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Store-Bought Playground vs Nature - Pros and Cons

 
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My husband and other family want our daughter to have an outdoor playset, and they're waiting on me to pick one out. I'm overwhelmed by the options and am having trouble committing to one long-term. Is it worth it to invest in a playset? Will it enhance my daughter's movements and creativity or stifle it? Is she better off simply playing in nature without the slide and manufactured climbing areas?

I'm a first time mom and could use some advice from parents who have "been there, done that." Anything in particular that you looked for with a playset? Or what factored into your decision as you decided to get or not get one?

For background info -- my daughter is 2. She's an only child and will likely stay that way. Her elementary-aged cousins come to play every couple of months, so our play areas will be largely for solo play or with an adult. Right now, she goes to a park about twice a week and plays on those playgrounds.

I'm not handy enough to build a playset, and there's no one in my family who can do it anytime soon. My "nature play" areas have so far consisted of aligning stumps for her to walk on.
 
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I see kids (nieces and nephews and friend's children) using the play sets, but mostly only the big ones at parks, and it seems more social than just the movement play part of the equation. At home, they seem to prefer bikes, a rope swing or hammock, a trampoline, or a mud kitchen type set up, ie smaller more individual components for playing with one or two other children or by themselves. They also build forts and ramps and play houses with what they can find. They do like "tree houses" so some version of a tree house or perch with maybe a climbing piece would be my first choice for any kind of play structure.

Children seem to like to make their own worlds when playing, so anything that is too static or inflexible seems to get ignored pretty quickly.

Specific to your situation, I noticed that you live in South Carolina, so I will mention another factor: play surfaces like slides or climbing walls get searing hot in the sun where my family lives in Georgia, and the kids cannot/will not touch them for a large part of the day during warmer months.
 
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I second Nikki’s assessment! Rope swing with a tire/board/big knot is great fun for cheap and allows different creative games, and the kids don’t outgrown them as fast as most of the pre made play sets.. Kids looooove hammocks, too.

How many kids you are providing and whether they have other options nearby makes a difference too. My uncle watched his own kids and his brother’s when they were small, so durable (expensive) toddler play set was worth it for four kids under age four.

For our two kids, with a big city playground a block away, we didn’t feel the need to make our yard into a playground, but we did add a wooden platform and tire swing to the mulberry tree.
 
Nikki Roche
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Thank you, Mercy! You brought up some great points. My mind is swirling now with smaller play areas that I can create or have around the yard,  rather than one big thing in one spot.
 
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Funny moment here: I grew up going by the name Nikki, and I was still waking up when I saw your post. These factors combined with actually having helped my Father-in-Law pick playground equipment, made me think your post was something I'd written 4 years ago and forgotten about, and was totally going to do an update on the playset we ended up with, and other ones we've added to it over the years. And then I read all of your post and realized it wasn't my post . Maybe that means I can help answer your question as here I am 4 years down the road!

I just ran out and took a picture of our largely non-permie playsets that were given to us. Aside from the little thrift store kitchenette, we didn't purchase any of these things!



I don't think a play set is necessary, but they sure are fun! I personally wouldn't fork out crazy amounts of money on them, but if people want to buy them for you, I'd let them! I personally found that both of my kids were kind of clingy outside, and generally only play when I'm near by. They started playing more independently when they were 4 & 7, but still rarely go out and play unless I'm out there! I'll go through each of their playsets in the above picture with a bit of history and how they've interacted with them.

Tan slide with steering wheels and climbing wall (AKA Castle Boat): This was the first playset we got. My father-in-law bought it for my son when my son was 2. Honestly, my son only really played with it when we were there. Once my daughter started toddling around, they played on it more. The slide is usually wet, so they usually just play on the top fort. They call it their "Castle Boat." The steering function and climbing wall are the most used sections. They never played underneath it, thought it's advertised as having a play area underneath. The kids are 6 and 9 now, and they still play on it.

White kitchenette When I was a kid, my neighbor had one of these, and I thought it was the best thing ever. So, when I saw one at the thrift store, I picked it up for my kids. They honestly don't use it much. When my son was a toddler, he'd put a skillet on it and say, "Cook it on three." They spent a lot of time filling it with gravel and dirt. My nieces have an outside kitchenette, and play with it a lot more!

