Make your backyard safe and kid-friendly

June 3, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Make your backyard fun and kid-friendly without spending a fortune. Barbara Butler, president and co-owner of Barbara Butler Artist-Builder, Inc., shares some great ideas.

Here are some ideas on how to spruce up your backyard with the kids without spending a fortune!

-- Find a table & chair at a garage sale (or your own garage) and let the kids make it new for the summer with some left-over paints. Scrub it down first and scrap off the loose paint, but don't worry too much about getting it perfect: the idea is to add some color for the season and to let the kids have fun.

-- Make an old-fashion tree swing with 1-1/2" diameter manila rope. You can buy it at Orchard supply. It's fantastic to look at and to play with! Tie it loosely but securely around a strong tree branch and tie a knot in the bottom to site on. Just make sure you have plenty of room to swing in all directions.

-- Buy or make a wooden bench and a wood burning tool. Let the kids have fun with it - carving their names, hearts, stars, moons. Then stain the bench a bright color and the carvings will pop!

-- String a hammock between two trees for lots of lollygagging.

-- Birdhouse. You can buy unfinished birdhouses at many stores or find plans on the internet to make your own. Have fun with the kids decorating it and put it in a focal point of the backyard.

-- Flower boxes. Simple flower boxes can be purchased at the hardware store and then decorated and planted with veggies or flowers.

-- Make your own stepping stones. Many craft stores sell kits with the molds and the cement. You provide the decoration: marbles, shells, beads, pebbles.

It's great to get the kids involved. Kids have a knack for playful decoration and it's a perfect outlet for their creative energy (which can sometimes be a bit messy!) Helping to "design" the backyard will give the kids a sense of pride and ownership too.

Barbara's Tips For Creating a Great Backyard Play Area

Picking a good spot
The start of a great play yard begins with the selection of the spot in your yard. When the kids are little there's a temptation to put it too close to the house, but as the kids grow up, the parents will want a little space. I like to place the structure some distance from the house, but within the line of sight from a kitchen or family room window. I avoid placing the play area off the master bedroom or the living room because of the possible noise conflict. Also be careful not to put the play structure where the kids will end up looking into a neighbor's bedroom. The point is to create a place where kids can be kids: loud and boisterous!

Work with your site
I like to work with the lay of the land. Frequently, the features of the landscape can enhance the design. A slide often works better on a slope, a hillside can be terraced to create a multi-level play area, and nestling a clubhouse next to the branches of a tree gives the kids a magical feeling of living in the treetops. Get creative with your design: for one project, I broke through the deck railing near the playroom door and created a bridge over to the play structure. That worked so much better than having the kids run across the deck and through the rose garden to get to their play structure.

Get the kids involved!
Kids have great ideas and you can all enjoy the design process together. I like to brainstorm first: come up with all the crazy fun ideas, then work on distilling the list down to what's really important and what will fit with your space and budget. Kids can be very good at the process!

Imagine loops
When I design a play structure, I try to create loops of play that encourage the kids to run up and down and round and round the structure, wearing them out for a good night's sleep. Give the kids places to go: up the ladder, across the bridge, ring the bell, then down the slide. I really try to avoid creating dead ends: make sure a bridge or a ladder leads to an activity or you are just tempting kids to jump!

The importance of swings & slides
Parents sometimes forget how much fun swings and slides can be! Kids will use them for years, so I highly recommend adding them into your design. The placement of the swings can drive the design too: you want to make sure you have enough room for the kids to swing and jump, so try to allow 12 feet in front and in back of the swings. Make sure a natural pathway does not cross in front of the swings! I like to also think about the view the kids will have while swinging.

Straight slides take up a lot of room also but there are spiral tube slides available that fit in smaller spaces. The key is to pick your slide BEFORE you start to build, as the slides available are very limited and you must build to their height requirements.

Imaginative & physical play features
Kids want to exercise their imagination and their muscles. I like to combine physical and imaginative play features: for example, a castle with rock climbing on the walls, so the kids can defend or attack the castle. If you have a ship's theme, a knotted rope climb plays right into that theme.

A place up high with a roof
When planning your play structure, I recommend fitting into your plans a clubhouse space 6 or 7 feet off the ground, with a good roof. That really keeps the older kids interested as time goes on.

Safety features
Safety is of the utmost importance on a play structure. You want to send your children out to play without worrying. I have incorporated many special safety features into my play structures, such as making doors and shutters with 1/2" gaps all around so that little fingers won't get pinched. I also grind every surface of the redwood to reduce the possibilities of splinters and I round over all edges to make them smooth. I am careful not to create any entrapments for a child's head or torso, nor any pinch points or dangerous protrusions: for all this I use the testing equipment and standards specified in the ASTM Handbook for Home Playground Equipment (F1148-00).

For any openings on a upper level, such as for a firepole, I add a safety gate with self-closing hinges, so no one can accidentally fall through the opening when the kids start horsing around up there.

