblings. Make-believe games, cooperative play, and chasing games become part of the play repertoire, and a playset is a perfect stage for all of it. Parents remain intimately involved in supervising the play and often participate at the request of the kids.

Ages 6-10 years

Kids will test and then master the most advanced components of most play systems during these years. As they develop sufficient strength, they will conquer the monkey bars, knotted ropes, and chin up bar. They will have the strength and courage to scale vertical climbing walls of any size, and they will seek out the highest and fastest slides.

Socially, peer play will continue, but it will become more elaborate and involved as well as more self-directed. Parents are often still welcome to join in but do not need to be regularly involved to monitor and assist in the activities.

Ages 10+ years

By this age, kids will have mastered all of the physical challenges of a playset. They will still have fun swinging and climbing and sliding, but soon the playset will become more of a place to congregate with friends rather than the focus of play itself. And as they enter the tween years and beyond, the playset becomes a safe place to develop independence while interacting with peers — all while being at a comfortable distance for both parents and kids alike.

In a nutshell

As kids grow, their abilities and interests change, so they play differently every year, and a good playset will be used for many years though how it is used may change over time.

How long will kids use a playset?

It depends.

We have found that it depends in part on the kids and their interests, but it depends more on the playset itself. If the playset provides a play experience that is fun and engaging, then there is virtually no such thing as "too young" or "too old". However, if the play experience is a mismatch for a child's age and abilities, then no amount of cajoling will get him or her to play on it. Here are some rough guidelines to consider:

  • If the playset is only suitable for younger children with lower decks, lower swings, and weight limits, then the kids will use it for about 5 years from ages 1-6 years old.
  • If the playset is only suitable for older kids with difficult-to-access higher decks, challenging climbing accessories and steep slides, then the kids will use it for about 7 years from ages 5-12 years old.
  • If the playset is made from long-lasting materials and has a combination of all of the above elements, or if the playset can be modified as the children's abilities and interests evolve, then the kids will use it for more than a decade.

In a nutshell

How long your kids will use a playset depends on its sturdiness, size, and accessories, but a good playset with age-appropriate accessories could get 10 years or more of use.

Buying strategies

There are two basic ways to think of your playset purchase:

  1. Expense approach

    If your family pursues the expense approach, you will focus on the near term requirements for a swing set. Thus, select a swing set to meet the needs of your family in its current configuration. This strategy may reduce the upfront cost, but the playset will likely have a more limited useful lifespan. This strategy may make sense for your family if your budget is limited or if you won't be in your current home for long.

  2. Investment approach

    If your family adopts the investment approach, you will seek to purchase a play system that is both safe and playful for your family as it is today and that can be adapted to remain safe yet challenging as the family evolves. This approach may have a higher upfront investment but will provide for a longer useful lifespan. If your budget allows it, and you expect to be in your home for several years, this might be the best approach for you.

In a nutshell

Both the expense approach and the investment approach are reasonable strategies for making your purchase decision, and the circumstances for each family will help guide which approach is appropriate. Our advice is to consider how long you expect your family to use the playset and choose a buying strategy accordingly.

What it will cost

To know the real price for a swing set, you need to know something about the swing set market.

You may have purchased an oriental rug. If so, you know that the sticker price is not the price you are going to pay and that no one ever pays the sticker price. The sticker price is artificially high on purpose so that the dealer can offer what appears to be a steep discount. And you've certainly bought something from a large retailer such as Walmart before, so you know that the displayed price there is the price you are going to pay, and that if there is a discount that someone at some time did actually pay the full price. Depending on where and how you buy a swingset, one of these two pricing methods will be used:

  1. Big Box Pricing

    Prices listed for swing sets at mass retailers (both in-store and online) are generally the prices that you will pay for the product. Though there may be occasional sales, particularly at the end of the season, the large majority of the swing sets at mass retailers will be sold at the full listed price so that is the price you should use for comparison.

  2. Dealer/Manufacturer Direct Discounting

    Playsets that are sold through a dealer network as well as many sets sold direct from the manufacturer will have a very high Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) which is in turn discounted 30-40% at all times. Though the name of the discount and the specifics of the discount might change from time to time during the year, in reality it is not a discount since the playsets are never sold at the MSRP but instead are always sold at the 30-40% lower price. The highly inflated MSRP only serves to provide the illusion of a discount. Thus, for the purposes of comparing playsets sold using this pricing system, you can ignore the MSRP (which no one ever pays) and instead use the discounted amount which is, in fact, the real price.

(Note: The issue of deceptive list prices even at large national retailers is the topic of recent articles in both the New York Times and the Harvard Business Review). Though the FTC has regulations prohibiting this practice, the rules are not generally enforced.

Swing sets and playsets are available in a very wide range of prices. To help guide your purchase decision, we have summarized the types of products that are available in each price category. For more complete information on what kinds of playsets you can expect to find in different price ranges and where you can buy them, please see our Swing Set Buyer's Guide.