Tables and chairs They don't really use these very much, but they come in handy when we do crafts or homeschool work outside. We also use them to sit in the shade behind the house during the summer. They've had tea parties and eaten berries I picked at the tables, too. Honestly, they only really use them when I'm involved or they want somewhere to sit in the shade.

Swing set made out of pallet wood My father-in-law gave us the swing, and my dad made the structure to hold the swing out of pallets. They like being pushed on the swing, and I like sitting on the swing and swinging with them. They don't seem to swing on it by themselves. If they do use the swing, it's to twist it up and let it untwist. The actually play the most on the wood plank platform my dad put on the left side. They call this the "dock of the bay." My son pretends to do water samples from up there, and my daughter brings out toys and food and they have picnics/parties on it. They also like to go between it and the "Castle Boat." They also like swinging out on the rope to the swing and then back again. It's a simple structure, but they've made a lot of memories on it! I also hang a cheap cloth hammock on it during the summer, and they love that.

Climbing dome Honestly, they don't play on this much unless there's other kids around. They often refuse to let us mow under it, and when there's tall grass under, they don't play there. We've put tarps over it, and they liked that as a little hiding structure. They also like to use it to climb up on other structures, or as part of their obstacle courses.

Blue swing set They like the two-seat swing the best! It's easier for kids to swing. They like swinging it together, and by themselves. This is actually something they want to do more by themselves than with other kids, because the swingset tends to rock. My son likes to pretend to joust on it.

Big Slide We got this from my brother & sister-in-law, and attached it to the swing set. They like it, but haven't played on it much yet, because it's relatively new, and it was either too hot or too wet, I think. My daughter says she does like playing on it, because it's "even funner. It's bigger and so funner. Why we aren't playing on it, because it's usually raining or it's wet on the grass, and it's always damp."

Cabin We got this from our neighbor at the tail end of last summer, and my daughter LOVES it. She's made it into her house restaurant that she sells food out of. Both kids like climbing up on it and sitting on the roof. This one is a big hit.

I asked my kids if they thought you should get a playset for your kids:

My daughter (6): Yeah, because it's fun. Because you can go down slides WOOOSH. We like to climb up the ladder. My favorite parts of the playground are the slides and the climbing ladder. My other things are kind of dangerous for two year olds, because we like jumping off of it, too. Those are the things we do, and we play nicely.

My Son (9): He says, "Yeah, because her daughter might have fun. Also it gets her creative. It makes her be creative. I like to make up games for my sister and I to do. I like to make challenges, like trying not to touch the grass and go all the way around the playground and go from one set to another, all the way around the playset without touching the grass. we like to do picnics on our wooden lifted planks (because they are lifted). "

I asked then them: "Do you like your tree fort house and dig pit more than your other play sets? Which do you like the most?
Daughter: All of them!
Son: I'd go for the dig pit!

"Do you think their mom should buy an expensive playset, or just get a smaller one"
Son: Just get a smaller one. Because it's less expensive $$$. It's just as much fun to play on the smaller ones as on the big ones.
Daughter:  Smaller, because it's not expensive, as much. I think smaller ones are funner.
Son:  How?
Daughter: I don't think the slides are funner, but the ladders are.

Listening to their responses, it looks like the most important things are: something to climb up, a elevated play area, one of those two-seater swings, and a big slide.

I don't think you need to rush out and get a giant playset when your daughter is two. Something small like our tan "Castle boat" was great for my kids for many years, and adding new stuff as they get older just keeps it novel and fun.

Another thing I didn't mention is a water table, water tray, or puddle of some sort. Kids love playing with water, seeing what sinks/floats, staying cool playing with water, putting bubbles in it and playing with the bubbles, scooping and dumping water, etc.
 
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My kids are 28 and 21, so it's been a while. But, I think it comes down to the space and money you want to dedicate. If you have more money than time, there's nothing wrong with putting in an amazing backyard climber/swing/slide set. If you have more time than money, there's nothing wrong with not building one and just taking your kids to the park or woods. I did "ninja training" with my kids in local state parks that included crossing streams on fallen trees, climbing trees and vines, bushwhacking, etc. Not for physical fitness as much as for confidence and fun, but that's just what worked for our dynamic. We also had a little toddler-scale plastic slide thing and some of those plastic kitchen sets. Later, when we wanted swings, we just tossed ropes over large limbs and either added a board/tire or even just a knot at the bottom. Now we have a granddaughter about to turn six and she has a swing here that our daughter (her aunt) built for her.
 
