Feature Article - January 2006
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Play to Live, Live to Play

Playground development, from design to construction and beyond

By Kyle Ryan


Safety

According to the NPPS, a child is treated in the emergency room for a playground-related injury every two-and-a-half minutes. The organization estimates 205,860 preschool- and elementary-age children head to the emergency room for playground injuries every year—and 76 percent of those injuries occur on public equipment.

"Part of growing up is falling down," Riggs says. "You don't want anybody to get injured, but kids are going to fall off and hit wrong on the attenuated surface."

Even though injuries on a playground are inevitable, Riggs believes that many surface-related injuries are the result of inadequate maintenance. Lack of adult supervision is also a contributing factor.

Take swinging, for example. According to NPPS, swings had the second highest incidence rate for kids ages 5 to 14, accounting for 24 percent of injuries. Climbing equipment accounts for 53 percent of all playground injuries, regardless of age. Across all age groups, swings cause 19 percent of injuries, followed just behind by slides at 17 percent. However, IPEMA believes that most swinging injuries aren't from the activity itself but "poorly designed or poorly maintained equipment, lack of adult supervision and inadequate fall surfaces." So devoting more energy to any of those would conceivably decrease injury rates dramatically.

That's basically what the NPPS recommends: more active adult supervision, safe surfacing, regular maintenance and equipment that's appropriate for children's abilities.

Construction

Some playground-equipment manufacturers will install equipment, and some designers will install it or work with contractors to install it. Riggs' firm no longer handles installation. The Friends of Alta Plaza Park worked with a contractor who built another privately funded park in San Francisco. How long it takes to build the playground obviously depends on what's being built and the time of year.

When the community helps make a playground possible, it seems reasonable for the community to help build the playground. These "community build" projects usually occur one of two ways, according to Riggs: a manufacturer sends materials and instructions to build a design, with a person on-site to supervise, and you provide the volunteers, or the materials are delivered with instructions, and it's up to you and the volunteers to make it happen.

In 2001, when Chaires Elementary upgraded one of its playgrounds, it used volunteers from the community to build it. But when the school upgraded another playground last year, it used a builder contracted with the district.

"I was advised by our district maintenance contact that, due to liability issues on the playgrounds and with warranties, they would be contracting for all future installations," Moss says. "[I'm] not exactly sure why—don't know if there were problems at other sites or just being very careful."

Community builds still happen, but with less frequency, Riggs thinks, and for good reason: If the manufacturer didn't install the playground, what type of warranty will it offer?

"My question is, if the instructions cause you to put two bags of cement in the hole, are you sure [the volunteers] did that?" Riggs says. "I think that really is a liability issue, but more so than anything, it's a warranty issue. Who do you go to?"