  1. Under $500

    If you are planning to spend $500 or less you can expect to find a variety of small mass-market swingsets, usually made of metal or plastic with a few imported Chinese "cedar" sets at the higher end of the range.

  2. $500 - 1500

    Swing sets in the $500-1500 range include larger metal sets, plastic sets, and more Chinese "cedar" sets. At the lower end of the price ranges, sets will be fairly simple getting larger and more varied at the higher end.

  3. $1500 - 2500

    In the $1500-2500 price range you will see a lot more variety in sets with many having sizable forts or towers as well as more choices of swings and other accessories. Most swing sets in this price range will be made from imported Chinese "cedar".

  4. $2500 - 5000

    This price range begins to include premium playsets which means the playsets are usually made with bigger, better wood and higher quality construction. This category includes some sets made of domestic wood such as Redwood or Northern White Cedar. As a result, these playsets have higher weight limits and are more durable.

  5. $5000 and up

    Premium playsets in this price range are usually domestically manufactured and are made from high quality North American lumber such as Redwood, Western Red Cedar or Northern White Cedar. Premium playsets in this price range can be very large and elaborate and may be customizable.

In a nutshell

The cost of swing sets and playsets can vary from less than $500 to well over $5000 depending on size and quality of materials and construction. Buyers should also be aware of different pricing strategies used by some retailers which can include playsets that are discounted from a price that was artificially inflated in the first place to give consumers the feeling that they are getting a special deal.

Space requirements

To plan for maximum safety, the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends 6 feet of clear space around all sides of the playset. If you choose to have swings, however, the recommendation is to have clear space equal to twice the arc of the swings to both the front and back of the playset. So, if you have swings that attach 8' above the ground, and the swing seat itself is 1' above the ground, the swing arc would be approximately 7' to the front and back for a total of 14'. The resulting recommendation would be twice this distance for a total of 28' of clear space (14' to the front and 14' to the back).

Pre-configured playsets sold online will generally have the "footprint" dimensions for the playset. Be sure to add the recommended 6' to these dimensions for the non-swing areas and the greater swing arc calculation for the swing area. If you purchase a custom-configured playset, your dealer should be able to provide you with the dimensions of the playset and should also be able to calculate the safe space requirements for you.

Keep in mind, if you do not have enough space for swings, a playset is still a great investment. Our experience at CedarWorks is that kids will spend significantly more time in, on, and around the playset decks, climbing walls, or other accessories over the life of the playset than they will swinging. Of course, swings are great, and kids love to swing, but over time, the play structure and accessories will be the core of the your investment.

In a nutshell

Don't forget to factor in "clear space" recommendations when figuring out how much space you will need for your playset. Swinging into a garage or a fence is only funny if you're watching the Three Stooges (and even then it's only funny to some people).

Assembly

The range of assembly options for swing sets is as wide as the range of swing set products themselves. The best way to determine your role in assembling your swing set is to consider your skills, your time, and your budget, then decide accordingly.

To help you figure all that out, we have provided the skill level and time requirements to assemble a typical playset consisting of a fort, slide, climbing accessories, and swings. We have also noted the availability of customer service support to help you get through any challenges that may come up.

  1. Kit playset:
    Overview:
    A kit playset consists of swing set accessories and assembly instructions only and provides a list of lumber you will need to purchase separately. Wooden components need to be cut and drilled to specification and all of the resulting components need to be assembled.
    Skill Level:
    Basic carpentry/Strong DIY skills
    Time:
    2+ weekends
    Customer Service Support:
    None
  2. Imported wooden playset
    Overview:
    This category covers all of the mass market swing sets sold online and at big box stores, as well as the entry level swing set product lines sold at many swing set dealers. These swing sets are made in China and are boxed and shipped to the US. (If the country of origin is not listed but the wood species is simply called "cedar", chances are almost 100% that the product is from China. Learn more in Materials below.) The wooden components are cut and drilled, but for shipping efficiency they are flat packed, and there is no pre-assembly of components. Thus, each deck board, roof piece, and fence slat needs to be individually identified, put in place, and secured.
    Skill Level:
    Strong DIY skills
    Time:
    2 weekends
    Customer Service Support:
    Online support
  3. Domestic wooden playset
    Overview:
    The large majority of these playsets are sold through dealers or directly from the manufacturer. These playsets are made from domestic wood species such as treated pine, Redwood, Western Red Cedar or Northern White Cedar. In addition to the wooden components being cut and drilled, many of the sub-assemblies such as decks, fences, roof panels, and ramps are pre-assembled.
    Skill Level:
    Basic DIY skills
    Time:
    1 weekend
    Customer Service Support:
    The level of support varies widely from online FAQ's up to and including call centers staffed with customer service experts.

Of course, if your budget allows, or if your available time and skills don't allow, you can purchase assembly services. This is not an option for kit playsets which are by definition a true DIY project. For imported wooden playsets, many big box stores offer assembly services or have referral lists for assembly service providers. In addition, entrepreneurs in many suburban areas have businesses that specialize in assembly of these playsets and can be found by doing an online search. For the domestic wooden playsets, dealers typically provide assembly services for the products they carry, and manufacturer direct companies frequently have service networks available for assembly services.

