How to Create a Great Outdoor Play Area

Barbara Butler Play Structures: Now DIYBarbara Butler Play Structures: Now DIY

Spring is finally here and there are all types of fun activities for kids to do outdoors from helping to plant a flower garden to searching on all fours for unique insects. As the weather warms, you and your children are sure to spend more time outdoors soaking in the sunshine and basking in the spring season. But what if your children were able to play in a Barbara Butler playhouse or cottage? We bet you've never seen any quite like these before.

Some of her celebrity clients include Will and Jada Smith, Bobby McFerrin, Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates and Walk Disney Productions. In creating her masterpieces, Barbara uses sustainable woods, reusable materials and non-toxic paints designed to make the structures long-lasting and eco-friendly.

Even though it's not in everyone's budget to have an original Barbara Butler structure in their backyard, Butler offers easy tips on how to create your own backyard play area.

Barbara Butler'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!

Barbara Butler Play Structures: Now DIYWork 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.

When Did Kids Stop Learning How to Play?

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.

Barbara Butler Play Structures: Now DIYIt'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.

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.


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