In an earlier post, I explored soft play climbers as possibly the ideal purchase when it comes to providing a toddler with a safe way to promote physical activity within the home. One factor that made it less than perfect was the fact that they don’t compactly store, which wouldn’t be a deal breaker in and of itself, but combined with a hefty price tag, the climbers are definitely not as attractive as originally thought—they don’t meet this site’s two main requirements: to be affordable and space-conscious.
But…I still want them! And otherwise, the climbers were really exactly what I was looking for, which made me really want to know, why are these climbers so expensive? They are literally two things: the foam and the covering. So, when I don’t want to pay for something (at least not the going price), I try to find ways to reproduce it myself.
To begin with, what exactly are the climbers made of? The vendors who sell them do not give a very detailed description: “Made of school quality durable, vinyl-covered foam”, says constructiveplaythings.com. I don’t know what is meant by school quality, and I don’t think CP does either, except that they deem it worthy to survive school-yard abuse. The only clarification I could find that even remotely makes sense is the GREENGUARD Children & Schools Certification Program, which, according to greenguard.org, is “for products intended for use in schools, daycares or other environments where children spend significant periods of time…Products certified to this standard are also suitable for use in environments where children and other work, play or reside.”
Mention of this certification was not found on CP’s website (nor was any claim that CP’s syntax was implying that school quality meant this), but it was listed on other sites, such as one with a similar product, a mattresses, that explained the certification was for indoor air quality and low chemical emissions. That’s great and all, but aside from being an educational digression, this description doesn’t help me at all.
Maybe Children’s Factory can help me out since they do claim to be “the World Leader in Soft Play”, and seemingly so, as more often than not, products seem to link back to them even when sold through a different distributor. “Fire retardant…14 oz Nylon Reinforced Vinyl…inside core of…urethane foam…[which] Childrens Factory buys…in large buns and fabricates all sizes and shapes and configurations in our own plant” (source: http://www.childrensfactory.com/faq.php).
That’s a little more helpful, but essentially I still know what I already knew: the climbers are effectively foam and a cover. The vinyl covering is advertised as being stain resistant, easy to clean, and fire retardant, and that’s all useful, but if it cushions the price tag, which I’m sure it does, it’s not really needed, especially for residential use. So, if the covering gets put aside for the time being, that leaves the foam.
I read a little more about this and I read some forums—I’m still not sure why foam is so expensive— I’ve read the reason as being everything from simple economic supply and demand to it being environmentally harmful, to blaming natural disasters in areas where the majority of it is produced.
Taking a look online, I wanted to see if foam is sold for other purposes cheaper. For instance, I stated before that the ramp would be the most useful and hardest to reproduce piece. Ramps are sold for pets and as medical support pillows, which does offer the option to buy the ramp individually instead of as a larger set. Still, the cheapest I found was about $35-40 on amazon.com.
Another option could be to purchase the foam by itself, leaving the cover to be homemade, since it’s main purpose is for aesthetics. After looking at a lot of sites that have custom cutting, the most common choice available when not being sold otherwise for a specific purpose, the price seemed even more outrageous. I did find one, however, that seemed somewhat reasonable: http://www.foambymail.com. I certainly didn’t look at every site out there, but they do have a 110% price match guarantee in case I’m wrong!
I did a quick price comparison to see what it would be to duplicate one of the most basic, and competitively priced, soft play set, Soft Play Forms from Constructive Playthings on Amazon.com (side note: was $159.99 in April, now $164.99 as of Nov. 4, 2012). Based on the listed dimensions, and estimating those that are not readily available, here’s the comparison:
Foam By Mail:
Poly Round Bolster, 6” diameter x 18” length: $5.99
Medical Body Wedge: $20.99
*Custom cut- 24” length x 16” width x 4” height: $19.95 x 3 – $59.85
Total: $86.83 vs. $164.99
(at time of writing, neither purchase would have additional shipping or handling costs)
*The custom cut price is calculated to accommodate the two rectangles and the half-circle bump. The rectangles would be made by putting two of the custom cuts together for height, then cut to size. The third custom cut would need to be cut and shaped to make the half-circle. As I don’t know the density of the foam used by Constructive Playthings, this cost is based using Lux Foam- High Quality, which is the most expensive as well as the most firm, so it could be done for less.
Buying the foam separately would cut the cost almost in half, but then there’s the expense and, more challenging, the labor of creating covers. Based on my calculation, the approximate surface area for all the pieces would be 3980 square inches and assuming that the fabric being used is from a 44” bolt, that would be 2.5 yards of fabric if it fit exactly with no waste, which of course, there would be. I would then plan on buying at least 5 yards, and with the cheapest fabric being at least $3 a yard, that’s $15, bringing the total to $101.83. Still cheaper, but lots more work involved. If you use zippers, which I would strongly suggested, and would think it almost not worth doing without, that would be another $10, maybe less, making the savings an even smaller amount. (If anyone wants to prove me wrong by challenging my math skills and is eager enough to do all the calculations, I will be interested, and not offended, by your results.)
Even though the cost savings is not overwhelmingly significant, the benefit is that it’s possible to modify the dimensions of the foam to have a higher ramp, for instance, or to accommodate a geometrically unique room. Due to economies of scale, small adjustments like this are going to be minimal but greatly increase the value of the final product.
*As of this writing, I have not purchased from CP nor foambymail and cannot attest to the quality of either product or company.
In Part I, I explored an opportunity to achieve a similar product to Constructive Plaything’s Soft Play Forms at a lower cost, but the estimated $55 savings may not be enough to make up for the added time and labor it would require. Let’s take another look:
I appreciate two things that have to be true about the foam—it has to be a relatively large piece (24” x 16” x 8”) and it has to be extremely dense to not smoosh down under the weight and pressure of a child.
