Do your kids want a backyard playset, but the slope of your yard is causing problems? A level surface is a critical element of setting up a backyard playset correctly and safely. Fortunately, if your backyard is uneven, several solutions are available.
Why Level Your Yard?
Pay close attention to where you put your playset. Here’s why installation on a level surface is so important.
Placing a playset on an uneven surface creates a serious safety hazard for any kids who play on it. Even a small playset can potentially tilt or shift equipment if it’s on a slope. Once a playset starts moving, it doesn’t require much momentum to tip over completely, resulting in serious injury.
Additionally, if a playset isn’t secured on a flat surface, it’s not truly secured at all. A playset on a slope is far more likely to move in strong winds or severe weather. For more, read our full guide on playset safety.
Playsets are designed to rest on even ground. Otherwise, the weight distribution becomes misaligned. A playset on a slope is subject to undue stress on its joints, wood, and other components. Not only will this prolonged stress likely result in a warped appearance, but it also decreases the overall life of the playset.
Installing the playset on an uneven surface might void its warranty. Manufacturers understand the damage that can occur when a playset is on a slope, so they often provide detailed specifications about how and where it can be placed.
While you can find many options for professional installation, clearing the ground is usually a separate service. If your backyard isn’t suitably level, installers might not be able to do their jobs. When arranging for any professional installation, make sure you understand what preparation you’re responsible for beforehand.
Leveling Your Yard – Digging
If your yard isn’t level, you can dig and redistribute the earth yourself with a shovel and some elbow grease. While this method is often labor-intensive, it’s also effective, low-cost, and requires no complicated know-how.
Planning It Out
Before you start digging, develop a clear plan about where to install the playset. The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends the following guidelines for outdoor playsets:
- Place it at least six feet away from the house, fence, trees, and other obstacles
- Avoid placing it in an area with an abundance of direct sunlight
- Don’t place it under power lines, tree branches, and similar skyward hazards
After you’ve found the general spot for your playset, you’ll then want to mark off a precisely-measured rectangle. Place wooden stakes into the ground at each corner. Connect a taut string from each corner stake to a stake at the highest point in the area.
Tools You’ll Need
Although none of the necessary tools are particularly fancy, they each play an essential role in leveling your lawn. Here’s what to gather up:
- Spade Shovel – The flat blade and pointed head work best for digging into grass and dirt
- Garden Rake – Metal or plastic rakes are typically both strong and flexible enough to move dirt
- String – Choose a white or brightly colored string to contrast with the grass
- Tape Measure – It should reach the entire length of the area you’re working on
- Level – Any size level is fine, although you’ll also need a wooden board if you use a short level
- Landscape fabric – This lightweight gardening fabric is used to inhibit the growth of weeds
Step by Step
After you’ve measured out the area and assembled your tools, you’re ready to dig up the sod. Sod is the term for grass plus the dirt surrounding its roots. Although digging it up might seem like tons of work, there are several techniques to make it far more manageable.
1. Moist sod is the easiest to dig and move. Water the area thoroughly and then wait 24 hours before digging.
2. Cut the sod into a grid. Make each piece about one by one square foot. This technique is why you want a spade shovel with a sharp edge.
3. Remove the sod with the shovel. You need to dig deep enough to remove all the roots of the grass. That’s typically around three inches, but it varies based on grass type and geography.
4. Load the sod into the wheelbarrow. Although the first few pieces might not seem particularly heavy, you’ll want to limit lifting as much as you can.
5. If you’re repurposing the soil, start at the highest point in the area. Move the soil to the lowest point.
6. As you continue to transfer soil from high to low areas, try your best to keep it level. Also, use the rake to redistribute the dirt with more precision.
7. Once you’ve created a reasonably level-looking surface, it’s time to start measuring. Note the distance between the ground and the level string. It should be consistently even.
8. You’ll also use your level, which you can lay flush with the ground or place on a wooden board.
9. Ultimately, leveling the ground involves a fair amount of trial and error. You’ll likely have to measure several times.
10. Finally, place landscape fabric around the ground to act as a weed barrier. Use garden staples to keep it in place.
If you want to save some time and effort and don’t mind spending a bit of money, you can rent a device called a sod cutter. It uses sharp blades to remove the sod with ease.
Leveling Your Yard – Retaining Wall
If you wind up digging into your yard at any significant depth, you’ll likely need to build a retaining wall. A retaining wall is any structure used to hold back earth that would otherwise slide forward due to a vertical slope.
Although it might sound like a major project, building a retaining wall is more straightforward than many people realize. A practical and beginner-friendly method to make one is with interlocking retaining wall blocks.
