First came the monkey bar climbing tower with a dome. “We got that after she broke an indoor tent,” said Elkins Park artist Lyla Duey, referring to her daughter, Ida, who is 4.
Then, when it became clear in May that summer camps, day care, and preschool were either canceled or struggling to add safety precautions, Duey started looking online for a swing set for Ida and her 2-year-old sister, Emmie. Key considerations, she said, were cost and durability.
“I wanted metal so we can relocate it easily, and that is sturdy and can last until they’re like 10 or 12 years old,” Duey said. “I just found one that was affordable, for about $625. It shipped cross country, and they said it would be a three- to four-week delay, but it arrived in two weeks. The girls have played on it every day. It’s a fraction of what we would have been paying for summer camps. We consider it a good investment.”
For many families in the Philadelphia region and across the United States, buying backyard pools, play sets, trampolines, and bouncy houses was a natural next step in seeking safe ways to socially distance while still maintaining their physical health and sanity.
Google searches for aboveground pools and trampolines began spiking in the U.S. on March 15, when many states began shutdowns; interest did not ebb until mid to late May, and pool searches began rising again as summer temperatures climbed in June.
Philadelphia ranked third in major U.S. cities in Google search interest for aboveground pools and swing sets, eighth for trampolines, and 10th for bouncy houses.
Word of mouth is also among the drivers helping to fuel interest. At least among parents.
“I purchased a moon bounce in the beginning of April, hoping it would entertain my son, who turned 5 in March,” said Danielle DiCristino of Havertown, who bought a Little Tykes Inflatable Jump n’ Slide from Target after seeing a Facebook friend post about buying a similar bounce house.
“Unfortunately,” she said, “I feel like I wasted $279. After three days of forcing my son to bounce in it, I gave up. He said it wasn’t any fun without another kid to bounce with.”
Still, DiCristino notes that the inflatable toys have been popular “because about half his pre-K class mentioned getting a moon bounce of their own during the weekly Zoom class. And soon I saw them in backyards all over town when we went for a walk or a birthday drive-by.”
Demand for playhouses and swing sets is so hot that local manufacturers and suppliers can’t keep up.
Steve Moffitt, co-owner of Elite Outdoor Structures in Bucks and Montgomery Counties, started getting frantic phone calls — roughly 10 a day — from parents shopping for wooden and vinyl swing sets and gyms.
“We just sold one of our last sets off the lot, and compared to last year, our sales just in April and May were up over 100%,” he said.
Prices range from $900 for a wooden set to as much as $14,000 for vinyl climbing gyms. The bulk of his pandemic-era sales have been between $1,500 and $4,000.
“They’re buying because they have nowhere to go with the kids,” Moffitt observed. “A lot of summer camps didn’t open. How do they keep them occupied outside?”
Elite Outdoor Structures sold 30 play sets this year, compared with the usual 12 in the same period. Both wooden and vinyl sets are made by Amish manufacturers in Pennsylvania.
“It takes two to three weeks to build, and we’re sold out for 2020,” he said.
The company’s main business is outdoor sheds, both “man caves and she sheds,” he said. Families are forgoing vacations and putting between $1,200 and $18,000 into backyard storage.
“Every single shop in Lancaster County is maxed out,” he added.
Jessica Lazzaro counts herself and her husband among the fortunate few who beat the rush with a seven-foot trampoline purchased as a Christmas present for their toddlers, ages 2 and 3.
“Santa paid $65 on Cyber Monday from Amazon, and now the same trampoline is selling for $250 and higher,” the Havertown resident said. Next came a monkey bars climbing tower in April from Walmart for $168. That item is now either sold out, she said, or going for two to three times that price.
Having play sets at home has also been a blessing to help provide sensory stimulation for her 3-year-old son, who was given an autism diagnosis the day before schools closed.
In addition to needs in development and language skills, her elder child craves sensory stimulation.
”He loves to climb, jump, and bounce,” she said. “He will climb on anything, so I wanted to give him something more constructive. It’s helpful. They’re still two toddlers bouncing off the walls, but they have options.”