Spence March has long been concerned over whether his kids are getting enough exercise. Four years ago, he enrolled them in a running program. And being a good dad and realizing that kids pay more attention if you practice what you preach, he enrolled with them. It was a good experience for all, but March wasn’t content to let it be a one-time event.
Like most parents, March likes the idea of his kids, ages 7 and 9, getting out to play in the neighborhood. And like most parents, he has his reservations about letting a 7-year-old and a 9-year-old roam too far. If they could only play outside, but close to home, he thought. The answer came to him when he read a post on this blog in May: “Recreational paradise … in your own backyard.” The post was based on a story in the New York Times about UCLA’s CLEF project. The Center on Everyday Lives of Families was created in the wake of September 11 to take an in-depth look at the lives of middle class Americans. Among their findings: Our houses are crammed with stuff, save for our yards, which go virtually unused. That post and a subsequent one looked at turning your backyard into the aforementioned recreational paradise. March wrote asking for advice. He was particularly intrigued by climbing holds we had anchored onto the supports of our second-floor deck. “I’d like to do a climbing wall or climbing net but I’m not sure how I could do it.”
GGNC’s Recreational Consulting Team decided to pay a visit. As we pulled into the March neighborhood, it was immediately apparent that this would either be a piece of cake or we would keep on driving and pretend we couldn’t find their place. Half the houses “I hope their house backs up to the forest,” my stepson/creative assistant Ben observed.
Fortunately, it did.
The March home is ideally situated. It’s on a relatively small lot, good for minimizing maintenance. And it backs up to a heavily-wooded greenspace that screams “play in me!”
“Do your kids bike?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “On the sidewalks, in the neighborhood..”
I laid out my plan for an off-road trail network that would wind through this backyard forest dominated by young pines. With a rake and a shovel (and perhaps a mattock to remove stubborn rocks and the occasional root) I described how he could create a short, fun trail network that would let his kids ride their bikes in the much more entertaining woods, sans car traffic. We even discussed throwing in minor obstacles, such as a log stack or a low-lying skinny.
“I like that,” he said.
March had already been busy in the forest. Two hammocks were strung between pine trunks, there was a new chin-up bar and a tire swing that had met with mixed reviews. “It tends to be more of a spinning device than a swing,” he said. A tetherball pole had gone over well until it wobbled itself out of the ground.
Still, he was taken by the idea of a climbing set-up.
“What about a low-ropes course?” Ben suggested. He went on to describe a low-lying — about a foot off the ground — web of cargo netting and cable that the kids could climb on jungle gym style.
“Is there a playground supply store around here where I could get some cargo net?” March wanted to know.
“You’re probably better off finding it on the internet,” Ben said, noting that it would likely be much less expensive.
We turned our attention to the deck off the back of the March home. Their house is built on a slope, a slope dropping significantly from the street to the back property line. Thus, while the deck comes off the main level, it’s a significant drop to the ground — too significant to anchor climbing holds to the supports like we’ve done at our house. At our place, if you drop, you fall a little more than a foot. Here, you’d be looking at a three-foot fall, four if you’re a typical 7-year-old.
I noticed Ben checking out the substantial corner support system, which consisted of braced 6-by-6 support posts about four feet across.
“Plywood?” I asked.
Indeed, the two sides could be covered with half-inch plywood six- to eight feet up the supports. Climbing holds could then be anchored into the plywood, which is how it’s done at many neighborhood climbing gyms. March was intrigued by the idea, but it was tempered by that tell-tale look of reservation at the prospect of tacking up plywood to the outside of your house.
“It could be done very creatively,” I said. “You could paint the plywood, and the holds come in some pretty cool shapes and colors.”
We kicked around some more ideas, but it was 100 degrees in the shade (literally) and March seemed content — for now — with the trail, the low ropes course and the climbing wall. He’d have his hands full, his weekends accounted for, for a little while. He seemed genuinely motivated to turn his sedate suburban backyard into an outdoor playground. Still, we weren’t about to let him off the hook.
“Sound good?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I think we’ve come up with some good ideas here.”
“Great,” I said. “We’ll be back in a couple months to see how you’ve done.”
We’ll report back in a couple months to see how March has done.
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Intrigued by the notion of building a low ropes course, a climbing wall or a mountain bike trail in your own backyard? Below are some online resources that will provide direction. Obligatory warning: Any of the following projects can result in injury if not executed properly. If you don’t know a shovel from a saw, find someone who does and can do the job for you.
Climbing wall. Even if you aren’t a DIYer, the Instructables web site is great browsing. Here, you can find out how to build an incredible array of … stuff, including a climbing wall. The site has several tutorials. Your best bet is visit the site, then type “build your own climbing wall” into the search engine. You’ll not only learn how to make a wall, you can learn how to make your own holds.
Mountain bike trail. A general Google search on “build your own mountain bike trail” will turn up pages of DIY sites. If you want to do it right, though, we suggested you consult the folks who set the standard for fun and enviro-friendly mountain bike trail: the International Mountain Bicycling Association. Go here and learn everything from blazing a simple trail to building a ladder bridge.
Low ropes course. Perhaps because of the liability factor, you won’t find quite as many sites with directions for building your own ropes course. One that shows you some of the more popular elements of a low ropes course is the AdventureSmith site. Check it out here.
Photo: Spence March with his tire swing. And bird house.