Swing Shift: Backyard Playsets Evolve (cont.)

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Monkey bars still are offered on playsets, but now they typically are an option that costs about $345. You should know that the monkey bars that are sold today are designed to attach to models in a way that expands the footprint of the playset. Today’s monkey bars typically protrude 10 feet in front of or behind the base of the playset, which means that you’ll have to account for that large of a footprint if you add monkey bars. However, because you typically have to have at least 10 feet of clearance in front and 10 feet of clearance in back—clearance should be twice the length of a swing to avoid hitting anything—you probably will have the room for monkey bars if you have swings, Brown says. Monkey bars also can be positioned parallel to a slide, but they still will extend from the play structure by several feet.

Meanwhile, Swing-N-Slide introduced a new twist—literally—to tire swings. In summer 2011, the company introduced its Vortex Ring Swing ($99), which is a large plastic ring that swings and spins when a child sits or stands on it. Unlike conventional tire swings, which have no bottom, the Vortex Ring Swing has a floor that can be adjusted so a child’s feet will touch the floor when he/she sits on the ring, says Georgia W. Tippens of Swing-N-Slide. No other manufacturer that we interviewed indicated that it was working on a similar swing.

EXPANSION PLANS. If you want a starter playset that can be attached directly to larger playsets as your child grows, you’ll be happy to know that CedarWorks introduced a line in February 2012 that delivers such capabilities. Other manufacturers allow you to connect individual playsets via a bridge, monkey bars or a tunnel, but those options require more space for your play structure. In introducing the Frolic line, CedarWorks becomes the first manufacturer to create different playsets that don’t require a connecting bridge or tunnel. That’s worth noting, because such a design reduces the overall footprint of the playset.

It isn’t clear whether other manufacturers will introduce expansion modules that are similar to CedarWorks’ Frolic line in the years ahead, but we know that you’ll pay quite a premium for such expansion capabilities today.

For example, you’ll pay $1,140 alone for the starter playset (Frolic 4) that’s designed for children who are age 2 and under. That model has a toddler swing, a slide and a deck that’s 30 inches off the ground. For an extra $5,490, you can add two subsequent stages that deliver a 28-foot long x 17-foot wide x 13-foot tall structure that has two decks, two slides, three swings, a climbing wall and other accessories. You also can buy all three separate playsets as a combined unit (Frolic 6) for the same total price, $6,630.

The only benefit to buying all of the components at once might be price, because no guarantee exists, that you won’t pay more to buy the additional phases in the years ahead. Brown acknowledges that prices are subject to change if you buy Frolic 4 in 2013 and additional connecting playsets in, say, 2018. “Generally, we have years when there are no price increases and some years with a couple percent increase,” he says.

CHANGES ON DECK. Another shift in playset design is an increase in the number of models that have enclosed play areas, like a treehouse or a playhouse has. As a result, you might pay nearly $5,000 less than you would have 4 years ago to buy a playset that has an enclosed deck.

Enclosed decks are similar to treehouses or playhouses in that they have walls, windows and a roof, but they’re part of a play structure that typically also includes swings, a slide and other accessories. Treehouses and playhouses don’t include those accessories. Enclosed decks are an alternative to more-conventional open decks, which have rails and open space directly under the roof or canopy.

Four years ago, the least expensive enclosed-deck model that we found cost $6,650, but today you can pay as little as $1,799 for a model that has an enclosed deck. The big difference in price is all about size and materials. The least expensive model—the Homeplace Collection Vista Playset—has a footprint of 230 square feet, and the enclosed play area is made of plastic. The most expensive model—the Eastern Jungle Gym Fantasy Tree House ($6,999)—has a footprint of 384 square feet, is made of cedar and has exclusive features among models that have an enclosed deck, such as monkey bars.

In other words, playset manufacturers increasingly have you go outside to play inside. 

Brett S. Martin, who is a frequent Consumers Digest contributor, has written about home-improvement products for 15 years. 

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