In a nutshell

Whether you buy a playset locally or online, it is going to need to be assembled. If you plan to assemble it yourself, be aware that the DIY skills and amount of time needed to assemble it will vary depending on whether you buy a kit, an imported set, or a domestic set.

Preparing your yard for your swing set

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. Though grass may be the most common surface for residential playsets, there are better (and much safer) alternatives.

The following options will improve safety compared to grass, and you won't have to deal with mud puddles under the swings and mowing around and under the playset. These options are presented in general order of expense from low to high although significant regional and market differences exist:

  1. Bark mulch
    Advantages:
    Relatively inexpensive and readily available.
    Disadvantages:
    Tends to degrade quickly and thus needs frequent replenishment; traps moisture around wooden components on the ground which hastens deterioration; weed growth (high maintenance)
  2. Wood chips
    Advantages:
    Relatively inexpensive and regionally available.
    Disadvantages:
    Tends to degrade moderately quickly and thus needs occasional replenishment; traps moisture around wooden components on the ground which hastens deterioration; weed growth (high maintenance)
  3. Small stone (pea gravel)
    Advantages:
    Very long-lasting; excellent drainage promotes longevity of wooden components on the ground; reduces weed growth (lower maintenance).
    Disadvantages:
    Not as comfortable on bare feet; moderately expensive.
  4. Sand
    Advantages
    Visually pleasing; soft on bare feet; reduces weed growth (low maintenance).
    Disadvantages
    Animal waste (think giant kitty litter box); can become compacted or wind blown; not as impact absorbing as other materials; moderately expensive.
  5. Shredded rubber
    Advantages:
    Very long-lasting; excellent drainage promotes longevity of wooden components on the ground; reduces weed growth (low maintenance).
    Disadvantages:
    Artificial material; expensive.
  6. Artificial grass
    Advantages:
    Very long-lasting (no maintenance); maximum safety if it has appropriate substrate.
    Disadvantages:
    Artificial material; very expensive.
  7. Poured rubber
    Advantages:
    Very long-lasting (no maintenance); maximum safety.
    Disadvantages:
    Artificial material; very expensive.

The appropriate depth of ground surfacing materials along with other safety tips can be found on the Consumer Product Safety Commission website on this page.

In a nutshell

There are many options to choose from, but our favorite material is small stone (pea gravel). It is all natural and generally available in most parts of the country. There is no maintenance, no mud puddles, no mowing, and great drainage means a longer lasting swing set. As for bare feet, most kids who like to run around barefoot don't even notice, and if the stone is small enough, even we parents don't mind. Whatever you choose, ground surfacing has a significant impact on the safety of your set.

What to know about what you're buying

Now that you know everything you need to know before buying a swing set, it is time to explore the materials, construction, and other features that differentiate swing sets. This will help you compare the various products on the market and determine which is the right fit for your family.

Materials

The structural components of outdoor playsets range from plastic to metal to a wide variety of both treated and natural woods. Each material has a unique set of pros and cons such that there is no universal "right" material to choose. And beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, so we won't share our opinion on aesthetics. That's up to you. For each of the common structural materials below we have provided important information to help you choose what is right for your family.

Artificial materials

This category encompasses both manufactured materials (plastic and metal) and wood that has been chemically treated for improved longevity.

  1. Metal

    Metal was the preferred material for the classic backyard swing set of the 1950s through the 1970s. Metal construction became less common with the advent of more full-featured playsets from the 1980s through the present. Metal is still the preferred material for lower-end products that exclusively feature swings, as well as a few mid-range products that include forts along with the swings.

    Pros: Relatively inexpensive; Limited maintenance; Splinter-free
    Cons: Limited product range; Low weight limits; Retains heat/cold

  2. Plastic

    The most common use of plastic as a structural material in children's playsets is for the "fort" end and the "support" end for the swings. The swings are suspended from a beam or pole that is made from a stronger material such as wood or metal. Plastic playsets are all targeted toward toddlers and are not suitable as children grow.

    Pros: Long-lasting; inexpensive; no maintenance; splinter-free
    Cons: Significant environmental impact; lack of strength; limited useful age range

  3. Pressure treated wood

    Most early wooden playsets were made using pressure treated lumber. The underlying wood, typically Southern Yellow Pine, is not naturally long-lasting so chemicals are injected into the wood under pressure. Historically, the most popular chemical formulation was known as Chromated Copper Arsenate and is no longer used in children's playsets because of the risk of arsenic leaching from the wood.

    The more common current chemical formulation for pressure treated wood used in playsets is ACQ which stands for Alkaline Copper Quaternary. Though it does not contain arsenic, it still has ingredients that are potentially toxic, and due to the high copper content and its corrosive effect on steel, special hardware is recommended. It is not safe to burn and must be disposed of in the "non-clean wood" repository at the local transfer station or landfill.