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Christopher Weeks wrote:.... that's just what worked for our dynamic.

Brilliantly put! That sums up what I am trying to say: every family has a different "dynamic" and any things you try will help you see what kind of dynamic(s) your family has as your daughter is growing. She might love a standard playset option, or be all about the natural space option, or both options, or something else entirely--like bicycling with friends all day, you know?

When my only child was two (four years ago!) I wanted to do everything mother-y PERFECTLY, right away. I have learned: You can't, you won't, you don't have to be a perfect mom. You do the very best you can day by day, make good plans as best as you know how, and constantly pivot and adjust them throughout the many varied seasons of a child's growing up years. Things are constantly changing. I still can't believe how much the dynamics change at our house for one small family and one child as she progresses through her years. "Dynamic" is such a good word to describe the development of all the members of a family together!
 
Nicole Alderman
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Yes! Every family is different! I also wanted to have all the most epic play structures already for my kids when they were born, but every child is so different. I spent hours of my life swinging in a normal swing by myself, but my kids don't care much for it. Every kids and every family is different!

I would honestly start with a small playground and add to it as your child shows interest (or lack of interest) in different things. And, who knows, you might end up getting play structures as gifts or freebies off craiglist or from the side of the road!

My kids were clingy, and I know not all kids are. But, you might also find your kid would rather play by you as you garden, so it might be nice to have play areas (even if it's dirt to dig in, or logs to walk across, or stones to jump from one to another) while you work.
 
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Nikki Roche wrote:My husband and other family want our daughter to have an outdoor playset, and they're waiting on me to pick one out. I'm overwhelmed by the options and am having trouble committing to one long-term. Is it worth it to invest in a playset?



Personally I'd vote for nature. Can I put in a plug for Charlotte Mason and her emphasis on getting children outside, so that they can encounter nature, here? =)
 
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In 2020 we got a second hand structure for free from someone whose kids had outgrown it ; the thing that made it most appealing to the kids (and made it more usable in the summer) was hanging old shade cloth on it with zip ties.  It created a little elevated cave for them.  They also had me drag the mud kitchen I made them (from a discarded stainless steel sink and some pressure tested scraps) under the slide so they could set up a “restaurant “

This year I built a small swing set since my daughter really wanted one; she uses it but the play structure and mud kitchen get more use.
 
Nikki Roche
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Steven Kovacs wrote:In 2020 we got a second hand structure for free from someone whose kids had outgrown it ; the thing that made it most appealing to the kids (and made it more usable in the summer) was hanging old shade cloth on it with zip ties.  It created a little elevated cave for them.  They also had me drag the mud kitchen I made them (from a discarded stainless steel sink and some pressure tested scraps) under the slide so they could set up a “restaurant “

This year I built a small swing set since my daughter really wanted one; she uses it but the play structure and mud kitchen get more use.



The shade cloth is a smart idea! We just received an old playset from our neighbor this week, and the temperatures are already hitting 90F.
 
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Swing sets can be good for meeting children's sensory needs, especially if your outdoor environment can't meet those needs.

For example my kids really need to climb but our woods consists of Douglas fir, alders, and vine maple. Either the branches are impossibly high or too spindly. The poor alders fall over sometimes and start growing sideways and then are bounced on but that's not enough for kids who want to climb high. So we have a climbing wall in an indoor wall and our swing set is eight feet tall and they are allowed to climb on top if they like.

My kids also find swinging to be calming and relaxing. Our trees cannot safely hold ropes or swings so that is mainly what our swing set consists of. My kids were throwing ropes over branches and then tying the rope around their waists while the other children were pulling them up into the trees. I let them do a lot of "risky play" but that I put a stop too. So the swing set let's them have a similar experience without the risk of accidentally hanging someone.

Another benefit of swinging is that it gets my teenager outside and playing because she is not naturally an outdoor person. But she and her friends can sit and swing and chat for long time and I prefer that to them sitting in the house... Especially because the yard has no wifi and the cell signal is horrid. 😆

Ten years ago for $200 we bought someone's old playset which consisted of a tower and slide and a rope swing. Eventually the bottom started to rot so a couple of years ago we chopped the bottom off and set the top in the woods to use as a play house. Then someone gave us their old metal swing set. It was already decades old when we got it but that thing is so sturdy. Some of the chains on the swings finally started breaking last year but the frame is still solid. When the swings started breaking, the kids started using it more as an obstacle course. We regularly had all the neighborhood kids and visitors clambering over it.

