Places to Play

Thinking of building a play area where the kids can run, swing, slide, climb, hang, hide and jump? Get a head start with these 15 ideas designed to inspire.

Related To:

  1. Playhouses
  2. Planning

backyard play area

(Photo by Andre Chinn)

All-In-One Play Area

What's the best way to start planning your backyard play area? Watch your kids run around the local playground. That'll give you an idea about how they play. Maybe they are keen climbers or they just can't stay off the swings.

You don't have to stuff every playground feature known to man into your structure. This play area has plenty of running area, loose wood chips to cushion any falls and a roof that provides shelter from sun and rain. Solidly constructed, it combines swings, a slide, a climbing ramp and places to hide.

Play Like a Kid, Plan Like a Parent

LOCATION: As you plan your play area, location is key. Find a spot free of obstacles. Steer clear of driveways and roads. Build in an area that will let you keep an eye on the kids from a deck or an appropriate room. Find a level area where the structure won't topple over, even if the kids are pounding on it.

Remember, there will be a lot of running around near this play set, so tree stumps, roots and large rocks could lead to stumbles. And low hanging branches could lead to bumps. It's a good idea to place the play area at least six feet away from other structures, and if you are including a swing-set, put it even farther away.

Wrap Around Playhouse

(Photo by Barbara Butler Artist-Builder Inc.)

Malibu Lighthouse

This whimsical eight-sided wraparound playhouse packs a lot of play features into an artistic structure. The guiding theme here is to unleash children's imaginations and create outdoor playrooms that are beautiful to look at and strong enough for the whole family.

With a rope ladder and fire pole, this playhouse helps kids improve hand-eye coordination and strength. Many extras were incorporated into this structure, including a cooper roof, a carved wave motif and a wavy metal railing.

Play Like a Kid, Plan Like a Parent

SAFETY: Children often injure themselves when they run between play equipment. By planning ahead, you can preempt most of your concerns and prevent collisions.

A good rule of thumb is to place each piece of equipment six feet apart. Also, consider adding impact-absorbing pads to some equipment.

It's a good idea to provide a shock-absorbing surface material underneath the equipment with a six-foot parameter.

Remember, you will need to plan for more space in front of swings. And you don't want kids exiting the slide in front of the swing set.

Treehouse

(Photo by Living Tree LLC.)

A Family Treehouse

Roomy enough for family and friends, and with amenities such as mahogany flooring and a spiral staircase, this New Jersey treehouse is not just for kids.

The designer perched this dual platform structure on a couple of strong oaks, high enough to provide pond and forest views. The top platform is the larger of the two, about 300 square feet. Below is a 190-square-foot deck. For quick escapes and some treehouse fun, there's a zip line and several rope swings.

Play Like a Kid, Plan Like a Parent

TREE LOCATION: Is it privacy you are after? Or maybe you're looking for a view, or just a good old kids' playhouse. How this structure is going to be used and who will use it are key to determining where you place it.

A few things to consider right off the bat are sun and shade patterns, and privacy. You don't want neighbors complaining after you've put all that work into building your treehouse. Let them know what you are up to.

Also, consider the distance from other structures in your yard. If the kids are going to make this their second home, you'll want to be able to supervise.

Mini Log Cabin

(Photo by Barbara Butler Artist-Builder Inc.)

Log Cabin

Not just an authentic miniature of that pioneer-era staple, but this log cabin is built to weather the elements.

Made with hand-hewn logs, the cabin has a waterproof cedar shingle roof, which helps extend the seasonal use. The logs are stained and the little extras, such as the heart-shaped openings on the shutter windows, make this a cozy cabin indeed.

Play Like a Kid, Plan Like a Parent

CONSTRUCTION MATERIAL: Depending on the structures, you may opt for wood, metal or plastic materials. Regardless, make sure they will hold up to the rigors of heavy-duty activity and weather.

A metal swing set, for example, will last longer if painted or made of galvanized materials.

For wood equipment, use rot- and insect-resistant lumber. Don't use creosote-treated materials that contain pesticides. And remember, lumber that has been pressure-treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) contains arsenic and has been banned for residential use since 2004.

Playhouse inside tree branches

(Photo by Barbara Butler Artist-Builder Inc.)

Casa de Arbol

Built around a giant oak, the tree's gnarled branches were incorporated into the very essence of this Italianate playhouse in the sky. Branches jut out from every side of the structure, through the walls, railings and the deck. The treehouse was designed to interact with the oak, but is not attached to the tree.

This structure was designed with plenty of play features, including a climbing wall, disk swing and a slide. It was painted in Tuscan colors to compliment the design.

Play Like a Kid, Plan Like a Parent

TREE DESIGN: A trick that expert treehouse designer Barbara Butler uses is the camera.