    ACQ treated wood is long-lasting and relatively inexpensive. As such it is used in low- to mid-priced playsets.

    Pros: Long-lasting; Relatively inexpensive; More than 30 year history in playsets; North American sourced and manufactured.
    Cons: Significant environmental impact; Maintenance required to reduce splinters.

  4. Vinyl coated pressure treated wood

    Backyard playsets made using vinyl coated pressure-treated wood began to appear around the year 2000. The early playsets featured only vinyl coated wood posts, but over time all of the wooden components were available with vinyl coating. By adding vinyl coating, two of the most concerning characteristics of pressure treated wood in playsets are eliminated: splinters and direct contact with chemicals. Vinyl coated wood playsets have the added benefit of being virtually maintenance-free, but some experts warn against covering wood inside vinyl since the wood can decay inside without the decay being visible.

    Pros: Long-lasting; Splinter-free; Maintenance-free; 20 year history in playsets; North American manufactured.
    Cons: Relatively expensive; Significant environmental impact from plastic content and treated wood.

Natural materials

This category (listed alphabetically) includes several species of wood that are commonly used in children's playsets and that are not chemically treated to promote longevity.

  1. Chinese "cedar"

    If a playset is marketed as being made of generic "cedar", it is made from a fast-growing tree found in southern China called Cunninghamia Lanceolata. This species first appeared in playsets about 10 years ago and was marketed as China Fir. The marketing name was soon changed to Chinese Cedar before morphing to just plain "cedar" or even Pacific Cedar. The only problem is that it is not cedar nor has it historically been referred to as cedar.

    Wood life of Chinese "cedar" for use in playsets is not known because wooden swing sets made of Chinese "cedar" only entered the market in the early 2000s. Many warranties are 5 years pro-rated which may suggest expected longevity. Chinese "cedar" lumber is not sawn to traditional North American standards and is usually significantly smaller in dimension than comparable 2x4s and 4x4s (see Dimension of the wood below).

    Playsets made from Chinese "cedar" are manufactured in China. Products range from low price, mass-distributed playsets available at big box stores to the lower end product lines available at dealers who may also carry a premium line of domestic products. Chinese "cedar" playsets are typically stained a tone similar to red cedar and are flat-packed piece by piece in boxes for shipping efficiency.

    Pros: Inexpensive; not chemically treated for longevity; low environmental impact (conservation status: "least concern")
    Cons: Longevity unknown; less than 10 year history in playsets; smaller dimensions; maintenance required to reduce splinters; low weight limits; manufactured in China

  2. Northern White Cedar

    Northern White Cedar (Thuja Occidentalis) is a species that grows from northern New England west to Minnesota and in the corresponding areas to the north in Canada. Northern White Cedar has been commercially lumbered for hundreds of years and before that was used extensively by Native Americans. Northern White Cedar has historically been used in applications where decay resistance is important such as fencing, shingles, log homes, and canoes.

    Northern White Cedar has been used in premium playsets for more than 30 years. In addition to naturally resisting decay, Northern White Cedar fibers are soft, so the wood remains splinter-free, without maintenance, for life. Playsets made from Northern White Cedar are often not stained because stain is not needed for longevity, splinter control, or to make multiple wood species look the same. Lumber for Northern White Cedar is traditionally cut to larger dimensions than other wood species.

    Pros: Naturally long-lasting; naturally splinter-free; large dimension wood; 35+ year history in playsets; Manufactured in North America; low environmental impact (conservation status: "least concern")
    Cons: Expensive

  3. Redwood

    Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) is native exclusively to California and a very small portion of neighboring Oregon. Although 90 percent of all lumber-producing redwood forests are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council or Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Redwood is classified as an endangered species. Redwood is very strong and has been used for centuries in applications where decay-resistance is important such as decks, fences, and outdoor furniture.

    Redwood has been used in premium playsets for more than 30 years. It is cut to traditional North American dimensional standards and is available in larger sizes than many other wood species due to the size of the trees. Redwood used in playsets is typically stained, and regular reapplication of stain is required to reduce splinters and is often required to maintain the warranty.

    Pros: Naturally long-lasting; very strong; 30+ year history in playsets; Manufactured in North America
    Cons: Expensive; moderate environmental impact (conservation status: "endangered"); maintenance required to reduce splinters

  4. Western Red Cedar

    Western Red Cedar (Thuja Plicata) grows widely along the northwestern coast of the United States, the southwestern coast of Canada, and the interior of the states of Washington, Idaho, Montana and the Canadian province of British Columbia. Like its cousin Northern White Cedar, Western Red Cedar has been commercially lumbered for hundreds of years and before that was used extensively by Native Americans. Western Red Cedar has historically been used in applications where decay resistance is important such as shingles, exterior siding and boatbuilding.

    Western Red Cedar has been used in premium playsets for more than 30 years though it currently is most often mixed in playsets with other species such as Redwood or even Chinese "cedar". It is stained either a Red Cedar or Redwood tone to blend with the other species and also to reduce splinters. Regular reapplication of stain is required to manage splinters and maintain the warranty. Western Red Cedar is cut to traditional North American dimensional standards.

