Adventure play for children is as much about accommodating the free flight of their imagination as it is sailing them up on a glider swing. Even a small garden can deliver natural roam and introduced elements to stage bold, healthy physical larks and wildly exciting improvised storytelling.
Start simple. Having eliminated obvious hazards, examine the garden for intriguing areas to hide, take a mysterious safari behind hedging or to conjure a fairy garden. Quietly follow your children. Watch and listen. Where you see a high shrub, a child may see ragged battlements. Does the root of that tree open to a goblin’s lair? Planting and landscaping can offer clues for positioning play elements. Or go one step further with a ‘live’ willow dome or a large cotton tepee for picnics and sleeps under the stars (from €120, regatta.ie).
STEP BY STEP
Multiple play zones offer a gallop from one area to another, but stuck for space, there are brilliantly devised, compact play complexes with several activities served up as one unit from €120 to €1,400. Anything you give access to for children to enter, climb, slip down, spring from or swing off – should not be simply age appropriate, but appropriate to their individual height and development. Many children are energised by the forbidden and may charge off at the dare of a parental ‘no’ when you go back inside.
Allowing children to ‘grow into’ play equipment carries risk with moving parts and heights that they cannot confidently navigate. Three and under? You, the sand-pit, rides in the wheelbarrow and good swathe of lawn are the ultimate adventure wonderland. Versatile buys like the Moby Adventure Car/Sand-pit/Slide, offer an easily supervised start for an outside, ground-based play unit. €270, Argos. Boat/deck/sand-pits like the timber TP Ahoy offer an easily supervised start for an outside, ground-based play unit (€180, Argos).
The social challenge of rules and sharing can overwhelm a young child who might lack the balance and physical dexterity of older siblings so ensure there’s a good eyeline from the house.
There is modular equipment that can adapt to your child’s age. We love the TP Toys Explorer – a hexagonal, metal-framed ground den for an 18-month-old child, that includes extra connecting bars in the box to let it rise for older kids (€180, smythstoys.com). A height-adjustable swing with robust wood uprights can last through teenage years.
Try a gender-free colour and theme for tiny shops, galleons and cottages. Choosing a more expensive wood multi-gym allows you to change the play tower into a pergola, chicken coop or cold frame in the future. Instagram and Pinterest are full of ideas to avoid the tragic trip to the land-fill for wendy houses and even rigid paddling pools.
We used a tyre swing, raising it every year for our daughter to sail from an adjoining, natural bank. This and an adult-sized tent with a ‘garden’ swept with a twiggy broom, kept her tribe fascinated. Don’t use balded out steel-belted radials for swings — the poking wires are lethal on plump little legs.
Domestic zip-lines and hanging obstacles courses are relatively new to the market, but surprisingly affordable from €200, if you have the range, ziplines.ie
The bigger and more athletic the piece, the more room we need for safe arcs for soaring and landing. That’s 1-2m of clear space. Remove things that might snag a child as they leave the air or move the equipment. Choose a largely sunny spot with some dappled shade from potential skin burning on a hot day. Consider your neighbours. Would you enjoy a glass of wine with a hysterical six year old bouncing up into your eyeline from a trampoline next-door?
Deeper grass, sand, rubber matting and bark mulch can all be used as surfaces to soak up the impact of a falling child. Check the depth of your essential footing every summer, topping up where needed. Loose bark should be 25cm - 30cm deep (uncompressed). Clay soil can bake to concrete beneath closely clipped lawns, so raise the blades on the mower to leave the sward longer and softer. Pick out stones, debris and dog dirt as they appear.
Interlocking 40mm play matting in recycled rubber (standard - EN1177 CE) or textured foam, can be laid to give shock absorbance over concrete or tarmac. From €8 for a 0.7m2 set, thegardenshop.ie
With new, purpose-built equipment, built to the letter from the exploded diagram or erected by the supplier, there’s the comfort of the latest safety standards being included. With second-hand wood or resin fortresses and jungle gym - check every screw, nut, bolt, plank and panel, and re-assess the structural stability of the whole piece (the tightness of the screws and the joints) twice every summer.
Climbing frames and larger combination swing/fortress/slide frames start in the area of €700 with full (EN71 CE) safety approval, rising to €1,200 for heavy Scandinavian timber pieces made in Ireland. If you’re lucky, you might find a piece second-hand, free to take away locally if you take it apart yourself. Try running an ad’ on DoneDeal.
Plastic is moulded into smooth, splinter-free, round soft cornered surfaces, but is largely impossible to recycle, it requires anchoring against the wind and will have a maximum weight and number of children for safe play. 35kg - 50kg is the general range for ladders and platforms. Larger frame-style gyms with towers, decks and ladders require ground pegs set into concrete or into supplied anchor-plates fastened into the earth to remains stable.
Choose pieces with a high ratio of wood to a few plastic elements to be as eco-friendly as possible. Fatmoose of Germany offers storybook, sturdy wooden playhouses with a touch of plastic for colour, like its Beetlebox Bling XXL for €520 from wickey.ie. In Co Cork, try Hennessy Outdoors (Clonakilty), hennessyoutdoors.ie
Timber play equipment should have covers to bolts, hand grips and bumper pads where needed. FSC, pressure-treated wood will stand the test. You could always build your own equipment and shelter, but ensure it matches everything a commercially made play piece includes in terms of safety specifications. One un-sunk screw can do a lot of damage. Standard garden sheds are not designed as tree houses – just apply some commonsense.
If you want to have a go, there are multiple treehouse plans online. Most vie on the side of a stilted, ground-based frame built against a tree rather than going aloft. Bespoke? Patrick Meagher, Kilfenora, County Clare (treehouses.ie) and Plan Eden Garden and Treehouse Design (planedengardendesign.ie) under chief designer Peter O’Brien, specialise in the ultimate treehouse, but the kids might not get a look in.