Planning It Out
Retaining walls have hard surfaces. You want to keep them away from the play area to prevent contact if kids accidentally fall. Most experts recommend a distance of at least six feet between the wall and the play area.
With interlocking blocks, the maximum height shouldn’t exceed 28 inches. However, they have no particular length limit.
Tools You’ll Need
All of the materials are commonly found in any home supply store, although you might not have everything already at your workbench unless you regularly work with masonry equipment.
- Interlocking retaining wall blocks – Many different styles and sizes are available
- Paver base – This aggregate forms the base of the retaining wall
- Landscape fabric – You’ll use this to help hide the drainage system
- Circular saw with a masonry blade – Only a masonry blade can safely cut the retaining wall blocks
- Safety gear (goggles, gloves, and ear protection) – Also, don’t wear loose clothing when operating the saw
Determining the number of blocks necessary is a reasonably straightforward process. First, you’ll need to know the height and length of the wall plus the height and length of each block. You can get the block specs directly from the manufacturer.
Divide the length of the wall by the length of the individual block. The result is the number of blocks you’ll need per row.
Next, you need to determine the number of rows. Divide the height of the wall by the height of each block. The result is the number of rows.
Finally, multiply the number of rows by the number of blocks per row. The result is the total number of blocks you’ll need to build your retaining wall. However, most experts recommend adding 10% extra just in case of any accidental damage during construction.
Step by Step
1. First, you’ll need to level the ground where you plan to build the wall. Use the same techniques described above to move dirt from high to low areas.
2. Use stakes and string to mark the wall’s boundaries. Make sure both sides of the wall are clear at this point so you can create a proper drainage system.
3. You’re ready to start digging. The initial trench should be about six inches deep. Stamp the dirt down to create an even bottom and then fill the trench with about three inches of paver base.
4. Next, prepare the blocks. Use the hammer and chisel to knock the flange off.
5. Lay these blocks onto the paver base to create your base row. Make sure this row is level because all of the others rest on top of it.
6. Prepare your masonry blade and circular saw. For the second row, you’ll need to cut the blocks in half. Place them on top of the first row, with the flange tight towards the rear.
7. After completing a few rows, you’re ready to install the drainage mechanism. First, place the landscape fabric on the dirt side behind the blocks. Then, place drainage gravel behind the wall. Repeat this process until you’ve reached the final two rows.
8. To keep the blocks secure, place concrete adhesive between the first and second rows.
9. Finally, cover the drainage stones with landscape fabric. You can then fill it with either soil or another type of ground covering.
Leveling Your Playset – Blocks
The entire ground underneath the playset doesn’t necessarily need to be level. Support blocks allow you to create a level surface only where the playset touches the ground (Note that support blocks are different from the blocks used to create a retaining wall).
You can find several types of support blocks. The safest and easiest type to use are blocks specifically made for outdoor playsets. You can also use cement blocks, although you’ll need to carefully bury them in the ground to make sure they’re secure.
Some playset retailers like WillyGoat offer support blocks specifically designed for playsets.
Support Block Pros:
- They’re quick and easy to install. While you have to dig up small sections of your yard to place the blocks, you don’t have to move major amounts of earth.
- They’re affordable. While digging is typically the least expensive option, support blocks fit into most budgets without a problem.
- They allow for easy lawn maintenance. Mowing around a support block is usually hassle-free so that you can have both a playset and a nicely manicured lawn.
- They’re removable. After the kids have grown up and you want to change your lawn’s look, removing support blocks is often far easier than redistributing the earth.
Support Block Cons:
- Not as permanent. When you redistribute dirt in your yard, the change is permanent. However, support blocks can potentially move in heavy rains or due to other environmental conditions.
- Risk of damage. Support blocks can potentially crack due to excess weight or improper installation. Additionally, if they’re not strong enough to provide needed support to the playset, it can become damaged.
- Possible improper elevation increase. By adding support blocks underneath the playset, you’re raising it up. If it’s too high, it can lack proper security and potentially shift at an angle or even fall over completely.
A level surface is one of the most important aspects of keeping your backyard playset free from damage – and keeping the kids who play on it free from accidental injury. Before installation can occur, you must properly prepare your yard.
Digging is often the most time-intensive option, but hard work can help you save big. Keep in mind that leveling out many yards will require creating a retaining wall, but they’re fairly easy to build, especially if you use retaining wall blocks. Finally, if you want to save some time and keep your lawn’s original look, consider support blocks.
By creating the perfect place for your backyard playset, you’re also helping build fun experiences and memories for the entire family!