    Pros: Naturally long-lasting; 30+ year history in playsets; manufactured in North America; low environmental impact (conservation status: "least concern")
    Cons: Expensive; maintenance required to reduce splinters.

In a nutshell

Know your playset materials, as the material will dictate maintenance requirements and longevity of your set. Wooden playsets in particular are not all the same, with different strengths, different maintenance requirements, and different costs depending on the kind of wood used to make them.

Dimension of the wood

Did you know that a 2x4 is not really 2 inches by 4 inches? In general, lumber is rough cut to the actual dimension of its name, but after it has dried and been planed smooth, the resulting dimension is smaller. For example, a typical 2x4 is approximately 1.5"x3.5".

There are no standards governing the final dimensions for lumber, so there is a wide variation in the dimensions of wood used in playsets. Most premium and even moderately priced playsets will have major structural posts made from 4x4s. Some of these posts will be as small as 3.25" per side, while most premium Redwood or Western Red Cedar posts may be up to 3.5" per side, and 4x4 posts made from Northern White Cedar come in at 3.75" per side. This may not seem like much, but when you do the math, the largest posts are 33% bigger by volume than the smallest. This matters because the larger the wood dimensions, the stronger the swing set.

And if you are looking at lower priced playsets made from Chinese "cedar", you will find that the wood dimensions do not follow traditional North American lumber standards. This does not mean that the wood is necessarily undersized, but it does mean that there is no easy reference to compare wood dimensions to other products.

In a nutshell

The actual measurements of a 2x4 or 4x4 can vary depending on the species of wood. As a rule of thumb, you will find that imported playsets have the smallest wood dimensions followed by premium sets made with Western Red Cedar or Redwood, and the largest dimension wood will be in playsets made from Northern White Cedar. But in the end, the only way to truly know the dimensions of the wood used in the playset is to ask a reputable and knowledgable representative — or to take out your tape measure.

Playset construction

There are many different ways to construct a wooden playset, and there are combinations of fasteners and joinery that are better than others for the various components of a playset. The following is an overview of what you might find and where and how it is best used.

Fasteners

How many grains of sand are there on the beach? We don't know, but we're pretty sure it's about the same as the extraordinary number of different fasteners that can be used in swing sets. For each broad range of fasteners such as nails, there is a nearly infinite number of sizes, lengths, materials, and other variables that will affect performance. However, there are general applications for which each type of fastener is well-suited in playsets.

  • Nails

    Of the fasteners discussed here, nails provide the weakest connection and should not be used where the structural integrity of the playset could be in question. Nails will have a tendency to loosen and back out over time. Certain types of nails such as ring nails, or nails in combination with wood glue, can be well-suited for holding together components that are not subject to these stresses.

  • Wood screws

    Small-dimension wood screws resist backing out significantly better than nails, but they are not strong enough to be safely used in structural joints. Wood screws can be well-suited for connecting non-load bearing elements and can create a very strong joint when used in conjunction with wood glue.

  • Lag screws

    These are larger diameter screws that typically have a hexagonal head and are installed with a socket wrench. Due to their size, they are stronger and have significantly more "bite" than wood screws. Lag screws are frequently used to hold larger dimension wood in a more structural capacity.

  • Bolts

    Bolts in conjunction with a nut are the most secure of the fasteners. Bolts pass completely through the wood and are not subject to loosening and backing out in the same manner as screws. Of course, the dimension and material of the bolt along with the "locking" capacity of the nut can vary significantly, so not all bolt construction is as secure as others. However, bolt construction is preferred where structural integrity of a joint is essential.

Joinery

Playsets have lots and lots of joints (the places where two pieces of wood come together) and some joints are more critical for a safe and long-lasting playset than others. Similarly, some methods used to create the joint (joinery) are safer and longer-lasting than others. Listed below are the most typical forms of joinery you will find on a playset.

  • Butt joint

    This is where two pieces of wood come together in line with each other and without any overlap. When only fasteners are employed to hold the wood together, this is the weakest type of joinery used in playsets and is only suitable for decorative elements.

  • Lap joint

    A lap joint is where two pieces of wood overlap each other and are held together with fasteners. This is the most common form of joinery used in playsets. The strength of the joint depends on many factors such as the dimension of the wood and type of fastener used. In general, small dimension wood held with nails or wood screws is not suitable for load-bearing elements while larger dimension wood with lag screws or bolts can successfully support very large loads

  • Mortise and Tenon

    Mortise and tenon is considered the strongest and most aesthetically pleasing type of joinery used in playsets. A mortise is a pocket carved into one of the pieces of wood being used to form the joint. A tenon is typically a narrowed portion at the end of the other piece of wood that will form the joint. The tenon of one piece is inserted into the mortise of the other and then the tenon is secured into place with a fastener. In this type of construction the fastener does not bear any weight but rather serves to keep the tenon from pulling out. Mortise and tenon can be used for any type of joint including all structural joints.