But here’s where there’s some opportunity: the foam doesn’t have to be solid, nor does it have to be all one piece. I’m not familiar with the exact manufacturing process, nor do I have a climber at my luxury to cut apart to know for sure, but if I had to guess, it probably adhering to these two things that make them so expensive: being one solid piece of foam and being dense enough. But, I can’t think of one good reason why either condition is mandatory. The foam is for the safety of the child to prevent injury, but it’s not required for the structural integrity or durability.
The focus is on these two elements 1. creating a sturdy durable structure that can withstand the weight and pressure of a child (as well as their misuse and abuse) and 2. being safe for kids, i.e. no hard, pointy, or sharp edges and soft enough to cushion a child falling on it or against it. The manufacturer solved these issues by using one solid dense piece of foam, but I’m going to find a cheaper work around.
For any engineers out there, or any problem-solvers for that matter, I’m sure there are many solutions. Case in point, the inflatable Geo-Gym, but for the purposes of this post, my interest is in finding a solution that is cost, time, and space efficient. Since the original play forms had two problem, price being primary, what would also be a great benefit would be a design that is foldable, or otherwise easy to store or hide away in a closet or under a bed when not in use. One matter at a time, I suppose.
My approach to finding a solution is working out each concern separately. First, let’s take a look at the sturdy durable structure. There are so many materials that would work, but based on our secondary objective of being cost and time efficient, the most likely candidates would be cardboard, a plastic bin, and wood, also listed respectively according to price, availability, and need for further supplied/skills, the cardboard being the cheapest, most readily available, and needing the least amount of specialty or additional (non-household) tools. The plastic bin, though, is likely to take the least amount of time since it is already the pre-assembled shape that we are looking to accomplish, but, that’s not the only consideration, as this also means it’s going to be virtually impossible to change its shape either, such as folding it down. Also, since plastic is preassembled, you may be limited as to what shapes you will have at your disposal to work with, and may limit your creativity.
I’ll go into more detail later, but if you have the skills and hardware already, wood is probably in the long run going to be your best option because it will give the structure a little more weight to support your child (so it doesn’t move under them and cause them instability that could lead to falling as I saw with the Geo-Gym). The end material really has to do with your personal preference, budget, design, and desired use.
Before you go too crazy with what material to use, remember the structure doesn’t have to be solid (if making a cube object, this means it could be 6 walls fastened together such as an empty box), nor does it have to be strong enough for an adult. Of course, the stronger it is, the longer it is useable, but realistically, if you plan on using it temporarily or short-term, it only needs to support the light weight of a toddler.
The logistics of actually building the structure will come later, but now the last part that needs to be considered is what will be replacing the foam, or in other words, the part that will “baby proof” it, and make it soft and fluffy, so to speak. This, like the structure, can branch off into a magnitude of options, especially if you’ll be using a cover as aesthetics won’ t be a concern in that case. Though, depending on your design, you may not even need a cover at all.
Here is a list of some options to serve as cushion/padding/foam, and I’m not naïve enough to think that I have personally thought of all of them, but this is after taking a walk through craft, home improvement, and shipping/packaging stores (there may be multiple forms or brands of every alternative listed):
-Anti-fatigue foam floor mats (EVA Foam)
-Polyethylene/wall/rubber tubing (edges)
-Polyisocyanurate insulated sheathing
-Open cell foam sheets (including but not limited to poly foam, HD36 foam, Lux foam, dryfast foam, rebond foam, charcoal foam, polyurethane, urethane foam, packing foam, acoustic foam, convoluted foam)
-Singleface corrugated conforms
I apologize if I’m inconsistent in listing both actual material names and brand names/product descriptions. The best bet to find these type of products at local stores is to go to a fabric store where they stock stuffing or insulation department at a hardware store. It’s also possible to find items on sale or clearance at stores that can be disassembled for the padding. As a last resort, blankets, bedding, or cushions from retired furniture can also be used, though, keep in mind that whatever you use is going to be close, even if not directly in contact with, noses and mouths, so whatever you use should not emit any chemicals, etc.
Even if listed, I have not researched every or necessarily any materials to verify their safety nor have I confirmed if their use is appropriate for this type of project, so please speak to a store specialist or otherwise inquire as to chemical reactions/interactions with adhesives or other behavior to prevent injury.
Purchasing sheets of foam to cover the outside surface is going to be much more cost-effective than buying a solid piece, and is also available at foambymail.com. The older your child, the smaller the concern is to baby-proof or to provide a thick cushioning barrier.
Not all materials are ideal for all designs or uses, so please think and plan ahead. Certainly, many things will work for many different uses, but strategizing the best material for your own purposes will save time and money and the frustration of starting over. The main variables to consider are cost, thickness, durability, coverage, ability to be manipulated (can it be cut, bent, curved, etc), and how well the material will adhere to the frame.
Once you have all the materials figured out, the last step, and of course the hardest, is putting it all together.
Materials shown are just under $20: 3 Cardboard boxes (2 sizes), fabric, pop-up hamper, and Poly-fil TruFoam. More than half the cost is in the Poly-fil; the boxes were purchased but can easily be free by going to retail or department stores, especially during stocking times at 24-hour stores. The hamper was bought to create a tunnel but cutting out the bottom, though it’s not being featured in this post.
Poly-fil was attached using a spray adhesive. Read labels for any toxic or acidic properties not suitable to be around children.
Cutting foam to the surface area dimensions may not be enough. Be aware of the additional width the foam adds and compensate with the adjoining piece. The below left picture illustrates the gap that will otherwise be creates and may not necessarily jeopardize the project’s safety, but it interrupts the surface. The picture on the below right shows how utilizing one consistent piece as much as possible will create smooth corners.