What Are My Options for Eco-Friendly Backyard Play Sets?

Q: I’m thinking about building a backyard playground. We’ve got the space and I’ve got the time so I’d love to make it happen. Plus, growing up as a kid without even a simple tire swing to call my own, I've always fantasized about having my own jungle gym setup out back. I’ve embarked on several Earth-friendly remodeling projects around the house but don’t have a clue about residential playground design and whether it can be green. Can you point me in the right direction?

A: Growing up, I was lucky enough to live directly across the street from a small elementary school with a tricked-out playground so during the summer, believe you me, that thing was mine. I was actually pretty territorial over the playground and, unfortunately for those also wanting to use the monkey bars, I had a full view of it from my bedroom window. Not that I showed up and picked fights or anything, but I did sometimes arrive with a big pout on my face until the other kids using my playground lost interest and scattered away.

Although you could certainly go the less-is-more route by installing a recycled tire swing and a simple sandbox using reclaimed timber, from what I gather you’re thinking BigToys. Funny, I always thought BigToys was a generic term that referred to any multi-level playground structure with a slide but it turns out BigToys is an actual company based in Olympia, Wash., that’s been designing outdoor playground equipment for more than 40 years. Although BigToys is a commercial outfit and doesn’t design for backyards, they’ve paved the way when it comes to sustainable playground building in all settings. BigToys is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council and uses long-lasting Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood, recycled steel and post-consumer HDPE plastic (recycled milk jugs) in its structures.

Sustainable Backyard Playground Outfitters

Taking the cue from BigToys, other playground equipment manufacturers have started to use a high percentage of recycled materials and sustainable wood in their equipment.

Backyard Discovery

Backyard Discovery provides the pre-cut, pre-drilled and pre-stained sets made from rot-resistant Chinese cedar that’s been treated with a nontoxic, water-based solution. You provide the hours of manual labor. The sets range in price depending on how fancy you want to get with common features including slides, swings, grab handles and climbing walls. And this is cool: Backyard Discovery — which also manufactures a backyard shed, playhouse, self-contained garden and a “Deluxe Dog Cottage” — plants four sapling for each tree used to make the sets.

Rainbow Play Systems

Slightly one-upping Backyard Discovery in the sustainable wood department is Rainbow Play Systems, another company that specializes in residential playground equipment. Rainbow uses 100 percent certified (by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative) North American lumber (redwood) and plants five trees for every tree harvested. And, drum roll please, South Dakota-based Rainbow Play Systems is the company behind the swing set contraption installed near the Oval Office for Sasha and Malia Obama.


Another notable manufacturer of wood playground gear for homes is Cedarworks. This Maine-based company doesn’t treat its wood with chemicals, donates 10 percent of profits to environmental and children’s organizations and boasts a nifty ReCedaring program where every family that purchases a play set also receives a tree seedling to plant. Additionally, the company donates thousands of seedlings each year to woodlot owners and environmental groups.


Other residential playground equipment manufacturers using sustainable wood include Woodplay (which happens to own the URL www.swingsets.com) and Play-Well. There are plenty of companies that, like BigToys, use a combination of sustainably harvested wood and recycled HDPE (an environmentally preferable choice over lumber) although these mostly seem to be geared toward schools, churches, parks, day cares and the like and not backyards.

Final Thoughts

So it looks you’ve got some options here. And if you’re looking for further inspiration, check out this $500,000 eco-playground built in New Orleans by Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation. Again, although recycled plastic seems to be mostly used in commercial playground applications, I’d keep your eyes open for companies that use it. Otherwise, go with a company that uses sustainable wood, manufactures in the USA and promotes other green business practices in the vein of BigToys.

Good luck building whatever you end up with and I hope that your boys enjoy it ... what a killer staycation distraction. And don’t expect any further help from me. I can’t even put an IKEA bookshelf together properly.

— Matt