Bracing and joinery together

All of the types of joints listed above can be significantly improved with the addition of brackets and braces. These items can be made of metal or wood and can be attached with the full range of fasteners.

Face mounted brackets are installed with fasteners alongside the outside of the joint and indirectly support the weight of the joint; the fasteners directly support the weight. In-line braces are even more supportive and are installed inside the joint instead of alongside the joint. Though held in place with fasteners, the braces themselves directly support the weight of the joint.

In a nutshell

Every playset on the market will have some combination of fasteners and joinery. The less well constructed playsets will feature small dimension screws, butt and lap joints, and face mounted brackets while the best constructed playsets will feature bolts, mortise and tenon joints, and in-line weight bearing braces.

Fixed Design vs Modular

Playset designs range from fixed configurations in which no modifications are possible to fully modular systems where accessories and structures can be assembled in a multitude of combinations. In general:

  1. Lower priced playset lines tend to have models with fixed designs that cannot be modified at the time of purchase or added to in the future.
  2. Moderate priced lines sold at dealers may have a selection of accessories or accessory packages that can be applied to a base model. However, there are no true custom configuration options, and these product lines typically cannot be added to over time.
  3. Premium playset lines sold at dealers allow for various ranges of design control up to complete modular design whereby you can choose the structures and accessories that you want now, and you can add to the play system over time.

Modular design playsets tend to have a longer useful life because they can be adapted to your changing family. If you want to design your own playset or want to modify your playset over time, there are several questions you should consider when selecting a product line and a dealer.

  1. How modular is the product line? This will help determine whether you are simply selecting packages from a base product or whether you are truly selecting the elements and the layout that you really want
  2. How knowledgeable is the dealer? A well-informed and experienced dealer will speed up the process and will ensure you get the right product for your family.
  3. Is the design process supported by good information systems? This is important not only so that you can visualize the final product but also so that the dealer has precise information about your playset design when the time comes to update or add on to the playset.

In a nutshell

Modular playset systems may cost more, but they have accessories and structures that can be assembled in infinite combinations. Since changes or additions can be made over time, modular playsets can be designed exactly to fit your yard or your needs, and they tend to be played on longer.

Weight limits

When considering weight limits, the first thing to do is decide who will use your playset, how long they will use your playset, and whether you yourself want to be able to use it too. Then you can apply the following general guidelines to determine which type of product will meet your needs.

Small children only

Products made with plastic and even some of the very least expensive wooden playsets will have per user weight limits as low as 50-80 lbs. This will limit use to young children which means that you will only get a few years useful life from the product.

All kids

Most mid-range products made from either metal or wood will have a per user weight limit in the range of 120 lbs. This will be sufficient for most kids up to the ages of 10-12 and thus will cover the most common age ranges for swing set use. However, these products will not be strong enough for particularly large kids or as kids transition into their teens. Also, these products are not designed for adult weights.

You and the kids

The more premium sets made in North America from Redwood and Northern White Cedar are often designed so that you can play right along with the kids. Of course, some spaces are a bit tight for adult sizes, but if you like the idea of taking a swing or joining a tea party with your kids, make sure that the playset is strong enough for you too.

Safety

Swing sets and playsets have never been safer. All nationally sold products in the U.S. comply with ASTM F1148, a set of voluntary standards that is continually updated and improved and can be purchased here. These products can all be considered generally safe when used as directed.

If you purchase a playset from a local company, or plan to build your own, it is important to be familiar with either the ASTM standards or at least the Consumer Product Safety Commission "Outdoor Home Playground Safety Handbook".

Based on our experience, however, many of the most important safety considerations are not directly related to the product that you purchase, but rather how and where you use it.

Ground surfacing

Kids are going to fall. They will jump off the swings and fall. They will run around the playset and fall. And they may also fall off the deck of the playset or the monkey bars or any other thing that they can climb on. That soft grass you had on Memorial Day when you installed the set may not be so soft after lots of use and summer heat. And even the wood chips you put down will compact over time. Maintaining a shock absorbent surface is the best way to reduce injury when your child falls. See our "Preparing your yard for your swing set" section above.

Maintenance

This applies not only to the ground surfacing, but to the entire playset as well. Keeping nuts and bolts tightened, rough spots sanded, and watching out for wear and tear will help prevent any type of product failure that could cause injury. See our Maintenance section under What to Know After You Buy.

Attaching non-playset elements

The most dangerous thing you or your kids can do is to attach a rope, string, chain, cord, leash, or anything like it to a playset. Every year there are children injured and even killed when they get entangled with such items. In addition, attaching or adding anything to the playset that did not come with it may inadvertently create a hazard. For instance, any opening that is greater than 3.5" but less than 9" is a "head and neck entrapment" which means that a small child can pass their torso through the opening but not their head. A playset you purchase new will not have any head and neck entrapments when built to specification, but even the most innocent seeming addition may create one.

