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Plan the construction of a kids playground structure

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Play structures are both fun features for backyard entertainment. Play structures can be located on the ground, elevated, large, or simple. Choose a creative design theme regardless of the size. Whether customized or built from a kit, modifications may be made to the play structure’s design based on the ages and play styles of the children who will use the equipment most often. Each play structure needs to be located in a safe place, ideally with shade, and with the proper type and amount of ground surface material. Keep the structure as fun as possible while maintaining all safety guidelines.


On the ground play structureOn-the-ground
On-the-ground play structures can be fun, simple, and frugal alternatives to the large, multi-level structure. On-the-ground play structures could be an outdoor fort with a single room, a door, window, and perhaps a flag. A small, little house could have a garden associated with it. Simple swing sets can be set adjacent to the play structure.





Elevated play structureElevated
Play structures with more than one level can add quite a lot of adventure for the kids who use it. An elevated structure could be an elaborate castle that houses fairy tales, a replica of the family’s home, a tree house, a collection of areas without a specific theme, or other creative ideas. 



Parents and kids together can design the theme of the playground to suit their style. Following are a few ideas to spark inspiration. Keep in mind that multiple structures could be built to create a “main street” scene.  

  • firehouse
  • police station
  • train station
  • theater
  • grocery store
  • beauty salon
  • service station
  • diner
  • doctor’s office
  • post office
  • bookstore
  • town hall
  • church
  • schoolhouse

Play structure kits
Consider purchasing a play structure kit for ease of design and construction effort. Play structure kits have a variety of designs, sizes, materials, and price ranges available. Each kit is equipped with detailed instructions and materials lists available to streamline the construction process. Some of the kits can be customized. Parents can rest assured that each kit has been tested and has passed national regulated safety requirements.


Athletic features
Decide which types of athletic events or activities are enjoyable for the children. Following are some examples from which to choose.
Swings, including:
Play structure including swings

  • Traditional swings can be purchased as hard plastic, hard wood, or flexible rubber seated. Refer to the safety guidelines for spacing swings.
  • Infant swings are ideal for children up to the age of 3 years old. Infant swings protect children from falling.
  • ADA swings are designed for children with physical special needs. ADA swings are equipped to protect a child with safety belts and a moulded plastic seat.
  • Tire swings are classical options for a playground structure. Some of the tire swings are traditionally upright. Others, however, are horizontal to the ground so that up to 4 kids can sit together on the tire.
  • 360-degree rotation swings need extra space for safety.
  • Acrobatic swings consist of a bar hung from two ropes.
  • Rings are similar to acrobatic swings. Both the acrobatic swing and the rings hang from two ropes, so these features could be changed out to add some flexibility of interest.




Play structure including a slideSlides, including:

  • Turbo slides are fun and appropriate for children over the age of 5 years old.
  • Whether choosing a metal or plastic slide, install them out of direct sunlight if possible. Take care that plastic slides can cause static electricity.
  • Bumpy slides are a fun and slower alternative to the straight slide.
  • Spiral slides are ideal for space saving locations.
  • Wavy slides are similar to bumpy slides in that they offer the kids a fun ride at a slower pace.
  • Enclosed tube slides provide a different, enclosed experience. The shaded slide will also remain cool enough for little legs if located in direct sunlight.

Other athletic features, including:

  • Monkey bars are a classic playground feature. Take care to install monkey bars at a safe height for the ages of the children who will use them. Falling heights and ground cover regulations will help to determine the safe height for the monkey bars installation.
  • Rocket riders are fun for younger children. Keep the riders out of direct sunlight.Play structure including a climbing wall
  • Rock climbing features are popular options for accessing higher, elevated levels of a play structure. Rock climbing features are appropriate only for children over the age of 5 years old.
  • Fire poles are fun and appropriate for older children above the age of 5 years old. Fire poles are constructed of metal, should be securely connected into the ground, and located out of direct sunlight.




