Child’s play

Backyard playsets reach a new level


Detroit Free Press

It is the kind of tree house that a kid could spend all day and all night inside.

Patrick and Cindy Mifsud’s kids have in fact pulled all-nighters in the cedar and pine play set nestled in their backyard in Dearborn Heights, Mich.

The tree house sits a story above ground in an old-growth tree and is supported by beams. The tree was trimmed to accommodate and support the structure as well.

Custom made a decade ago, the 10-by-10 foot tree house has five paned windows, a shingled roof and a nine-foot ceiling. The inside, with a kid-sized bunk bed with waterproof mattresses, is made cozier by a television and a fan, both mounted into the walls. A ladder leads up to a landing and stairs lead up to the second landing at the door.

A sliding board provides a swift and fun trip from the first landing to the ground.

“Maybe I wanted this kind of a tree house when I was a kid,” Patrick Mifsud said with a smile. With two older children who have outgrown the playset, it’s now the domain of his 13-year-old son. A custom playset of this intricacy could cost about $25,000, said Dan Wright, owner of the Outdoor Fun Store, which built the tree house.

Backyard play equipment is not all slides and swings anymore. Sandboxes are going out of fashion, too, being replaced by spring-free trampolines, ziplines and rock-climbing walls. Modular and custom options are as vast as whatever you can dream up — from swing sets with crawl tunnels or billy goat bridges to clubhouses, “penthouses” or contraptions that could rival the local county park.

Dave Byrum, owner of Kids Gotta Play in New Hudson, Mich., boasts the largest factory in the nation for backyard playsets.

It offers 100 customizable modular sets — which the company refers to as play systems — made of naturally decay-resistant California redwood, western cedar and coast Douglas fir. They run from about $999 to $45,000 or more. The modular equipment grows with the child — pieces for stronger, older kids, such as monkey bars and chain ladders, can be added over time, Byrum said. The company’s typical play system runs between $3,000 and $4,000 and costs about $400 to $600 to install.

Sloped or uneven backyards are accommodated with supports and frames to keep the play system level, Byrum said.

Before selecting a design online or from a catalog, make sure to try it. “You’ve got to come into the showroom and let the kids test it out,” Byrum said. “Let the kids loose, see what they like.”


• Wooden playscapes, once typically made of sharp-edged lumber, have been retooled with rounded edges. Bargain hunters and do-it-yourselfers beware of pressure-treated wood because it contains arsenic. Choose cedar instead.

• Platforms, bridges and ramps need guardrails. Children should not play on wet equipment.

• A home play area should maintain a shock-absorbing surface, such as mulch or wood chips, at least 6 feet around and about 3 to 4 inches deep for rubber mulch and 6 to 8 inches deep for wood chips. Be sure to use landscaping fabric underneath any mulch to keep out the grass and weeds.

• Wood chips available at landscaping or gardening stores will suffice. Some play system owners opt for recycled rubber that looks like landscaping mulch. It’s offered in a variety of colors from $12.99 to $14.99 for a 30-pound bag.

• Metal swing sets start at about $199 at toy stores or big box merchants. Wooden modular systems can cost $999 and up.

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