All Together Now

Making Play Safe & Accessible

By Matthew M.F. Miller

A playground's grand opening—the day the ribbon is cut and the first flock of local children gleefully take to the swings and slides—is the seminal moment most planners think about when launching a new project. After months of fundraising, planning and construction, the opening of a new play facility brings a sense of satisfaction and pride to both the team involved in creating it as well as the residents of the community.

What happens before and after the grand opening, however, will determine how long those children and their parents will be satisfied patrons of your new playground. It also will determine who has access to your facility, how children will interact with one another during playtime and the shelf-life of the equipment and play surfaces that serve as its backbone. Making sure the money you spend produces the most useful, safe environment for the families of your community must be the top priority.

Jennifer Skulski, director of marketing and special projects for the National Center on Accessibility in Bloomington, Ind., said that in recent years the bar has been raised for local parks.

"Visitors coming to playgrounds have much higher expectations for parks and recreation facilities than they used to," said Skulski, who also serves on the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) subcommittee for playground surfaces. "If you're going to do the fundraising and the celebration, asking people to help pay for and support the new playground, the public's expectation is that when they show up a month later or a year later it will look as good as it did on the day of the grand opening."

According to Skulski, if you have a playground built more than five years ago, the equipment was designed to meet older safety standards and many materials will begin to degrade. The life cycle of equipment, in terms of safety, is 10 to 15 years, she said.

"A playground isn't a one-time purchase, install it and walk it away," Skulski said. "That is the mindset that playground owners had in the '70s and '80s. And they didn't look to see what it takes to maintain a structure. We did not have clear accessibility guidelines in that time. It's only been in the last five years from the United States Access Board, that we now know what it means to have an accessible playground."

First Steps

Dave Williams, operations manager for the Bloomington (Indiana) Parks & Recreation Department, said that parks, after all, are for the community, by the community. It's essential to put the needs and desires of your constituents front and center.

"Seek public comment in a manner that gets you the precise information you need," Williams said. "Consult not only children, but also talk to parents and adult caregivers. Create a play environment that is exciting, challenging and offers the creature comforts that make children and the adults that accompany them want to stay and recreate for extended periods of time. We've found a well-thought-out playground with the necessary amenities can do wonders in adding new life to an old park."

And that all begins with proper planning.

Terry Hendy, a member of the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) and president and owner of Site Masters Inc., said that a vital step many owners of older playgrounds overlook could save them a lot of wasted time and money in the long run.

"For redoing a very old playground they should first have an audit done of the playground to determine the level of compliance with current standards," Hendy said. "They should look at the condition of the existing equipment and determine what is worth trying to bring into compliance and what should simply be removed."

She recommends having the surface evaluated to determine whether or not it is compliant with today's recommendations. For new sites, it is important that the playground is appropriate for the intended age user of the equipment; that the equipment and location of the equipment is consistent with the ASTM F 1487 Standards for Public Playground Equipment; and that the surfacing is consistent with the recommendations of the CPSC Handbook and the ASTM F 1292 Standard for Playground Surfacing Materials.

"Also, the development of the playground areas as well as the equipment and surfacing must meet the intentions of the Americans with Disabilities Act," she said.

Easier Access

Jennifer Skulski, director of marketing and special projects for the National Center on Accessibility, said that the first step in creating a usable playground is to apply the principles of universal design to the layout of a new playground. In today's world, when you're looking at the accessibility of your design choices, you're not just looking for ways to make your playground practical for kids that use wheelchairs, but for any person—child or adult—that might have specific needs in order to enter and enjoy the facility.

"Get away from prescriptive design and apply principles to reach a wide array of users and provide choice," Skulski said.

She points to a project in South Bend, Ind., which was funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation's Access to Recreation program, as a sterling example. Potawatomi Park "Fun for All" built a universally accessible play structure that offers users the ability to interact with each piece of play equipment without having to leave a wheelchair, as well as assistive elements if the user wants to leave an assistive device to play. Each type of equipment, whether spinning, swinging or climbing, is thoughtfully placed to encourage interaction between all users. The entranceway is designed with an accessible gazebo that houses a sound wall and interpretive maps with an audio component to help those with hearing and vision impairments better navigate the park.