Sliding with your child

We hate to be a killjoy, but every year hundreds of kids end up in the emergency room after going down a slide on a parent's lap. What happens is that the child's sneaker gets stuck between the parent's leg and the side of the slide and can cause a fractured bone or sprained joint. If you still want to slide together (and who can blame you?), try socks or bare feet and keep the child's feet to the inside of your legs.

Your supervision

Kids will be kids, and that means that they will do all kinds of things for which a playset was not designed. And they will do all kinds of things that you cannot even imagine. Nothing can replace the supervision of an engaged parent or caretaker. Not only does this help keep your kids safe, you get to play with them, too!

In a nutshell

Nationally sold playsets will comply with ASTM standards, so they are generally safe as long as they are used as directed. Be careful that you or your child don't introduce any safety hazards to your playset. For more information on home playground safety, download the Consumer Product Safety Commission Outdoor Home Playground Safety Handbook.

What to know after you buy

Maintenance

It's easy to be enthusiastic when a product is brand new. It is harder to continue to be enthusiastic over time when maintenance is required, but nothing is more important to the safety, longevity, and enjoyment of your playset than keeping it properly maintained. Different types of playsets will require different levels of maintenance.

Nuts and bolts

This is one thing that is common to all swing sets and playsets regardless of price point or structural materials. Nuts, bolts, screws, nails, and any other type of hardware should be inspected and tightened before the busy use season and periodically thereafter. In addition, swing ropes and hardware should be inspected annually for wear and tear and replaced as needed.

Splinters

Splinters by definition are not a maintenance issue on plastic, metal, and vinyl coated wood playsets. Wooden playsets made from Northern White Cedar also do not splinter and thus do not require sanding and staining . Other species of wood used in playsets will splinter as the wood ages and the original sanding and staining wear. Thus, periodic sanding along with regular staining of the playset are required over time to reduce the likelihood of splinters.

Stain

Most wooden playsets are sold with a factory stain applied for a combination of purposes: aesthetics; to make multiple wood species used in the same set appear the same; and to reduce splinters. Once stained, a playset will need to be restained periodically (at least every 2 years). Many companies require regular staining to maintain the warranty.

Staining a playset can be a fairly arduous task. Unlike a deck or the walls of a house, playsets have very few large flat surfaces and most elements of the playset have a front, back, top and bottom. This results in lots of small surfaces including some that are hard to get to. However, a newly stained playset can look as good as new.

Cleaning

Depending on the primary material(s) used in a playset, there are several methods for cleaning your set that may apply. Washing is far less labor intensive than staining and can be a more convenient way to maintain a playset.

  1. Metal, Plastic, and Vinyl

    These can be easily cleaned with water or a light soap and water solution using a simple hose and bucket. A power washer is also an option and can be convenient for reducing effort and reaching high spots.

  2. Natural (Unstained) Wood

    Wood that has been stained needs to be restained, but wood that has not been stained can just be washed. One common method involves using a power washer with a water/bleach solution. When used properly, the powerful spray will clean off dirt and even remove a very fine outer layer of material which will return the wood close to its original color. For light-colored natural wood, there is an even easier method. Mix a slightly more concentrated bleach and water solution and place it in a spray bottle. A light mist of the solution on the wood surface will remove the natural graying from the sun and return the wood closer to its original color.

In a nutshell

When you are researching different playsets, ask what kind of maintenance they will require. Different kinds of wood need different maintenance. Most wood species require regular sanding and staining to reduce splinters and maintain the warranty, while some wood species may only require an occasional washing. Metal sets require very little maintenance, but they are liable to rust or fade and often don't last as long as wood. No matter what your set is made of, you should periodically check the hardware.

Customer service

Just like good insurance, good customer service is something that is hard to appreciate until you need it, and it is hard to evaluate in advance. But there are some important things you can consider before you buy your playset that will guide you in the right direction to ensure you get the service that you need.

Where you buy

Each different playset distribution channel has a different way of providing customer service.

  1. Mass Retail

    This category includes all big box stores and all large online retail sellers of playsets. These companies do not manufacture the sets they sell, nor do they provide service for them, so customer service will not be provided by the company that you bought the product from but from the product manufacturer. Before buying you should identify the manufacturer and determine what level of customer support they provide. Service can range from online-only to a staffed call center.

  2. Dealer

    Many premium quality play systems are sold through a dealer network. Dealers are typically the first level of customer service for the products. The level of service can vary widely as some dealers have a long history with the product line and specialize in play systems while other dealers may have much less experience and may sell a wide array of non-playset products. One drawback of the dealer system is that warranty issues are often administered at the manufacturer level, but the dealer is responsible for obtaining replacement parts, so the best interests of the customer can get caught in the middle. The primary advantage of dealer-based customer service is local availability.
  3. Manufacturer Direct

    Customer service for manufacturer direct sales is, of course, provided by the manufacturer. This again can range from online only to a fully staffed customer service call center. Because these companies only support one brand of playset, the customer service staff is likely to be more expert in supporting their product. Many service centers are also enhanced by some type of local installation support. One advantage of manufacturer direct customer service is that warranty claims are handled directly so there can be no finger pointing between the dealer and manufacturer.