After all these years of watching my kids play, I realized the thing they would use most would be plain old swings so in February, my husband build our new swing set. I got hardware and swings that holds thousands of pounds because I want my teenagers to play on it plus I want to swing on it too. My husband and dad ended up building a little playhouse off one end and attaching our old slides to that because we have them but the kids don't slide very much. I'm considering adding a cargo net to climb up on one side but haven't made up my mind yet.

Overall I would suggest not spending tons of money on playsets when kids are small because you can find a lot of fun things for free or cheap and then in the meantime you can figure out what they really like playing with, what motivates them to get outside, and what things your outdoor space is lacking. Maybe you'll find that your kid hates climbing or swinging but prefers building or digging.
Screenshot_20230613-223031-2.png
No, I don't have that many kids. These are kids from four different families on our road. It's definitely a social hangout spot
No, I don't have that many kids. These are kids from four different families on our road. It's definitely a social hangout spot
 
Nicole Alderman
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Jenny Wright wrote:
For example my kids really need to climb but our woods consists of Douglas fir, alders, and vine maple. Either the branches are impossibly high or too spindly. The poor alders fall over sometimes and start growing sideways and then are bounced on but that's not enough for kids who want to climb high



I totally feel you on this! Our property is much the same. We have some big leaf maples, but the lower branches are too high for kids to climb to, and too thin to hang swings from. We were given a big dish swing, but no where to hang it from! My dad built us a swing set out of pallets that the kids love.

the pallet swingset, built to hold the dish swing, is in the middle


But, I will add about climbing trees: if you have the chance when your kids are little to plant some standard or semi-dwarf apple trees, do it! We planted this semi-dwarf when we moved in (the year before my son was born), because they were able to climb it within 9 years. So right at the time my son was really wanting to climb, there was something just the right size for him to climb.
Semi-dwarf apple tree planted the year before my son was born. My son climbing it when he was 7


Standard sized fruit trees grow nice and fast, too. And their branches are often very nicely distributed. We planted a sapling when my son was one, and by the time he was 8, he was climbing it!

Planting it at age 1
Climbing it at age 8


The semi-dwarf we planted when we moved in, is also strong enough to hold my weight (I'm about 135 pounds). I was pruning it, and my ladder didn't reach to the middle, so I stepped out on the branches and they held my weight!

So, for those who still have little ones, and have nothing natural to climb (and room to plant a big fruit tree), go ahead and plant one! It'll grow with them and be climbable by the time they're really into climbing.

 
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Check out any parks with obstacle courses. If you have any property, start out small and add a few obstacles at a time. Be creative, you can easily make your own see saw with a barrel and blank; 6x6 beam for learning balance walking, etc, etc.
 
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It depends in part to the availability of nice playgrounds in your area. I live in an urban setting, so no domestic playset could ever compete with a) the variety and scale of the municipal playgrounds we have around b) the fact that playgrounds come pre-packaged with "friends".

That said, I'm with the others in favor of some sort of swing, which is pleasant at all ages and complements what nature can offer. We don't have one, but the girls used the parks' swings a lot.

My girls loved having a mulched and shaded area in the back of the yard with pavers placed in a criss-cross pattern that they could play hopscotch on. They called it "the forest", even though it was tiny.

We also have a large rock (maybe 2 feet high, 2 feet deep, 4 feet wide, and mostly flat) that they used as their "crafting area": it was always filled with "special" rocks, sticks, wilted flowers... They had a large metal pot to make "potions" in, and that was the mud kitchen they used the most. At some point (6ish?), we added a kid-friendly carving knife to explore whittling, and when I prune things, I always leave long vines or branches with fort potential for them to play with.

(I gave up on fancy pinteresty outdoor kitchens a long time ago. Those were ruthlessly ignored, )
 
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The only playground equipment that I had as a kid was a swing that my dad built for me.

My kids never had any playground equipment.

We lived in Dallas, Tx and there were wonderful parks in their system.

By the time we moved to our homestead, my kids had outgrown playgrounds.  Which is good since the nearest city had parks with no playground equipment.

We took part in visiting State Parks with fun things to do.
 
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