To give her clients a sense of what the completed structure will look like, Barbara will often photograph the tree, print an enlarged copy of the photo, and then outline the tree and draw her treehouse design to scale on the printout.

Barbara's technique not only provides a good spatial sense of the treehouse from several perspectives, but will also help you understand scale and provide an excellent visual blueprint to work from.

Modern Play Shed

(Photo by Velocity Art and Design)

Modern Play Shed

Inspired by classic mid-century architecture, this chic playhouse was designed to be safe, durable and fun. It includes double-opening dutch doors, 12 plexiglass window panels and a sloped roof, which give it those modern lines that complement many contemporary homes.

The shed, which comes in a pre-fab kit, is made of exterior grade plywood, fir, prefinished birch, plexiglass and all-weather PVC. It is designed to sit on a level bed of gravel. It measures 88" x 44" and is 76" high at its tallest point.

Play Like a Kid, Plan Like a Parent

SITE PLAN: To get the most out of your play area, designing with your yard in mind is key. A site plan is a splendid idea.

A backyard site plan is an overhead view of the entire play area, depicting the accurate dimensions of all the play structures and aligning them with your yard's terrain.

Spending some time carefully measuring, assessing the slopes, the shrubbery and the distances between structures will pay big dividends later on.

Treehouse Climbing Wall

(Photo by Barbara Butler Artist-Builder Inc.)

Magic Treehouse

This is a treehouse made for kids who love to climb.

Nestled into a small grove of redwoods, you climb aboard using rungs that are attached to a sapling smack in the middle of the trees.

Alternatively, you could scurry up the rock climbing wall. But don't worry, an abundance of bouncy wood chips surround the structure in the event of a climbing mishap.

The treehouse, with a wrap-around deck, is situated right across from the deck of the main house so that parents can keep an eye on the kids. What's more, a pulley bucket attached to the treehouse deck allows mom to send an emergency snack any time.

The forest color pallette for the Magic Treehouse was expressly selected to complement the Redwood grove and adorn the woodsy yard.

Play Like a Kid, Plan Like a Parent

CHOOSING A TREE: When selecting a tree, make a good long assessment of the candidates in your yard. You'll be looking for a healthy tree with adequate branch thickness. Consider the current age and the future growth of the tree. Determine whether it is flexible enough to tolerate movement. How well does it do in a wind storm? Are you in a high lightening area?

Don't just look up. Check for signs of diseased roots, and inspect the trunk for decay.

It's a good idea to bring in an arborist for a professional assessment of the vigor of your tree. If the tree shows signs of disease, decay, limited trunk girth or too few branches, move on.

Playhouse with signs

(Photo by Lilliput Play Homes)

Little Raskels Playhouse

The green and white color combo works beautifully with the woodsy surroundings, but this is hardly a rustic lair. Some of the defining features for this clubhouse are a loft with a skylight and a lookout perch above.

This playhouse will find multi-seasonal use with sturdy playhouse-sized windows to keep the kids cozy. The base is 6-by-11 feet, and the front porch is 4-by-3 feet, with a front door height of about 5 feet.

Play Like a Kid, Plan Like a Parent

HARDWARE: Think carefully about the hardware for every structure. You want to be certain it can handle the level of activity and is appropriate for the weather conditions. You will also want to pay strict attention to your assembly techniques.

Of course you want to avoid protruding bolts, which can cause lacerations and entangle clothing, and you'll want to plug the ends of tubes. Use lock washers and self-locking nuts to prevent loosening, and close hooks so that gaps are minimal.

If you are building a kit, make sure to use the screws, bolts and other hardware that are recommended by the manufacturer.

Pink and Green Playhouse

(Photo by Barbara Butler Artist-Builder Inc.)

Garden Playhouse

You can't help but smile when you peer out the kitchen window at this wonderfully whimsical playhouse. It certainly adds artistic pizazz to your backyard. Using a diverse palette that includes hot pink and grass green, the Garden Playhouse complements an already naturally beautiful setting.

With stars affixed to the pyramid roof for an extra touch of fun, there is no inhibition in this design. It can be built in a variety of sizes, small enough to fit on a deck or big enough to accommodate adults.

Play Like a Kid, Plan Like a Parent

MAINTANANCE: The best way of assuring that your play area will last a long time and remain safe is to routinely maintain the structure.

On active play equipment such as swing sets, inspect and tighten nuts and bolts once or twice a month. Oil moving parts occasionally. Make sure caps and plugs on bolts and tubes are secure. Check that the seats and chains on swing sets are handling the wear and tear. Sand and repair rusted areas.

Weather takes a heavy toll on play equipment and structures, so, for example, remove plastic swing seats during cold weather when they can crack.