How to evaluate

There is no central clearing house or "consumer reports" for playset customer service which means that the research is up to you. It is worth spending a bit of time before you make your purchase decision to learn what you can about how the company provides customer service and what others have to say about the service.

  1. Company Research

    Identify the manufacturer and visit their website. Read what they have to say about customer service. If you find that customer service inquiries are generally pushed to use online resources or contact forms, there is a chance that there is not a staffed customer service call center. You can also sometimes download instructions before purchase which will provide information about how and when customer service is accessible.

  2. Consumer Boards

    There are plenty of places on the internet to find product and service reviews. And as with anything on the internet, a bit of caution is warranted. Before determining whether a company provides excellent or terrible customer service based on a single comment, look for patterns of similar comments either on a single website or across websites. Some popular consumer complaint boards are:

In a nutshell

Customer service may not seem that important when you're shopping for a playset compared to other factors you have to consider, but if you have any questions about assembly, or concerns about missing parts, or if something goes wrong with your set once it's assembled, the level of customer support will make the difference between a happy swingset experience and a sad one. How and where you buy your set will have a major impact on what kind of customer service you can expect. Make sure you do your research before you buy.

Warranty

When you check out a company's warranty, make sure you look beyond the headline. Headlines are designed to catch your attention. Whether it is a newspaper, online post, or warranty, the headline copy is interesting and easy to understand, but the true meaning of the headline requires a bit more digging. The real value of a swingset warranty headline is typically determined by both the fine print as well as the philosophy of the company itself. Here are some tips on figuring it all out:

  1. The length of the warranty is not the most important thing

    It isn't? It seems like it should be, doesn't it? Not necessarily. The first thing to note is that the headline warranty length typically only applies to certain components of the play system. Other components will have a shorter warranty period. In addition, most warranties have an array of conditions and terms that must be met before the warranty claim will be approved. And, finally, the fact that an item is covered under warranty does not mean that you will receive a replacement part at no charge. The length of the warranty does matter, but it needs to be supported by the terms and conditions of the warranty and how it is serviced.

  2. Important Terms and Conditions

    As a general rule, terms and conditions exist to protect the company, not the consumer. The more terms and conditions you see, the more wiggle room a company has to deny a claim. The following are terms and conditions that you should look for when evaluating a warranty:

    • Pro-rated

      If a warranty is pro-rated, it means that the value of the warranty diminishes every year. For a 5 year pro-rated warranty, you would receive replacement parts at no cost in the first year, but you would pay 20% after one year, 40% after two years, 60% after three years and 80% after four years. In reality, this is more like having a limited value 2-3 year warranty because no one wants to spend 60% or more of the cost of a replacement part.

    • Original Invoice or Sales Receipt

      It is understandable that a company would want to confirm that you are the original owner. However, for sales from a dealer or for sales direct from the manufacturer, there is little reason for this condition since the dealer or manufacturer direct company should have its own record of the original owner. This condition can be used as a pretext for denying a claim.

    • Maintenance or Staining

      Maintenance is a typical condition that is reasonably included in most warranties. However, it is important to determine what level of maintenance is required and whether staining is included as part of the required maintenance. If staining is a requirement, it is important to note the frequency required and to keep personal records of when and how the playset was restained. Failure to do so can void a warranty.

    • Shipping or Freight

      Be very careful to understand which party is responsible for the cost of shipping replacement parts. Sometimes the term "freight prepaid" is used which means the company will cover the costs, while "freight collect" means that the consumer is responsible. Because many swingset and playset components are very expensive to ship, these costs significantly impact the overall value of the warranty.

  3. Company philosophy

    This is the hardest thing of all to determine, but it is probably the most important. On one end of the spectrum there are companies who view a warranty as a marketing tool to bring in customers but then use the terms and conditions of the warranty as a tool to limit claims costs. In essence, these companies over-promise with the warranty and under-deliver with their servicing of claims. On the other end of the spectrum there are companies whose goal is to satisfy their customers so they avoid over-promising in their warranty, even at the risk of losing sales, in order to be able to over-deliver when servicing claims.

    The best way to determine where a company falls on this spectrum is to first look at the warranty. Is it loaded with legal jargon and exceptions? Are there a significant number of requirements to comply with the terms of the warranty? And once you have done that, a quick search of consumer reviews (see Customer Service above for sources) may provide insight as to how existing warranty claims have been treated.

In a nutshell

For many families, a playset is a major purchase, so it makes sense to check the warranty before you buy one. Most major manufacturers will have some kind of warranty, usually ranging from one year to "lifetime." Doing some online research can help you make sure your playset has a good warranty. Look for warranty information on the company's website, and make sure to read the fine print, so you can see how straightforward it is. Then do a search for reviews of the company's warranty to see other customers' experiences of how the manufacturer actually services warranty claims.

Conclusion

With the right information, buying a swing set or playset doesn't have to be confusing or intimidating. Do your research beforehand, and you can find a playset that is perfect for your family.