Look Out Below

When choosing a surface material, playground owners first need to know what their budgets allow for construction versus maintenance. If you have a lot of capital up front but not a lot of financing for maintenance, choose a surface that has easier upkeep. No matter what you choose, it is of utmost importance to make sure you're getting what you pay for, which requires testing the surface following installation.

"A lot of new playground owners are getting savvy because they've been burned in previous purchase experiences," Skulski said. "Many people have begun to write the cost of testing into the purchasing license to be included in the cost of installation."

According to Skulski, surfaces that meet the basic accessibility and safety standards should have less than a 2 percent cross-slope in all directions. There should be no changes in level greater than a half-inch or any openings in the surface greater than a half-inch.

"If you have loose-fill surface, look across horizon and see the undulation, that is changes in level throughout the entire access route," Skulski said. "You would not see that undulation if it met ASTM F 1951 requirements."

For those considering self-installation, make sure to choose a surface that does not require an IPEMA-certified installer. Skulski also said to be realistic about the downsides of self-installation. While it opens up opportunities for those with tight budgets to invest in more play equipment, the manufacturer's warranty is subject to proper installation, and if issues—or injuries—arise, your work will be under intense scrutiny. If your installation is found to not meet the manufacturer's requirements, you could be left to pay for repairs.

"You have to know what you're doing," she said. "It's a lot more than just shoveling loose-fill materials onto the playground surface. Whether shredded rubber or wood fiber, it won't be accessible if you just lay it down."

And by law, your surface is required to be accessible from the day it opens to the public. Knowing your surface will save you money and potential legal trouble down the road. Some surfaces take six weeks to totally settle. If you just rake it out and let it settle, you are installing it to have an undulation.

"You've already created worse access by just shoveling it in," Skulski said.

Other surfaces, such as engineered wood fiber, require compaction, which some manufacturers require be done mechanically rather than manually. As a general rule, always ask before you buy.

Hendy said that to determine what surfacing to use, consideration must be given to the height of the equipment, the frequency of use, the owner's ability to maintain the playground and vandalism rates, as well as the impact of climate. Then talk to your supplier to discuss your best option for those needs.

"I typically recommend a combination of engineered wood fiber and unitary materials," she said. "I use the wood fiber where I have higher fall heights or under upper body equipment and climbers where there is an increased frequency of falling. I personally believe that there is a greater level of protection from long bone fractures with a loose material such as engineered wood fiber."

The downside, however, is that it must be maintained with frequency to remain safe. Hendy likes to provide a unitary material wherever she wants the maximum navigation ability for a child using a mobility device. Especially in areas where you are asking a child to leave a mobility device behind and crawl or scoot.

"You must keep in mind that there is no perfect surfacing and all surfacing selections should be based on the fall height of the equipment and the ability of the agency to maintain the surfacing," Hendy said. "Surfacing costs vary around the country, but generally a good budget figure is $5 a square foot for engineered wood fiber installed with a drainage means, and $15 to $20 a square foot for unitary materials such as poured-in-place rubber or rubber tiles."

All experts agree—be realistic about what maintaining a surface entails. Also, when you inspect equipment, be sure to inspect the surface, too, and address concerns immediately before they require a full replacement.

Regular playground inspections should be conducted by a Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI) at least once a month to ensure there are no safety hazards that have occurred during use of the playground.

For playgrounds using loose-fill materials, keep in mind that it's not just about the depth of your new surface. The under-layer, whether concrete, stone or dirt, can affect whether or not your new surface will meet the ASTM F 1292 standard specification for impact attenuation, informally known as the "head-drop test" (how safe your surface will be when a child falls from the height of installed equipment).

For poured-in-place surfaces, after construction is complete, make sure to have it tested by an impartial testing agency to ensure it meets the requirements of the ASTM F 1292 standard.

Maintenance Requirements

Hendy believes that every playground should have money set aside for maintenance before construction begins, which would include taking care of the surfacing. Without regular maintenance and inspections, no playground will remain in a safe condition for very long.