Cottage Tudor Playhouse

(Photo by Lilliput Play Homes)

Tudor Playhouse

The "Teddy Bear Tudor" was inspired by the picturesque cottages of the Cotswolds, a one-time sheep farming region in the British countryside known for its gentle hills and quaint villages.

Beautifully detailed, this tiny Tudor is made of brick and stone walls, criss-cross trim and a real thatched roof. It is quite a garden site, with its window boxes and a cobblestone walkway leading to the front door.

Play Like a Kid, Plan Like a Parent

RESOURCES: The Outdoor Home Playground Safety Handbook, produced by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, provides excellent tips for building and maintaining play areas that are injury-free.

ASTM International, previously known as the American Society for Testing and Materials, provides consumer safety performance specifications for playground equipment.

Interlocking Sandbox

(Photo by SandLock)

Sandlock Sandbox

All of those sandbox features that parents look for have been designed into this backyard play structure, which come as an easy-to-assemble kit.

These sandboxes are designed with an interlocking construction. They come with removable seats, an umbrella bracket and puncture resistant ground barrier. When playtime is over, fasten the vinyl cover onto the sandbox to keep it clean and dry.

Play Like a Kid, Plan Like a Parent

SURFACE MATERIALS: Plan well with surface materials around swings, slides and other play structures and you will avoid many cuts, scrapes and other injuries.

If you use loose-fill materials like wood chips or recycled rubber, the rule of thumb is nine inches of material for equipment up to eight-feet high. If you use sand or gravel, create a nine-inch depth for a structure five feet high. Remember that these materials compress, so you'll have to initially put several more inches down. And you will have to periodically replace the fill, which will get displaced. The fills should be installed over grass or soft surfaces, not over concrete.

Theater Playhouse

(Photo by Barbara Butler Artist-Builder Inc.)

Sunshine Theatre

For the young thespians in the family what's better than an outdoor stage of their own, complete with ticket window and a "Now Playing" chalkboard?

Backstage there is plenty of room to store costumes and hats on built-in pegs and pocket shelves, which are surrounded by a decorative railing. The theatre is brightly painted to mirror the excitement of opening night.

Play Like a Kid, Plan Like a Parent

COLOR AND CREATIVITY: The location of the play area will help determine the colors and designs on the structure. Do you want it to blend in with the shrubbery and terrain? Or do you want to jazz it up with bright colors and whimsical designs?

To begin, think about how long the structure will remain in the yard. Is it just for when the kids are small, or will it be here for many, many years?

You may also consider the possibility that today's playhouse could be converted into tomorrow's garden shed.

Open Treehouse Platform

(Photo by Barbara Butler Artist-Builder Inc.)

Tree Perch

With a sturdy ladder and an opening to hop onto a zip line, this platform is actually part of a bigger play area.

It's the zip line that provides the thrills and whisks you over to the rest of the fun.

The open treehouse platform is perched high enough to ensure an exciting ride on the zip line's comfortable big ball seat.

It may take a little practice to get used to passing the ball back to its starting point, but kids quickly learn the ropes, so to speak.

Details are important when you are designing with play in mind, and don't underestimate the importance of a good color palatte.

In this case, the bold reds, oranges and greens were hardly a random selection. Those colors were chosen to complement the changing autumn leaves and enhance this backyard's overall theme. A good choice, wouldn't you agree?

Play Like a Kid, Plan Like a Parent

TREEHOUSE DESIGN: Here's your opportunity to be as whimsical as you wish — no need to adhere to design convention, though you certainly will have to follow engineering and construction convention if you want a strong, safe and solid structure.

Plan ahead so you can relax later.

The higher your treehouse, the better the view and the greater the sense of freedom. But be practical. Safety comes first, especially if the main occupants are going to be children. Five feet is fine; 10 is plenty for a kids' treehouse.

multi level playhouse swings

(Photo by Barbara Butler Artist-Builder Inc.)

Chalet with Swings

This multi-level playhouse combines charm, whimsy and plenty of activity. It has a bridge over the swings, professional climbers' holds and a turbo tube slide. From this view you can see the balcony, flower box and hand-woven netted rope ladder on the right side. On the left side is a rung ladder up to the second-story window. Lots of added touches were included in this design, which was built for the non-profit Rebuilding Together. Check out the gable roof made of cedar shingles and the Dutch doors.

Play Like a Kid, Plan Like a Parent

SWING ASSEMBLY: Level ground, adequate anchoring and proper spacing are key to installing a safe and fun swing set.

You'll want this area to be well surfaced and padded. Kids like to jump off swings, so keep the swings well away from other equipment and obstacles. Try to avoid heavy seats that can cause bumps if a child is struck. There are many strong plastic seats now available that are lightweight.

If you are planning a disk or tire swing, provide a wide berth with a 360-degree radius spaced away from other equipment and pathways. How far apart you should space each swing on a set depends on the sideways motion.

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