Structural features

  • Bridges provide an enjoyable means for passage from one area of the play structure to the next. Swinging bridges add another level of fun as the children may jump across the bridge to play with how it sways. When a swinging bridge is designed for children under the age of 5 years old, install the bridge low to the ground surface.
  • Ladders are used to access the upper levels of a play structure. The ladder could be a solid wood or metal structure. To add a greater level of athleticism, the ladder could be a rope ladder that moves and sways as the child climbs. Rope ladders are appropriate for children above the age of 5 years old.
  • Secret escapes can be used for tea parties or other imaginary play.
  • Tower structures can offset the horizontal emphasis of the entire structure. Towers also encourage imaginary play.

Play structure including a sand boxStructural features

  • Bridges provide an enjoyable means for passage from one area of the play structure to the next. Swinging bridges add another level of fun as the children may jump across the bridge to play with how it sways. When a swinging bridge is designed for children under the age of 5 years old, install the bridge low to the ground surface.
  • Ladders are used to access the upper levels of a play structure. The ladder could be a solid wood or metal structure. To add a greater level of athleticism, the ladder could be a rope ladder that moves and sways as the child climbs. Rope ladders are appropriate for children above the age of 5 years old.
  • Secret escapes can be used for tea parties or other imaginary play.
  • Tower structures can offset the horizontal emphasis of the entire structure. Towers also encourage imaginary play.

Extra fun features

  • Sandboxes are most often located in the shade. Therefore, consider adding a sandbox underneath the elevated part of the play structure.
  • Picnic tables can be set underneath an elevated structure or adjacent to a play area. If a picnic table is located below and used for crafts, consider building an outdoor cupboard to store supplies.
  • Play kitchens encourage imaginary plan. The play kitchen could be located in a secret escape, next to picnic tables, or as an area along the play structure’s design pathway.
  • Steering wheels are popular with younger children and can be added anywhere along the play pathway.
  • Telescopes are fun for all ages. Encourage the kids to take closer looks at nature and wildlife with the telescopes while playing.
  • Benches can be incorporated anywhere around or along the play pathway for both children and adults to use. Whether designing a bench for a child who may want to read outside or a bench for the relaxing adult consider building nearby shelves as accommodations for beverages and other items.
  • An outdoor easel is a fun idea for the artistic family. Supplies could be kept outdoors in a cupboard built into the play structure.
  • Outdoor chalkboards can be added anywhere along the play pathway. Activities such as tick-tack-toe or drawing would be a fun diversion.
  • Shelves and pegs or imaginary play, books, toys, and even children’s gardening tools could be stored within the play structure.
  • Cupboards in the play kitchen or used for storage for eating, artistic and crafting activities, and other supplies can be efficient storage solutions. The children could access the supplies themselves.
  • Signs are a fun decorative touch to the play structure. Perhaps the structure would be named or the children’s names displayed.
  • Toy boxes or storage chests could be helpful for outdoor playtime convenience. Take care to consider whether or not a child could get hurt if they were to climb inside.
  • Water cannons are extra fun features that are popular with a pirate ship theme.
  • Flower boxes can add aesthetics and be used to train children with gardening.
  • Jail bars may seem dangerous, but are playful for kids.
  • Bells add charm to the structure and could be used for imaginary play.
  • Musical instruments of all types from xylophones to digital sound players can be added to the structure.


Wood is commonly used for both the structural and finish materials. Metal can be used for structural or other specific parts of the structure. Plastics are also used for play features.


  • Treated wood is commonly used for the structure. It can also be used as a finish material because it weathers well and holds up well against insects and mold. Take care to avoid CCA treated lumber that has copper and arsenic preservatives. Rather, choose wood that has been treated with ACQ, CBA, or CA-B.
  • Redwood is a popular natural choice that is durable and naturally insect-repellent. Redwood has desirable aesthetic qualities and can be pricier than treated wood and other natural wood choices. Stain the wood with a non-toxic Tung oil after construction.
  • Cedar is naturally rot-resistant and insect-repellent. Cedar is a prevalent wood alternative option for play structures because of its aesthetics, safe natural qualities, and because it is splinter-free.
  • Reclaimed wood can be an option for the homeowner who is custom designing the play structure. Reclaimed wood is environmentally-friendly option.


