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Set to Play

Once upon a time, the biggest question parents faced when they bought outdoor play equipment was whether they wanted a blue swing set or a red one.

Today, parents who want to provide their children with something to play on in the back yard face a more intimidating task. Two swings and a slide on a rusting metal frame have evolved into complicated wooden structures complete with towers, tunnels and climbing walls. Equipment such as this was once found only in public parks, and some of it carries a price tag that seems suited more for municipal budgets than family spending.

The questions facing would-be possessors of play sets can be daunting: Should parents spend a few hundred dollars, a few thousand, or something in between? Should they buy just what their children will play with now and add on later or get everything at once? Should they put it together themselves or pay someone to do it? Pressure-treated lumber or cedar? How do they know what is safe?

Play sets can be purchased at specialty, lumber and home improvement stores, from small local manufacturers and through catalogs. Some manufacturers recommend that customers allow them to install the sets, usually for an extra fee, but many play sets come with instructions for installation and can be put up by two adults in four to six hours. Some lumber and home stores sell do-it-yourself kits containing swings, hardware and other accessories and including specifications for lumber.

Manufacturers tout their products' ability to ignite imaginations and enhance muscle development and motor skills and attribute their popularity to the combination of a strong economy and working parents who want to spend free time with their children at home.

Richard Skinner, who builds play sets at his family's Plant City business, Hawkins Corner, said two other factors are also fueling the boom.

"There's the concern of the parents," he said. "They'd rather have their kids in the back yard than down the street at the park."

The other consideration is that "if the Joneses down the street have one that has one slide on it, the Smiths decide they'll get one with two."

The price of keeping up with the Joneses can vary enormously. At Scotty's on 22nd Avenue N in St. Petersburg, a kit with two swings, a trapeze bar and hardware is $84.99, plus the cost of lumber. Packaged kits, aimed at those willing to do some of the work themselves, contain specification sheets detailing the dimensions of lumber needed to build the wooden structure on which the swings, trapezes and other accessories hang.

Another kit, with a turbo slide, pirates' ladder, climbing rope and canopies for two forts, goes for $249, and there are several kits in between. Assistant manager Nicey Rizzo said that with lumber, the most modest play sets cost about $350.

On the other end of the spectrum are fully loaded models made of redwood, cedar or painted wood that can easily cost more than $1,000, with some models priced at $5,000 or more.

The most expensive model sold by Cedar Grove Creative Play Center in Tampa is King Kong, made by Rainbow Play Systems. The redwood set includes a play deck, swings, spiral slide, penthouse and monkey bars and costs $5,149 plus $300 for installation.

"It's more like a room addition than a swing set," said Cedar Grove marketing director Kristel Apel. Rainbow's least expensive set, a fort and slide called Backyard Circus geared for toddlers, costs $599 plus $179 for installation. (Rainbow products can also be ordered at Scotty's.)

Like room additions, play sets require space, ideally with at least a little shade. A minimum of 6 feet of open space on each side of the play set is recommended to accommodate children running, jumping, swinging and coming off slides. For average-sized sets, that means a minimum area of about 16 by 24 feet, though some manufacturers can fit them into tighter spots.

A protective surface, such as sand, gravel, wood chips or double-shredded bark mulch, is recommended under the set and extending for 6 feet on all sides.

Most play sets are free-standing, often weighing more than 1,000 pounds, though some of the smaller models need to be anchored to the ground, and most are bolted together, making them fairly easy to take down and reassemble.

When LeeAnn and William Kinzler of Tierra Verde, parents of 1{-year old twins Mark and Matthew, decided to get a play set, they considered buying a small, molded plastic set that they would replace when their children got older. But when they discovered that even those sets can cost several hundred dollars, they decided to get something for the long haul.

"We wanted something that they could use for a long period of time, from the time they are little until the time they stop using a play set," LeeAnn Kinzler said.

After hours spent reading consumer guides, shopping and talking to other parents, they decided on a model made by Childlife, a manufacturer in Holliston, Mass., that offers sets ranging from about $570 to more than $6,000.

The set they chose, which includes a sandbox, a raised playhouse with a canopy roof, three swings and a slide, cost about $1,500.

"We looked and looked," LeeAnn said. "It was expensive, but when you really sat down and looked at what we were going to spend over time, we decided we were going to pay now or pay later."

The play set the Kinzlers chose is made of pressurized wood covered with three layers of finish, including a green lacquer. It came with a 25-year warranty, requires minimal maintenance and can be expanded as the children grow, she said.