"Forty percent of all playground injuries are alleged to be caused by lack of maintenance," she said. "That is huge. Seventy-nine percent of all injuries, according to the CPSC, are a direct result of falls. Maintaining our playground surfaces is the single most important thing that we can do to reduce the number and severity of playground injuries."

When designers don't have CPSI certification, collaboration between both the planners of the new facility and the manufacturer can help reduce the number of accidents that occur in the future.

"If the person or persons charged with designing a playground do not have the necessary knowledge and experience to deal with all these issues, they should look to collaborate with experienced playground designers, playground equipment sales representatives and a local CPSI to help work through the maze of design considerations, safety issues and product and materials options available in the marketplace," said Ken Kutska, member of IPEMA's Voice of Play Board of Advisors and president of Children and Recreation Environment Inc. "Many designers and sales representatives have attained CPSI designation."

And while the CPSI designation does not qualify the person as an expert in playground design or safety, it at least ensures they have been through a comprehensive program that address all the issues related to proper design and safety.

Skulski, who has assessed hundreds of parks and recreation facilities for safety and accessibility, says that when a playground is 5 to 7 years old, she's not going to make any recommendations for the park owner to be putting in little new pieces of equipment to update the look and appeal of the area.

"I'm going to be recommending that they look at the remaining life cycle of that playground and then begin planning to replace it," she said. "Again that's not just for accessibility but for safety. The equipment was designed under old standards. There's so much we learn every day and how it plays into design."

If it's a younger playground, the first thing Skulski looks at is access route, then at variety of equipment to make sure that one of each type of equipment meets accessibility standards.

According to Bloomington's Williams, people often incur "sticker shock" when told about the costs for new play equipment and surfacing, so it's imperative that you are realistic about your budget limitations.

"Spending all your money on surfacing and little on play features will result in a lightly used playground," Williams said. "Be realistic about your ability to maintain the new playground surface over the 12- to 17-year life that the new equipment should last. If there is no maintenance staff, or inconsistent budget allocations for maintenance, downsize your design to purchase the best quality surfacing and equipment you can afford that will lower maintenance costs. Look at compact designs with multiple play events coming off of one post or central pier to reduce square footage and surfacing costs."

Design for Safety

Tom Norquist, former president of IPEMA, Harrisburg, Pa., and current head of Voice of Play, a Website promoting the benefits of children's play and playgrounds, said that it doesn't take high-tech equipment to make a playground safe and accessible, just safe design.

"It's important to ensure age-appropriate design, that the playground uses IPEMA-certified play equipment and surfacing and that it has adequate sight lines," Norquist said. "Implementing looping patterns in the design is a critical factor."

Looping, a full turn in the middle of a random movement route on the playground, gives playground supervisors a 360-degree view of the play area. Additionally, Norquist said not building to minimum use zones adds additional surfaced areas for traffic and looping patterns.

The location of various components within the composite structure also can impact safety. Hendy said that how children get on and off of the equipment and the location of egress components, such as slides, in relation to access components, such as climbers and steps, can impact safety.

"Where you locate things such as merry-go-rounds, track rides, swings, anything with a lot of movement impacts safety," she said. "You don't want to place a swing in an area where children will be constantly going through the swing to get to the rest of the play area. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends placing items with movement such as swings on the perimeter of the play area."

She said it's also important to have play areas designed that will encourage a variety of active and passive activities encouraging fantasy play as well as hard active play.

Skulski said that manufacturers today do a great job of designing playground equipment for people with cognitive disabilities, and are focusing their design efforts on the ways they can use colors to differentiate between equipment.

"The actual play components are one color, and the safety barriers or railings are a different color," she said. "One of the playgrounds that is in Rockford, Ill., they had ground-level spinners that you stand on and spin around. For the surfacing, they did a circular, spiral design for the whole radius of that use zone so that the color on the surfacing indicated to other kids to stay out of the way. As one child is spinning around, everyone knows to stay off of the purple, spiral parts."

Design for Accessibility

Manufacturers also are becoming more aware of how children with special needs access and actually use the equipment, according to Teri Hendy. The design of handholds on items such as play panels is more consistent with the gripping or grasping abilities of children with limited hand strength. The type of surfacing used in a playground has the greatest impact on whether or not a child with a mobility-impairment can even get into the playground.