  • Metal used for play structures is painted, galvanized, or otherwise treated to prevent rust and corrosion. Plan for metal play features, such as slides, to be shaded because direct sunlight may cause the metal to be too hot for children.


Falling is the greatest risk of injury for children on play structures. Therefore, ground surface materials are designed to help cushion the fall so the injury would be avoided or lessened. A grassy lawn can become compacted and hardened over time, so each play structure needs extra ground surface protection. The type and quantity of ground surface is based on the height of the structure and also on the ages of the children playing.


  • Play-grade wood chips provide protection that is easy to maintain and inexpensive. Children are not advised to wear open-toed shoes while playing on wood chip playgrounds.
  • Rubber tiles are high-tech and often need to be installed professionally. Rubber tiles will provide optimum protection.
  • Pea gravel is a practical, inexpensive option.
  • Sand is also a practical, inexpensive option. Sand is a fun option for children who enjoy sandboxes.
  • Rubber mulch consists of loose pieces of rubber. As ground cover tends to find its way into the yard, rubber does not naturally degrade into the landscaping.

Surface construction tips

  • The ground surface material should extend up to 6' out on all sides of the structure.
  • 12’ of ground coverage should be installed in front of and behind swings.
  • Loose material should be 12” thick and compact to no less than 9”.
  • With loose material, verify regularly that the material is replenished when needed to maintain the minimum recommended depth.
  • The ultimate surface material depth is based on the structure’s height. Refer to the ground surface chart below.

Ground surface chart
When using the ground surface chart, keep the following interpretations in mind:

  • The listed “critical height” is the height requirement listed for kids of a certain age range. The critical height is the highest level from which a fall could occur.
  • The chart below lists the “depth of ground surface material” related to the structure’s “critical height.” Recommendations for each type of ground surface material are then listed based on these factors.
  • The ground surface material needs to meet both the “compressed” and “uncompressed” depth requirements in order to pass safety code requirements.
  • An example interpretation from the chart:

6" of wood chips can be used for a structure up to 7' tall.

9" of wood chips can be used for a structure up to 10' tall.

  • It is always a good idea to over-engineer the ground surface material. Think about putting down 10% more ground cover than the recommendation to account for loss of material and uneven coverage.
  • Do not rely on this chart alone. Verify safe depths related to critical height from the manufacturer of the material and from local building codes.

Playground equipment critical heightWood chips (depth)Shredded bark mulch (depth)Play sand (depth)Pea gravel (depth)Recycled rubber mulch* (depth)




6" uncompressed; 9" uncompressed; 9" compressed





6" uncompressed


6" uncompressed; 9" compressed



6" uncompressed

9" compressed


9" uncompressed






12" uncompressed



9" uncompressed and 9" compressed

9" uncompressed


12" uncompressed

6" uncompressed


12" uncompressed

12" uncompressed


6" uncompressed



6" uncompressed

* It is recommended that you request test data from your chosen supplier of recycled rubber mulch that shows the critical heights of the material when it was tested in accordance with ASTM F1292.


To allow for a safe play area around the structure, locate the play structure 6’ – 8’ from around any other structures, hard surfaces, roads, driveways, and even from the property’s boundaries. While it is possible to build a structure on a sloped site, most play structures are designed for level ground. If the property has low slopes, consider re-grading the site to make it more appropriate for the structure. Playground kits are designed exclusively for areas that have a level ground.

Select a site that ideally has some protection from the sun, especially for metal surfaces and slides. Consider evaluating the prevailing winds patterns that pass over the play area so that the area can cool naturally. While trees offer great shade, avoid trees that may drop sap or nuts onto the play surfaces. Also design the play structure’s location in such a way that parents can keep an eye on the playing activity. 


