At a time when parents will not let their children go off on their own to the woods for fear of lurking strangers or drug dealers, more and more parents rely on the back garden for safe, unsupervised play. A well-constructed climbing frame, tree house or den offers parents peace of mind and children the freedom to let their imaginations run riot.
The art of design has come a long way since the days of galvanised steel frames and blue plastic slides. In the last five years there has been a huge growth in demand for wooden frames for a more natural look. Even Tp Activity Toys - market leader in outdoor activity toys, which has specialised in affordable steel and plastic playframes for the last 40 years - has produced the Chesapeake wooden playcentre for those parents who do not want their garden to look like the pages of an Early Learning Centre catalogue.
Like the Tp system, the best climbing frames are extensible and can be adapted and changed with a growing and expanding family. The basic model usually comes with a tower that can be used as a tree house, climbing frame or shelter and can be customised with add-ons such as rope swings, slides and a climbing-wall. This way you can spread the cost and maintain an interest year after year.
Top of the range is the elegant Childlife Hunter Green play system from America. With its smart green enamel-coated wood and green and white striped awnings it wouldn't look out of place in the grandest of gardens and graced the White House lawn in the Sixties when the Kennedy children were growing up. My own four children favoured it above its competitors for the sheer concentration of activities - the basic Fireman's Gym alone (at pounds 2,459) has a scaling wall, fireman's pole, climbing net, glide, sandbox, alpine climber, telescope - which fits neatly into an area 10ft by 19ft. Swings, ladders, treehouses, wavy slides, extra towers and connecting tunnels can all be added if space and budget permit.
The Rainbow play system was also enormously popular with the children but the redwood frames, although attractive, are chunkier than most timber frames and would dominate all but the largest gardens.
Purists looking for a more rustic look, with no plastic or bright colours in sight, should try the Hout-Land range favoured by parents in France, Germany and Holland. The pressure treated roundwood weathers attractively without rotting and even the slide is wooden with a non-splinter weather- resistant board surface. It not only looks good but the children said it was the fastest slide and did not get too hot in the sun. The jouster seat was the most popular of the double bronco swings, being easiest to operate with either one or two children on it. And the boys liked the "cowboy fort" look created by the logs. Prices are reasonable - a play- tower log house, slide, ladder, climbing rope and two swings is pounds 697 and accessories such as the trapeze start at pounds 19.50. If you have a very small garden Woodlawn Playcentre's Royal Palace is ideal with its slide, two swings, trapeze bar, telescope, steering wheel, rope ladder and a den in the base of the tower complete with sun screen netting - all for pounds 885.
The Tree Tops play system got the thumbs up with Jake, eight, and six- year-old Benja because it was the only playframe that combined a proper den with windows and door to fit under the A frame and a tower which really felt like a tree house. This meant their four-year-old twin sisters could play house down below while they lorded it above them as pirates in the crow's nest.
For those looking for a separate Wendy house, the Malvern Range of garden buildings has a Lodge complete with loft, ladder, stable door, Georgian windows, and veranda for pounds 695 and the budget Playden for pounds 250 with roof overhang and two windows. The Children's Cottage Company will build you a wooden cottage in various architectural styles, including Tudor, Georgian and Victorian, which can be furnished with hand-crafted stools, tables, beds and curtains made to order.
Prices start from pounds 1,375 although a Queen Anne playhouse in brick with slate roof, lead flashing, sash windows and plaster work costs pounds 6,450. If that seems a bit expensive, you could always break out the wood, hammer and nails and some sticking plasters and build your own Wendy house.
Lydia Conway is author of the Evening Standard Children's London (Simon & Schuster, pounds 9.99)
Stockists: Wicken Activity Toys Centre, M Keynes (01908 571233) has the largest range for children to try out including Hout-Land, Tp Activity Toys and Backyard Playsystems. TreeTops Play Equipment (01795 431818); Woodlawn Playcentres from Norfolk Leisure (01553 811717); Childlife Hunter Green Playsystems, Wicken Activity Toys Centre (01908 571233); Rainbow Playsystems (01344 874662); Children's Cottage Company (01363 772061)