Backyard swing sets provide a wonderful way for children to develop strength and balance, and to have hours of fun immersed in imaginative play. And without risk, they would hold little interest for youngsters. But we owe it to our children to make their play environments safe, by eliminating hazards.
When choosing a swing set for your children, consider the following factors:
—A safe, fun, age-appropriate design
—Proper placement in your yard
—Treated wood vs. cedar or redwood
—How to eliminate hazards
Monkey bars that are separate and at an appropriate height.
Age-appropriate and safe fun
If your children are very young, consider swing sets that can be added onto easily and grow with your children. Younger children using equipment designed for older kids is the leading cause of playground and swing set accidents. Additionally, having a component on your swing set such as a rock wall or cargo net that won’t be used for a few years exposes the equipment to the elements needlessly.
Avoid swing sets that combine the swing crossbeam (the bar that the swings hang from) and monkey bars (overhead ladder). Common sense tells us that children negotiating monkey bars fall, and falling on a swing or, worse, on a child on a swing is a hazard we can avoid. Additionally, swing crossbeams are 7-9 feet high, which is much too high for monkey bars. Monkey bars should be 6-7 feet high and should stand alone.
If you are considering a swing set with a fort, make sure there is at least one easy way for children to access the fort. An easy access can be a gently sloped ramp, a ladder that is angled and has a backing to prevent feet from slipping through, or simple steps. This makes it safer for children to have lunch in the fort or bring up a juice box, and easier for you if you want to be in the fort with your children.
Another consideration is the height of the fort itself. Fort height is determined by the type of slide you choose. The majority of residential swing sets have 10-foot-long slides, requiring a 5-foot-high deck or fort. A 5-foot deck height is more appropriate for younger children and makes it easier to supervise them. There are commercially available slides up to 14 feet long (we have made custom slides 24 feet long) requiring 7-foot-high decks, which make reaching in to help or retrieve children impossible from the ground.
Placement of the slide in relation to other accessories is also an important safety concern. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) guidelines for playground safety specify that “Nothing shall be within four feet of either side or six feet in front of a slide.” This means you should avoid swing set designs that put a ramp or ladder next to the slide. The slide should have a side of the fort to itself.
As for swing separation, the CPSC recommends swings be a minimum of 22 inches apart. Many swing sets have four swings in a space where only three safely fit, and I have seen some that space swings 9 inches apart. When it comes to how many swings should be on your swing set, less is definitely more.
The end of the swing frame not connected to the fort should be securely anchored in concrete.
Finally, all hardware should be recessed or flush with the surrounding material, whether wood, metal or plastic, to prevent a sharp point being exposed and clothing from catching.
Where to place the swing set
Assuming there are multiple places in your yard that are level enough, the prime concern with placement is safety. The space in which you place the swing set should be free from rocks and exposed tree roots. If there are large trees in the area, have your landscaper trim the dead and almost dead branches.
Make sure the area is fenced in if it is near a road, stream or pond.
The other primary placement consideration is visibility from the house. This becomes more important as children grow older and begin to play without adult supervision. I have found most of my customers are comfortable if the swing set is visible from the kitchen or family room.
For those who have no level sites and have been told you cannot have a swing set, custom swing sets are the answer. A custom set can incorporate the landscape into the structure or simply create a swing set that is level and safe even if your yard is not. I have seen many swing sets installed on uneven ground without being leveled. This is dangerous and unacceptable.
Safety on the surface
Statistics show us that 70 percent of swing set and playground injuries are caused by falls to the ground. Knowing this, it makes sense to have an impact-absorbing surface underneath. While the rubber matting found in playgrounds is excellent, it must be installed over asphalt or concrete, and most us do not want to pave over an area of our backyard. The most appropriate surface for backyard sets is called loose fill. It consists of either sand, wood chips, cedar mulch, pea gravel or shredded rubber. Cedar mulch and rubber chips are best, with shredded rubber unsurpassed in impact absorption. Shredded rubber does not break down or need to be added to each season, and it does not promote fungus growth or attract insects and animals. There should be no roots or rocks under the loose fill material. These will eventually become exposed and present a hazard.
The safety surface needs a border around it so that it does not spread out onto your surrounding lawn. The border can be constructed of wood railroad ties, plastic or composite lumber, or a box can be excavated around the swing set and the ground can provide a border. Whichever material or border type you choose, the loose fill material should be a minimum of 6 to 8 inches deep. Periodically, the kicked-out material under the slide and swings should be raked back into place. Place a piece of rubber mat or indoor/outdoor carpet in these high traffic areas to help keep the material in place.
There should be at least 6 feet between the end of the slide and the border. For swings, the border should be twice the height of the crossbeam from the swings. For example, if your crossbeam height is 7 feet, then the border should be 14 feet from the swings, front and back. If you don’t have that much space, make the distance as great as possible.
The easiest way to make your children safe on a swing set is to supervise them actively. Spot them on monkey bars, rock walls or other climbing activities. Teach them not to walk in front of swings or run on playground equipment.
We know that 95 percent of injuries on slides occur when children climb up the slide, lose their balance and fall over the side. Teach your children not to climb up the slide, and when there are groups of children in your yard, have an adult stationed at the bottom of the slide.
What kind of wood?
Treated wood, which is southern yellow pine, does not have a natural resistance to decay and insects like cedar and redwood, and therefore must be chemically treated to achieve those characteristics. Until two years ago, the chemical used to treat southern yellow pine was a commonly used pesticide called CCA, which contains copper, chromium and arsenic — all known carcinogens. Facing regulation, the forest industry voluntarily stopped using CCA and now uses an FDA-approved chemical called ACQ. Regardless, southern yellow pine is not as well suited for swing sets as cedar and redwood. Southern yellow pine tends to splinter and crack more and is just plain ugly. Cedar and redwood, on the other hand, are much less prone to splintering and if maintained properly can last as long as a wooden deck.
Eliminating the danger
Seemingly innocent objects not part of a swing set have proven to be fraught with danger. These include jump ropes, bicycle tire tubes, bicycle helmets, dog leashes, sweatshirt drawstrings, mittens attached to jacket sleeves, and climbing ropes. As a general rule, anything that is not part of the swing set does not belong on the swing set.
Climbing ropes that are part of the swing set must be anchored at both ends to prevent a child from wrapping the rope around her neck.
Most important is supervision. If you properly supervise your children, they will have years of safe fun on their swing set.
DOUG FISHKIN has been designing custom swing sets and playgrounds for 20 years and is the owner of The Custom Swing Set Company in Greenwich, CT. He is also a Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (203) 861-9399.
This rock with a rope is securely fastened at the bottom.