  • Design the structure so that the kids play or progress from one element to the next. Consider safety issues when several children are using the equipment and progressing through the play areas and features simultaneously. For example, keep the slide exit area free and clear from swings.
  • Separate quiet areas from active areas such as keeping the sandbox at a distance from the swings or slides.
  • A play structure’s design can evolve as the children grow older. Swings can be changed out for athletic bars and rings or a fixed ladder could be changed for a rock climbing wall.
  • When designing a customized structure, keeping the structure open and transparent so the parents can easily keep an eye on the children during play.
  • Remember to think about how the adults can comfortably rest while observing play activities. Perhaps there is a cool, shady place to install a bench nearby the play structure.


  • Install pine treated wood with the bark side up to prevent splitting and to protect against a risk of splinters.
  • Drill holes first before installing fasteners to prevent the wood from splitting.
  • Sand the wood thoroughly after installation.
  • Use a highly pigmented pure color stain for woods other than redwood. Treated pine wood cannot be stained until one year has passed after construction.
  • Cover bolts with safety caps that can only be removed with a tool.
  • Use corrosion-resistant hardware. Take care to research which hardware materials are compatible with the type of wood material used as there is a difference from wood to wood.
  • Any ropes installed within the structure must be anchored safely.
  • Plan for one or more helpers during the construction and assembly.

Play structure kit construction tips

  • Read all instructions before assembling the kit.
  • Play structure kits have materials lists available to make construction easy.
  • Sort the parts before beginning construction to help make the process organized and to make sure that all parts are included.
  • Install the play structure kit on level ground.



  • The height of the structure is based on the ages of the children. Structures are commonly designed to protect children within the age ranges of 2-5 years old and 5-12 years old.
  • Prevent head and neck entrapment by keeping all open spaces smaller than 3 ½” wide. This rule applies especially to railing stiles spacing.
  • Slide entrances need to be greater than 9” wide.
  • Avoid v-shaped spaces that could trap a child’s head.
  • Do not allow children to wear bike helmets while playing on the play equipment.
  • Provide handrails and railings according to local municipal codes.
  • Swings have several spacing requirements. Make sure there is enough space between each swing. The swings with a 360-degree rotation need to be located in separate play structure bays.
  • Take precautions when sawing and constructing with treated wood. Use a breathing ventilator and gloves.
  • Wear safety protection equipment such as goggles during construction.
  • Never install equipment on concrete, asphalt, packed earth, or any other hard surface without adding sufficient ground surface material per regulations.
  • Make sure the play equipment is anchored to the ground. If in an area with harsh winds, consult a professional to make sure the structure is rated to withstand winds typical of that geographical area.
  • Remember than unfinished equipment is dangerous for children to play upon.
  • Make sure that the play equipment’s anchoring assemblies are covered so as to prevent a tripping hazard.

Hardware safety

  • Use corrosion-resistant hardware throughout.
  • Always use lock washers or self-locking nuts.
  • Keep bolts and other hardware sized appropriately to avoid extra lengths that could cause a possible laceration or entanglement.
  • Close “s” hooks and all hooks to a gap smaller than the size of a dime.

Municipal bylaws

  • Check out local restrictions for play structure construction and ground cover requirements.
  • Visit the building department to make sure the structure is designed and constructed safely. Play structure kits have already been approved, but ground cover requirements may need to be approved.
  • Verify whether or not a permit is needed before construction begins.


  • Check nuts and bolts twice monthly and tighten as necessary.
  • Oil any moving parts when needed.
  • Check protective caps twice monthly.
  • Repair broken parts immediately.
  • Plastic swings may need to be removed during the cold winter months.
  • Rake and maintain the ground surface material to prevent compaction and a loss of material over time.
  • Re-stain wood every three years.
  • Research the warranty of play structure kits before purchase.
  • Keep metal elements rust-free. 
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Helpful Information

Play structure kit.


Plan the construction of a kids playground structure