A pediatric nurse turned lawyer, LeeAnn was also impressed with safety features such as a back panel on the ladder leading to the playhouse that keeps little feet from slipping through, and a trapdoor on the playhouse that can be closed when children are inside to prevent falls. The striped canopy above the playhouse was treated to protect both it and children playing beneath it from the sun, and the lacquer coating the wood diminishes the likelihood of splinters. She and her husband also liked the way it looks.

"We're really pleased with it so far," she said.

And the kids?

"They really love the swings, and going up in the playhouse," she said, noting that older children who come to play have also enjoyed it.

The play set took William Kinzler and two other men three or four hours to install, but the only complaints LeeAnn heard were about the heat. "They didn't seem to have any problems," she said, adding that her husband, a dentist, knows his way around a toolbox.

Jonathan Nash of Childlife recommends starting with a basic structure, such as swings, a playhouse and an adjustable slide, and adding on as children get older and their interests emerge. Experts say play sets get the most use from children ages 2 to 8 or 9.

Most parents don't know when their child is a year old whether he or she is more interested in climbing or swinging, he said.

Raised areas, called towers, forts, playhouses, treehouses, castles and various other names in play-set lingo, are often adjustable and should not be higher than 4 or 5 feet above ground for children younger than 5, Nash said. For smaller children, parents can keep things interesting lower to the ground with such things as sandboxes and steering wheels, he said.

There are endless varieties of slides, among them spirals, tubes, scoops and short, easy sloping models for toddlers. Made of brightly colored plastic, they come in a range of weight capacities, so when making a selection parents should consider how much use their slide could get. "Build it so no matter what the maximum stress could be, you're covered," advised Skinner of Hawkins Corner in Plant City.

Though plastic does not get as hot as metal, slides _ or any outdoor equipment, including bicycles _ that are exposed to the sun can inflict serious burns, said Teresa Hendy, a playground design and safety consultant whose company, Site Masters, is based in Cincinnati.

"Parents need to be aware that hot surfaces can cause second- and third-degree burns, especially on children," she said. She advised parents always to check the temperature of slide surfaces before children use them. Positioning them north to south can reduce exposure to direct sun.

Swings have changed since many parents of young children were children themselves. Board swings, with their potential for smacking unwitting bystanders in the head, are essentially a thing of the past, Skinner said. Most swings today are made of mesh or flexible or molded plastic and are hung with marine-grade rope or chains encased in plastic or vinyl. Skinner recommends the marine grade rope in Florida, as plastics tend to deteriorate in the sun and bare chains can pinch fingers.

Concerns were raised recently about pressure-treated lumber, which is widely used for decks and picnic tables as well as play sets, after a television show reported that the wood contains dangerous levels of arsenic, which is used as a pesticide, Hendy and others said.

The program "grossly misinterpreted toxicity reports on pressure-treated lumber," Hendy said. Pressure-treated lumber does contain arsenic, and the report on which the program was based made it clear that there is value in sanding and coating the wood with a water seal or stain, Hendy said. But, she said, the levels cited in the report were "well within the safe range for use with children."

Play sets made from cedar or redwood, such as Rainbow products, are naturally resistant to insects and decay and are not chemically treated, said Shawn Wolf of Cedar Grove, Rainbow's Tampa area district manager.

As for maintenance, experts recommend checking bolts weekly when a set is first installed, and then at least a few times annually thereafter. Exposed wood should be stained about once a year to protect the wood, avoid splinters and prevent leaching, and parents should check periodically for fraying ropes, worn hooks and other hardware, and splits, warping, large cracks and other problems in wood that could indicate structural defects, Hendy said. Hairline cracks in wood are normal, she said.

A last bit of advice: Those whose children are expecting a play set from Santa had better plan ahead.

Though there are parents who have managed to put sets together themselves between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, they may want to use a strategy with less potential for stress, such as giving the child a picture of the play set on Christmas morning and saying it was too big for Santa's sled.

One woman who wrapped the swings and put them under the tree on Christmas morning met the installers when they pulled into her driveway a few days later and had them put on little elves' hats, Skinner said.

Better that than building it ahead of time and covering it up, he said.

"A 5-year-old is not going to buy that."

Hilde Hartnett is a freelance writer who lives in St. Petersburg with her husband and two young children.

For information

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Washington, D.C., 20207; (800) 638-2772, Internet:

American Society for Testing Materials, 100 Barr Harbor Drive, West Conshohocken, PA, 19428-2959; (610) 832-9500; Internet:

Childlife Inc., 55 Whitney St., Holliston, MA, 01746; (800) 467-9464; Internet:

Cedar Grove Creative Play Center, 6311 E Hillsborough Ave., Tampa, FL 33610; (813) 630-0212; Internet:

Hawkins Corner, 3611 Redman Parkway, Plant City, FL; (813) 752-4938.