The swingset grows up in Western Pa.

| Thursday, Aug. 23, 2007

Amy Belden wanted something to keep her daughters and their friends playing in the yard, instead of parking themselves in front of the television set.

"I wanted them outside playing. I really wanted an outlet. This has been tremendous," she said of the supersized playset she bought for her daughters, Elizabeth, 7, and Christy, 5.

Belden, 40, and her husband, Bill, 44, of Marshall, are among a growing number of parents who are shelling out thousands of dollars for children's playsets.

These are not your parents' old metal swingsets.

They are play systems, incorporating slides, rope ladders, swings, playhouses and rock climbing walls in heavy wood-framed structures.

"It's an investment in a happy and safe place for the kids to play," Amy Belden said.

The Beldens' King Kong playset by Rainbow Play Systems Inc. cost under $10,000 and was "a very considered purchase," she said.

"It's a big upfront cost," said Belden, who calls the playset "a kid magnet."

There are larger playsets than the one purchased by the Beldens.

The mother of all Rainbow playsets is 58 feet long, 46 feet wide and 16 feet high. It weighs more than five tons and includes slides, rope ladders, flower boxes, a tire swing, a rock climbing wall and monkey bars.

The cost: $59,548.

Not everyone will shell out the price of a small house for a swingset, but many parents view the purchase as an investment, said Patty Toner, director of sales at Lilliput Play Homes, which has outlets in Murrysville, Cranberry and Peters.

Al Yurchick, 51, of West Newton, bought one of the Rainbow playsets he sells at Lilliput's Murrysville location for his grandchildren.

"Instead of them jumping off the couch thinking they are Spiderman, I take them outside and let them play on the swingset. They sleep like babies," he said.

The boom in playsets grew out of the "cocooning" of the 1990s, when homeowners traveled less and stayed home more, playset manufacturers said. That resulted in their spending more time and money to fix up their "hives."

"The sky is the limit in residential playsets. They can range from 11 feet wide to 40 feet long," said Adam Curry, vice president of B.E.A.R. of Pennsylvania, a division of Baker Equipment for Athletics and Recreation, located in Bakerstown.

Even metal swingsets have been supersized and can cost as much as $2,200, he said.

Some wooden playsets are modular and can grow as budgets and space allow.

"Room or money, that's what you always run out of," Curry said.

But parents always seem to find a way to put their children first, he said.

Rene Opeka, 42, and her husband, Dale, 47, of McMurray, did without to buy their two sons a "Monster Clubhouse" six years ago for about $4,500.

The playset is 31 feet long and 15 feet high.

"We bought it before I got my living room furniture. It's a big upfront expense that you have to make a sacrifice for," Rene Opeka said, with a laugh.

When their sons, Evan, 11, and Ross, 9, outgrow the playset, the Opekas plan to dismantle it and put it in storage for their grandchildren.

In some neighborhoods, the backyard playset has become the yardstick by which people measure success, said Thomas Arvanites, chairman of the sociology department at Villanova University.

"I'm amazed at the houses that go up and the playsets that go behind them," he said.

In an age when children's birthday parties have changed from simple affairs held in the backyard to extravagant soirees at major league ballparks, the playset is being used to distinguish wealth.

It has become a social signal for people who live in McMansions, Arvanites said.

"We need to display our wealth, distinguish ourselves from our neighbors," he said.

That doesn't make much difference to Elizabeth and Christy Belden.

They're just happy to play on their "magical playhouse."

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