August 12, 2020

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Welcome to the jungle… gym

High demand for store-bought play structures has parents of stir-crazy kids taking DIY route

A surge in sales of manufactured playground sets has some Winnipeg parents grabbing their hammers, drills and do-it-yourself plans to build one of their own for their restless kids.

Count Rebecca Chambers and her husband Mike among those parents. Their three young boys, Henry, 7, Albert, 5, and Arthur, 3, were climbing the walls inside during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, the couple are almost finished a 2.5-metre bouldering wall on the side of their garage in West Broadway so the kids can play outside.

"In a parallel world where we’re not staying at home, this would not be a priority," says Chambers, a high school teacher. "We’ve been talking about it for some time. This year we had time and we put the tax return towards it."

Chambers teaches human ecology, and says play is an important part of childhood development. Giving her young boys something to do outside is more than just getting them away from the television.

Rebecca Chambers and her seven-year-old son, Henry, are working on a climbing wall.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Rebecca Chambers and her seven-year-old son, Henry, are working on a climbing wall.

"They can only run up and down the stairs so many times," she says.

The Chamberses went the do-it-yourself route, because their backyard is small and has little room for swings or slides. They also found playground sets at stores were too pricey. They expect to pay about $600 for the wall — which is designed for side-to-side movement, as opposed to the vertical ascent of climbing wall — once it’s finished, while play structures at stores can sell for $1,000 or more, she says.

Despite their cost, playground sets have been big sellers during the pandemic, even if their sales haven’t been as visible as the battles for rolls of toilet paper at supermarkets. Data compiled by the research company NPD Group revealed an 81 per cent increase in sales of playground equipment in the United States during April, compared with the same month in 2019. April sales in Canada haven’t been released yet.

"With summer quickly approaching and many parents expecting to continue working from home, keeping children busy will become even more of a priority," Juli Lennett, an NPD toys adviser, says in a release. "Parents will be looking for more solutions to keep their kids active and engaged during the summer months, which will undoubtedly bode well for the toy industry overall."

The popularity of playgrounds almost pumped up the cost of Chambers’ DIY wall. While she and her husband are doing with work themselves, they also needed to buy special parts to finish it.

"The climbing holds went up 50 to 60 per cent since since I bought them," Chambers says.

“With summer quickly approaching and many parents expecting to continue working from home, keeping children busy will become even more of a priority.” – Juli Lennett, NPD toys adviser

Korey Peters, who farms near Steinbach, can attest to the popularity of playground sets. It took more than a month to get one delivered after he purchased one from Costco, he says.

"It was backordered in April and now (the website) says they’re sold out. We were never sure when we would get it," Peters says of the set, which includes two slides, a small climbing wall and a fire pole. "Everyone’s buying these because they’re in the same situation as us."

While playground sets are always popular for families with young children, restrictions against public gatherings and the use of playgrounds owned by school divisions or community groups have spurred on the home playground trend. School divisions in Winnipeg closed their playgrounds in March and they remained off limits for almost two months. They reopened earlier this month after school division officials received guidance from the province outlined in the opening phase of Manitoba’s reopening plan.

Even now, some parents are seesawing about whether to let their kids on a public teeter-totter, fearing the play equipment may have been touched by someone who has been in contact with the coronavirus. A federal government advisory for health professionals says the virus can linger on plastic or stainless steel surfaces for two or three days.

“We’re not going to take the risk to go to the playground. It’s just the way of the world.” – Korey Peters

Some families also worry about crowds at public playgrounds. It’s common for grandparents to take their young grandchildren to a playground to babysit them while parents are at work. Most of the people in Canada who have died from COVID-19 symptoms are elderly people, and Peters says he wants to keep his father, who is 75 and has diabetes, safe at home instead of supervising his grandson at a school playground.

"We’re not going to take the risk to go to the playground. It’s just the way of the world," he says.

Keeping children busy while parents’ work from home has also driven the backyard playground trend. It’s one of the reasons Merina Dobson-Perry wants outside activities for her two children, six-year-old Brandon and three-year-old Elora.

"We’ve been struggling to find ways to engage in physical activities without putting them at risk," says Dobson-Perry, a voice instructor and singer who lives in St. Vital.

She has teamed up with her neighbour, Paul Bilodeau, who in 2018 built what may be Winnipeg’s snazziest treehouse, to build a play structure at her place, which she says has a spacious backyard.

From left:  Whitney Campbell with Maxwell Bilodeau (three months), Paul Bilodeau, Annie Pollmann (9), Maya Bilodeau (9), and Ella Bilodeau (5) in the elaborate backyard.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

From left: Whitney Campbell with Maxwell Bilodeau (three months), Paul Bilodeau, Annie Pollmann (9), Maya Bilodeau (9), and Ella Bilodeau (5) in the elaborate backyard.

And she’s willing to wait. Bilodeau, who is a house framer and runs Bulldog Construction & Renovations, is building an addition to his home after newborn son Maxwell was born three months ago, joining older sisters Maya, 9, and Ella, 6.

The Bilodeaus’ treehouse started out as a small project using leftover scraps of wood. It would later become a two-storey structure that includes windows and a small slide for toboganning in winter. It’s so noticeable it caught the attention of a city bylaw officer, who eventually gave it the legal thumbs-up, Bilodeau says.

"(Maya) kind of helped design it. She wanted a little nook, kind of a built-in couch," Bilodeau says. "Then she said, ‘What about a second storey?’ "

The treehouse, which Bilodeau says has helped stabilize a damaged tree, wound up costing as much as the priciest of playground sets at a store.

"Lumber costs money," Bilodeau says with a chuckle. "I didn’t want to put a big eyesore up."

alan.small@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter:@AlanDSmall

Alan Small

Alan Small
Arts and Life Editor

Alan Small was named the editor of the Free Press Arts and Life section in January 2013 after almost 15 years at the paper in a variety of editing roles.

Read full biography

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