MILWAUKEE – The coronavirus pandemic has forced some moms and dads to do more to keep their children occupied than ever before — including what can become substantial investments in their backyards.

To keep the youngsters happy — and out of Mommy and Daddy’s hair for just a few minutes, please — an increasing number of parents are buying playsets, trampolines and other equipment.

Sales are up sharply over last year, as parents have contended with months of work from home and stay-at-home orders combined with an early end of in-person classes.

Depending on how handy and ambitious you are, backyard equipment can cost from about $100 for a single swing to thousands of dollars for units that have enough slides, ropes and monkey bars to keep every kid on the block busy.

“It’s not just a swing set anymore, it’s a play system,” said Joel Gaskey, a sales associate at Rainbow Play Systems in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

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Since the store’s showroom isn’t currently open, Gaskey takes orders over the phone. Plenty of parents call in, but so do grandparents buying a set (or two) for grandkids. Some of them just want to restore or update the one they bought decades ago for their own children.

Gaskey, 42, loves working at Rainbow, which he describes as a happy place.

“No one is ever mad at me,” he said.

He delights in the simplicity of his job, which largely consists of showing pictures and pointing families toward a suitable play system. 

His position is a big change from his former job doing maintenance on pressure washers, which he had to quit after a motorcycle accident last year.

Rainbow has modified operations to keep customers safe. The store is doing curbside pickup only, and shoppers can find catalogs sitting outside the building in a newspaper box.

Once a play system is purchased, an installation team of two or three arrives at a customer’s house “tooled up,” Gaskey said.

Tired parents and excited kids typically must wait three to five hours before their backyard playground is set up and ready for action.

Full line models range from $3,800 to whatever the imagination can create.

“These are built a la carte,” Gaskey said.

But not every backyard playset requires several thousand dollars or a small team of workers. Some come in a box along with lumber and can be built by a single person in a matter of hours.

An out-of-the-box swing set from Menards costs about $160, while the largest playset the retailer has available is about $2,400.

‘It brings so much joy’

Katie Bruner, a Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, mother of two boys, bought hers from Walmart in April after she and her husband could no longer take their sons to the park. She built the set, which normally goes for $350, in her backyard with the help of her sons — Fox, 3, and Finn, 2 — in about eight hours.

“When the pandemic started, we wanted to make sure they could go outside, and they like to swing and slide and climb. From our second story, they would see our neighbors on their swing sets, and they’d be like, ‘Park?’”

Bruner said, “It brings so much joy” when she watches her boys climb, swing and slide.

“This has been the first time they’ve been swinging without child bucket seats, so they had to learn to hold on, and they’re working on pumping to get higher as they get more courageous,” she said.

“My 3-year-old is learning that if you flop on the swing on your stomach, it feels like you’re flying.”

Sales took off in March

According to The NPD Group, a research marketing firm, more kids around the country are likely entertaining themselves for hours on end, just like Fox and Finn Bruner.

In May 2019, play equipment sales accounted for $78 million in outdoor sports and toys revenue. In May, that number jumped to $97 million, an increase of more than 24% — a jump that NPD says is tied to homeowners investing in their backyards.

The larger category of outdoor and sports toys grew from $434 million to $654 million in the same time span — a 51% increase.

“The strong growth in (consumer) playground equipment coincides with the closing of schools in March and reached peak growth of 121% in the last week of March,” said Juli Lennett, industry advisor at NPD.

“Over the last three months (March-May), over 80% of the growth in playground equipment can be tied to playsets, trampolines and play houses/bouncy houses.”

Jeff Corner, owner of Backyard Playsets in Grafton, said he’s never seen anything like the current frenzy for outdoor recreation.

Which month has been the strongest for him so far?

“They all are,” he said before chuckling.

He often receives referrals and picks up even more clients when a customer’s neighbor sees him putting up a custom-designed set.

“I built one in my front yard 31 years ago,” he said. “And before I was done with it, like, two or three people had stopped. So, I thought, Maybe I’m onto something.”

Trampolines are possibly the single hottest outdoor commodity during the pandemic. Rainbow sold out of its supply that was supposed to last through June back in March.

Things are busy every spring at Rainbow in Waukesha, but Gaskey and his boss aren’t sure how long the high level of interest will last.

“People are very excited to always treat their kids,” Gaskey said.

He has seen wives react in astonishment to the excitement of their husbands with comments like, “Oh my gosh, does he realize how big this is?”

Gaskey has four children of his own, ages 21, 20, 11 and 8. He had a small playset before moving, but like Bruner, he built it himself out of a box. Now, he’s waiting to get his own from Rainbow. He also wants one for his 11-year-old nephew, who has autism.

“It’s just an exciting industry. I never knew the niche of the situation,” Gaskey said.

“They just sell themselves.”

Reach the reporter at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @agyakaning

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