It's good to be worried about structural strength, especially when building a heavy bridge up over top of your kids and/or adding swings underneath (this adds lots of stress to the structure). Here are some things to think about: are your towers strong enough to support the bridge? Do they have any diagonal bracing to help them resist racking? Are they attached to the ground with concrete or strong metal stakes? If you have any doubts, consult a local contractor for advice.

The most important safety feature with any play structure is to make sure you have established an adequate "use zone" filled with adequate resilient surfacing material.

· The "use zone" should be at least 6' of obstacle-free space all around the structure. The six feet is there to give the kids space to roughhouse without landing on a rock wall or any other obstacle. If there are swings you need even more space: I try to leave at least 12 feet of space on both sides of the swings. This is because some kids will try jumping off the swings at full speed - in either direction.

· Resilient Surface Material: I recommend filling the "use zone" with 6-9" of bark chip as the most economical safety surface. While none of the choices - bark chip, rubber matting, pea gravel - are perfect, it is critical to plan for something to absorb the shock of an accidental fall. Experts have proven that the installation of a resilient surfacing material in the play area is by far the most important safety feature you can provide. Kids love to play hard and will eventually slip and fall. Most injuries can be avoided by always having a resilient surface that kids will "bounce" off of - most serious injuries occur on play equipment installed over hard surfaces (concrete, grass, sand when wet, etc). Against our advice, some clients choose to leave just the grass, but usually after one season of play and too many scares, they replace it with bark chip. If you use bark chip or mulch, you can install a border, like a box, to keep the chip inside the play area. Or you can have the play area excavated the 6" to 9" so that the bark chip ends up level with the rest of the yard (a more expensive option.)

Avoid bad products
When I started 18 years ago, everyone was building with the CCA pressure-treated lumber. It was labeled as "safe for use around children." But that lumber was treated with copper & arsenic! I just refused to believe it was ok for kids and insisted on using only natural Redwood. Cedar and Cypress are other options, as are the newer plastic lumbers. What you are looking for is an attractive product that will resist rot without using toxic chemicals. Check with your local lumberyard for local recommendations. With all the terrible information coming out now about pressure treated woods, I'm glad I listened to my intuition! Another questionable product for children's play structures is mildicide. It's a toxic additive for paints and stains to stop the growth of mildew. Try to get a stain or paint for the play structure that doesn't use mildicide, such as Woodburst stains (www.woodburst.com)

Learn all you can before starting
I learned almost all my building skills from reading a lot of books. I highly recommend the Sunset books as a good starter: very basic with lots of pictures & diagrams. The Sunset books on decks give you the great starter info on building for outdoors - basic construction, footings, concrete. Books on gazebos will give you a lot of information on 6 & 8 sided buildings - all the angles, etc. You can find these books usually at a Home Depot or Lowes or the library. I like to browse through it first before buying so I don't recommend on-line shopping for how-to books. Some are just junk! For great do-it-yourself books on kid's play structures, try David Stiles. He has written dozens of books for do-it-yourself backyard projects and he's very good.

Barbara's Backyard Play Structure Safety Tips

Barbara Butler has made over 350 original play structures, treehouses and playhouses for families around the world. Here are some of her thoughts on how to make the backyard play area safe as well as fun.

Safety is of the utmost importance on a play structure. Parents need to be able to send their children out to play without worrying and kids need to be able to play freely. My goal is to create a challenging stimulating environment that kids can head off to by themselves with minimum supervision. The most important safety feature with any play structure is to make sure you have established a "use zone" filled with resilient surfacing material.

· The "use zone" should be at least 6' of obstacle-free space all around the play structure. The 6' use zone gives kids space to run around and to fall without landing on something hard. If there are swings you need even more space: give at least 12 feet of space on both sides of the swings. This is because some adventurous kids will try jumping off the swings at full speed - in either direction.

· Resilient Surface Material: It is highly recommend that the "use zone" be filled with an appropriate amount of "resilient surfacing material", such as bark chip, sand, rubber chip, rubber matting, or pea gravel. While none of the choices are perfect, it is critical to plan for something to absorb the shock of an accidental fall. Experts have proven that the installation of a resilient surfacing material in the play area is by far the most important safety feature you can provide. Kids love to play hard and will eventually slip and fall. Most injuries can be avoided by having a resilient surface that kids will "bounce" off of. Most serious injuries occur on play equipment installed over hard surfaces (concrete, dirt, grass, or compacted sand).

· Once you've selected the material, you can decide whether to install a border, like a box, to keep the bark chip inside the play area. Or you can have the play area excavated so that the bark chip ends up level with the rest of the yard (a more expensive option.) Install a landscaping fabric installed between the ground and the bark chip to prevent weeds from growing.

Here are some other safety tips for residential play structures:

-- Round over all edges of the wood members to eliminate sharp corners

-- Sand/grind all surface of the wood to reduce the possibilities of splinters.

-- Avoid creating any entrapments in the railings for a child's head or torso. Avoid any gaps in railings larger than 3-1/2" x 5-1/2".

