What Makes A Good Play Structure Area

Design solutions always come down to functionality and looks. A play structure area definitely has functional requirements and since it takes up so much space, it better look good too.  These are some of the things to consider.

  • Low maintenance.  Build so it “stands-up” to legions of kids.  You want to avoid recurring costs to fix and restore this area over and over.
  • Clean and dry. Locate and build so the area stays high and dry.  Choose materials that naturally stay clean.
  • Safety.  Think safety on every level, from the materials you choose to how you put them together. Be aware of anything close by that could pose a danger.

A Good-Looking, Functional Solution

Here is a play structure area that covers all the bases.  Clicking on each picture will give a larger version.

The spot in the yard you choose should be as level as possible. Avoid low areas that might stay wet.

Most play structures come with recommendations for the dimensions of the area. This recommended area should allow for the play structure itself plus a certain amount of play space around it.  I recommend you lay this all out on the ground with granular lime or marking paint.

Think about the different activities that will be going on and make sure there’s enough room.  For example, kids are going to jump off swings…it’s a given.  Is it safe where they’re going to land?  If not, expand the area. Now is the time to make these adjustments.

Once the final “footprint” is laid out, the area is excavated 5 to 6″ down. 2 X 6″ pressure treated lumber is set on edge and staked as a border. For the stakes we rip down 1 X 6″ treated lumber into 3 equal widths.  Cut a point on one end and you’re good to go. Install stakes every 6′ or so on the inside of the border. Space closer where necessary.  Use deck screws for all fastening.

The top of the 2 X 6″ border should be flush with the surface landscape (i.e. mulch, grass, etc.).  When set flush like this it serves as a permanent border to separate the inside material from the outside elements.  Plus, it makes it easier to maintain.  If there’s grass, the mower wheel simply rides the top of the lumber.

Although there aren’t that many options for the material that goes under the play structure, there are plenty of opinions on what’s best. I’d like to share with you the method and material that I have found to be the best all around solution.

The material I like to use is a small pea gravel (about 3/8″ in diameter). It does come in a few different colors, but more often than not I recommend the “salt & pepper” coloration because its neutral tones blend nicely with the landscape.

This gravel serves a couple of practical functions. It happens to be very safe and “forgiving” for falling kids. Because the gravel is relatively small and round (I guess that’s why they call it “pea” gravel) it acts like a bean bag.  Upon impact it “gives” and breaks the fall.

The pea gravel also stays nice and clean…and so too the kids.  It drains well and therefore dries quickly.

You do have the issue of kids possibly throwing it, but they would through sand, mulch and anything else they can get their hands on.

Before the gravel goes down, a “weed barrier” or filter fabric is first laid over the base ground. This keeps the gravel from migrating down into the soil over time. The decorative gravel is then dumped and spread throughout the area up to about a half inch from the top of the wood. The gravel does not decompose and never washes away.

I hope you see how these elements used together make a real practical and nice looking play structure area.

  • Ben Tyner
    8:55 PM, 15 June 2014

    Is there any danger of pea gravel causing silicosis?

    • Roger
      11:56 AM, 20 July 2014

      I’m sure not qualified to answer your question. And it’s certainly an important one considering kids will be playing on and around the pea gravel.

      My “guess” is that pea gravel would not cause silicosis (i.e. lung fibrosis caused by the inhalation of dust containing silica) because it is a natural formed gravel that is not crushed or milled.

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