Feature Article - January 2007
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Safe Ground

Building, maintaining and inspecting playgrounds to ensure all kids can play, safely

By Emily Tipping



You're not done yet

So, once you've found the safest, most age-appropriate equipment options and installed the proper surfacing along with signs to let everyone know the rules, you're set, right?

Wrong.

It's not enough to set up your playground and forget about it. Routine maintenance is crucial to ensure your playground's continuing safety.

Once the playground is installed, Wallach said the most important thing to do is to create a good maintenance program.

"It's the responsibility of the owner or operator of the playground," she said. "Almost always, they are given recommendations and suggestions from the supplier of the playground product as far as what to maintain and how to maintain it."

The ASTM specifications require manufacturers to provide clear instruction on maintenance. Ask them what needs to be inspected, how often you need to inspect it, what the expected maintenance tasks are and how to repair any problems.

Next, you can look to the CPSC guidelines for some help in outlining your plan.

Proactive maintenance can help you avoid more costly repairs down the road. For example, if your playground equipment contains wooden components, apply a wood preservative on an annual basis, and you'll prevent a lot of deterioration. Just be sure to use a preservative that meets CPSC guidelines.

If the equipment is metal, plan to repaint it on a regular basis to prevent any rust or chipping. If your playground equipment was purchased before 1978, you should probably get it tested for lead paint, just in case.

Check for unsafe openings to prevent kids from getting their heads caught. There should be no openings between 3.5 and 9 inches, and there should be no V-shaped openings at the tops of slides.

Check out your swings. There shouldn't be more than two swings per bay or support structure, and the tot swings should be separated from the big-kid swings.

Routine steps you can take include closing the S-hooks found at the tops of swings and picking up all the trash. Remove graffiti promptly as well, as it only encourages further vandalism, which can damage equipment and create unsafe conditions.

Regular inspections can help you react to problems before they cause accidents. Some general questions you or your staff should be asking at each inspection include: Is any of the hardware loose? Worn out? Is anything protruding dangerously? Are any of the equipment footings exposed? Is there debris or litter? Rocks or tree roots? Is there rust? Chipped paint? If the playground is built with wooden components, are there splinters? Cracks? Signs of decay? Are any components missing, like guardrails or swing seats?

Don't just adopt a general, one-size-fits-all approach to the playgrounds you supervise. Each should be considered separately. Why? One may be exposed to more wind and snow, while another might be vandalized more often.

For more guidance on creating a maintenance program for your playgrounds, check with the National Recreation and Parks Association. They offer several publications on standards for parks, open space and recreation facilities, as well as training and certification for Certified Playground Safety Inspectors (CPSI).

Many owners and operators have gone through the CPSI courses, Wallach explained. "And there are other playground safety courses out there, as well," she said.