You could easily call last summer the Year of the Backyard Pool, as the pandemic forced families away from crowded lakes, beaches and community centers.
According to the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance, pool sales rose by more than 20% in 2020, although many families alternatively turned to water bounce houses, backyard splash pads, Slip ’N Slides and other water-filled items to stay cool at home.
If you’re similarly looking to turn your yard into a water park without the long-term commitment of an actual pool, here’s how to get started.
Know your options
The world of backyard water entertainment has come a long way from the sprinkler runs of four decades ago. Water enthusiasts can now choose among bounce houses, water tables, elaborate sprinklers, inflatables of all shapes and sizes, splash pads and more.
For Jaime Maser Berman, a beauty publicist in Westfield, New Jersey, the pandemic brought a move to the suburbs and a host of water-related toys. Maser Berman and her family invested in a Slip ’N Slide and a blowup baby pool, and accepted a hand-me-down water table from one of her sisters. Her backyard water-park project has been a success.
“If our backyard was bigger, I’d probably be trying to convince my husband we should have a blowup water bounce house,” she said. (The inflatable houses take up a considerable amount of flat yard space.)
Thomas Jepsen of Raleigh, North Carolina, bought a bounce house for his children mid-pandemic. Jepsen, chief executive of a company called Passion Plans, which connects homebuyers with architects and designers, said his kids needed entertainment. Luckily, Jepsen said, he had “a pretty big backyard,” and after his children visited a friend with a water bounce house, the family fell in love with it and decided to buy one.
Major retailers, like Target, Amazon and Wayfair, stock inflatable water bounce houses. They range between $300 and $500 and are suitable for children 5 and older. They can also take up about 150 square feet and weigh up to 600 pounds when inflated.
Slip ’N Slides and their off-brand cousins can be used on ground that is not flat, but they still require ample yard space, typically running about 12 to 60 feet in length.
If bounce houses and slides are too large for your yard, H20GO! makes a 6-foot-tall and roughly 4-foot-long caterpillar, an inflatable sprinkler system appropriate for children 2 and older. Fat Brain Toys offers a 6-foot-tall inflatable unicorn sprinkler and a compact light-show sprinkler that can be attached to any standard hose.
Water tables, which range in price from about $50 to well over $100, offer younger kids the opportunity to play in the water without the hassle of a pool. They can be placed either on grass or a patio or a deck, and once filled, don’t need to be replenished for a few days. Little Tikes makes sturdy water tables, as well as a new-to-the-market product called the Foamo Foam Machine, which produces a small mountain of nontoxic foam that can be used outdoors.
Flat splash pads lie on the ground and allow young children to play in a shallow disk of water.
Lindsay Fargo of Santa Cruz, California, bought a pad for her 2-year-old daughter last year. Fargo, senior consultant for product growth for Little Bridges, which sells multigenerational activity kits, found that the splash pad left “room in the yard for more fun,” but that it was “big enough for a few family members to enjoy together.”
She also liked how easy it was to store, by tucking it away in the garage or garden shed. The splash pad, she said, was easy to use: connect a garden hose and let it go.
“No parental lungs or trips to the hardware store for air pumps required here,” she said.
Compact and weighing between 2 and 3 pounds, splash pads can be used safely by children as young as 2. They’re also a good choice for people who would like to spend a little less (they are available for $50 and up), or who have smaller outdoor areas.
Know your needs
When purchasing outdoor water toys, consider your budget, space limitations and whether you have flat ground, which is necessary for pads and inflatables. (And make sure you have a long enough hose to reach them.)
You’ll also want to consider possible downsides. Splash pads, Fargo said, can pool particularly cold water since the water runs continuously from the hose and doesn’t have an opportunity to warm in the sun. But that need not necessarily be a deal-breaker. The temperature, Fargo said, “may have shortened our playtime a bit, but that made us feel like we wasted less water.”
Water use, as a whole, is a valid consideration, especially when you consider environmental impact. Since water cannot be recycled in many active water toys, the most environmentally friendly option is a water table, which only requires a single fill and not the constant running of the hose.
Water tables do have to be replenished every few days, but they still consume less than sprinklers, bounce houses and splash pads. And since they can be used on hard surfaces, they won’t cause damage to your lawn.
Inflatables, in particular, can kill grass, said Caitlin Manner, a writer from Panama City, Florida. Last summer, when her sons were 2, 5 and 8, Manner bought a bounce house with a pool and slide.
“It definitely killed off a patch of grass,” Manner said. “If you leave it any longer than two days, that grass is toast.”
Maser Berman also noted that availability may be one significant drawback, and that parents of young children should purchase backup toys this season, before items run out.
“My biggest tip is to buy early in the season,” she said. “Your kids will somehow break something.”
Keep them clean
Outdoor water toys are prone to mildew, mold, pollen and animal damage. To keep them looking their best, spray them down regularly with water and deep-clean them when needed.
Jepsen recommends cleaning bounce houses and other outdoor water toys with a solution of vinegar and dish soap. Make your own solution by combining, in a spray bottle, 1/4 cup white vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon of dish soap and 2-1/2 cups of water. Spray the cleaner all over the inflatable, wash with clean water and allow it to dry.
He also suggests deflating and drying bounce houses regularly, advice which can translate to any inflatable water toy.
At least once a month — and always before storing — deflate air-filled water toys and allow them to sit in the sun on a dry surface until the exterior water has evaporated. At the end of the season, they should be tightly folded and stored either in the bag that they came in or in a sealed, industrial-strength garbage bag in a dry place.
Since she doesn’t have a basement, Manner stores her clean, dried and folded inflatable in a Tupperware container on her porch. Some water-toy users, like Maser Berman, put their items away after each use.
“Yes, it’s a pain to schlep in and out, every day,” she said. “But you won’t risk anything getting ruined by weather or animals.”