Home life goes with a swing for delighted children of the White House

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Living up to their promise of turning the White House into more of a family home, Barack and Michelle Obama surprised their daughters when they returned from school on Wednesday to find a brand-new swing in their back garden. The elaborate (and expensive) set-up, including four swings, a slide, a fort, a climbing wall and climbing ropes, was installed within sight of the Oval Office where President Obama spends much of his time.

The White House said it was made from "100 per cent cedar and North American redwood", a telling detail given the stridently protectionist mood of the country. It also came with a picnic table with brass plates etched with the names of all 44 presidents. "They ran right for it," Mrs Obama's spokeswoman, Katie McCormick Lelyveld, said. They were really, really excited." With snow still on the ground Malia and Sasha, ages 10 and seven, played on the set for almost an hour, she said, adding that their mother went for a swing too.

Presidents have been altering the landscape around the White House for years. Teddy Roosevelt had a tennis court installed in 1903 and kept ponies for his children. When Caroline Kennedy was growing up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, pets included dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, a rabbit and her pony Macaroni. A magazine photo of her on Macaroni inspired Neil Diamond to write his hit song "Sweet Caroline", something she learnt only when he performed it for her 50th birthday two years ago. Old photographs of the White House show Franklin D Roosevelt's grandchildren playing on a slide and Caroline Kennedy pushing younger brother John F Kennedy Jr on a swing on the South Lawn. Jimmy Carter's daughter, Amy, had a tree-house. George H W Bush had tree-mounted swings for his son's children Jenna and Barbara. Bill Clinton, who liked to jog, had a running track installed.