-- Avoid any pinch points or dangerous protrusions.

-- Bolts should not have more than 2 threads exposed beyond the nut. More than that can be a protrusion that could cause injury.

-- Make sure overhead branches of trees have been trimmed and that the nearby trees are healthy, so that nothing will fall on the kids while playing.

-- Make sure no electrical wires are within reach of the structure. Once kids get playing, they don't stop to think whether an overhead wire is part of the play structure or not.

-- Watch out for over-exposure to the sun: try to place your structure in a shady spot.

-- Make sure all railings are very sturdy, well-attached and are designed to reduce the likelihood of kids climbing on them.

-- Make the doors and shutters with 1/2" gaps all around so that little fingers won't get pinched.

-- For any openings on an upper level, such as for a fire pole, add a safety gate with self-closing hinges, so no one can accidentally fall through the opening when the kids start horsing around up there.

-- Meet or exceed building codes for backyard decks, even if it is not required. We attach our towers to the ground with concrete footings. In earthquake or hurricane areas, add the appropriate tie-down hardware.

-- Design easy ways up and down for the littler kids, as well as challenging ways up and down for older kids. The adults will appreciate the easy way up also!

-- Think about the flow of kid traffic when designing your play structure: try to avoid having the kids come off the slide right into the swings, for example.

-- Keep deck heights at a maximum of 7' off the ground and install a 3' high railing.

-- Use only non-toxic products. We use green products for several reasons: it's good for the kids and it's good for the planet. We use redwood from well-managed forests and non-toxic tung oil stains that contain no mildicides (a very toxic compound that inhibits the growth of mildew). Stains are better than paint because they are easier to maintain: paint tends to chip & peel, while stains simply fade with time. When cleaning our structures, we use a biodegradable citrus-based cleaner instead of commercial cleaners.

-- Remove any loose ropes that kids might attach to the play structure

-- Inspect your play structure frequently. At least once a year give it a thorough inspection: tighten bolts, check for damage, clean off debris & spider webs, check the swing hardware.

Dreams Happen is a biennial fundraising event benefiting Rebuilding Together Peninsula (RTP) and hosted by Stanford Shopping Center. The event teams local architects and builders in the construction of unique and elaborately designed life-size children's playhouses. The playhouses will be auctioned at the Dreams Happen Gala on June 6, 2009. One hundred percent of the proceeds raised through the auction of the playhouses benefits Rebuilding Together Peninsula.

Barbara Butler has participated in this event since 1999 and last year her structure brought in over $50,000 for the organization. This weekend Barbara and her team will be delivering their structure, the Coyote Creek Outpost, to the Stanford Mall.

The Polo-Ralph Lauren store has also chosen them to be the playhouse that they will "prop" - hopefully loading the interior with lots of goodies.

You can learn more about the event at www.rebuildingtogetherpeninsula.org

About Barbara Butler:
Barbara Butler will never really grow up and that is just the way scores of dedicated fans want it. A true Renaissance woman dedicated to fun and adventure, Butler has combined childhood fantasies with architectural know-how to create a world of enchantment right in your own backyard.

A Political Science major from the State University of New York, Barbara proved she wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty when she learned bricklaying and construction with her brothers during summer breaks. Perhaps it was her graduate school studies of English Literature, full of romantic Elizabethan cottages and idyllic country escapes that paved the way for her visionary future. In 1983 Barbara moved to San Francisco and founded Outer Space Designs, designing and building unique decks, hot tubs and surrounds.

Her current career started in 1987 when singer Bobby McFerrin and his wife requested a play structure for their two children. This play structure was the start of a new career for Butler, who today, designs and builds custom play structures around the world.

A Butler playhouse includes meticulous attention to detail, specifically designed for kids -- secret hiding places, escape doors, carvings and climbing opportunities. All of which make a fantastic combination of physical and imaginative play for kids of all ages. All structures and pre-designed standards are built modularly in her shop, disassembled, delivered and reassembled on site. Butler presently employs thirteen "Play Professionals" including her husband, brothers and niece in her playhouse and furniture building business.

Butler's prestigious client list includes Robert Redford, Will Smith & Jada Pinket, Kevin Kline & Phoebe Cates, Bobby McFerrin, Lindsay Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, Jasmine Guy and Walt Disney Productions. Butler's Rough & Tumble Outpost play structure was highlighted as the FAO Schwartz "Ultimate Gift" in the 1999 Christmas Catalog. A playhouse created by Butler was also used in the Robin Williams movie Bicentennial Man. In addition, her latest work is displayed in the Laguna Art Museum. Butler's designs have been featured on Oprah, HGTV and House Beautiful TV. In addition, People, Architectural Digest, Child and Veranda have also featured her work.

Barbara Butler currently lives in San Francisco with her husband and is committed to contributing her talents, energy and creative force to the benefit of her local community.

For more information, visit www.barbarabutler.com


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