"They are paying more attention to the amount of energy used to access a component or to use the component," she said. "There is more emphasis on getting children up onto a structure so that they can view the world from an elevation. This is especially important to children that use wheelchairs. No person should be denied access regardless of whether it is a child or an adult who wants to supervise his or her children. Years ago the importance of accessibility was brought home to me when a friend of mine who lost his legs in Vietnam told me that he simply wanted to be able to go to a park and push his daughter in a swing. Something so simple that the majority of us take for granted he was denied access to because he could not get his wheelchair to the swing set."

Jennifer Knitter, superintendant of planning and development for the Woodridge (Ill.) Park District, knows firsthand how important accessible playgrounds can be to a community. The universal-design playground her organization built in 2009 was the first of its kind in the area. They relied on expert advice from a landscape architectural firm that was familiar with this type of design and also worked with an accessibility consultant to ensure their design truly did meet and exceed the Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities (ADAAG) requirements and promoted use by as many people as possible.

"From a safety standpoint, providing proper use zones is critical to all playground projects," she said. "Especially in existing playground projects where you are keeping existing borders in place. Remember not to design your playgrounds so tightly to your borders setback that when your contractor goes to build the playground, borders may need to be adjusted to accommodate for construction tolerances."

Knitter said it is important to have access ramps into the playground and to design in a buffer area so exposed curbs and walls aren't located right next to a possible drop off that could be hazardous if a wheelchair were to veer off the path. Some of the innovative accessibility and safety elements they added to the Woodridge Park are:

  • Installing a ramp system from one entrance to the other so that a child in a wheelchair does not have to leave his/her chair to interact on the playground. This was achieved by explaining this goal to the playground manufacturer, who in turn worked with them to make their vision a reality. They also created at-grade (no curb) entrances so that those same users can access other portions of the playground (not on the ramp) as all able-bodied patrons do.
  • They incorporated high-contrast colors not only in the play equipment but also along routes for the children that are vision impaired.
  • Installing non-plastic slides that do not distort hearing aids.
  • Offering areas of the playground that are not wide open, but instead use repetitive patterns that can be relaxing for kids with cognitive impairments who may not always want to be with a large group of kids that are playing together.

"Children learn socialization skills at a playground," Knitter said. "Just by observing a busy playground, you can easily see how kids learn how to share and take turns, how to meet new friends, and ask questions about things that they may not see in their everyday life, giving them opportunities to learn diversity and understanding and accepting of all types of people."

Dave Williams agrees with Knitter. The Bloomington Parks & Recreation Department has made a commitment to provide safe and exciting play environments for all, which has been both costly and rewarding.

"We may offer higher play events then most and with that comes the responsibility to keep up with inspections and maintenance, especially surfacing," he said. "People should design to encourage group play and interaction." He encourages park owners to look at other site influences in the playground design, such as proximity to parking lots and vehicle traffic, and large trees with overhanging branches that provide shade but may create an overhead hazard.

"Look at the entire site, not just the space required for the playground layout. What are the nearby recreational uses? A baseball field creates a risk with foul or thrown balls coming into the play area, a basketball court where the language and behavior gets a bit aggressive doesn't mix well with a children's playground environment."

Knitter believes that a park's design can foster health benefits, an important bonus in light of the U.S. childhood obesity epidemic, but the design has to be intuitive, inviting and a place that allows kids and families to interact.

"Playgrounds are very essential to reducing childhood obesity," she said. "By designing playgrounds to have multiple routes within them, kids will find new ways to play on the same equipment each time they come to the park. This is important in keeping their interest in coming back to play and move with other kids outside, which is a critical part of reducing childhood obesity.

Williams agreed that if the child and parent find the playground environment you've created difficult to use or lacking excitement, or they find their friends don't go there for the same reasons—it's an opportunity lost.

"I would stress the need to create a complete play environment where both adult and child can participate," he said. "Provide the amenities, such as adult and children's sized picnic tables under shade trees where the family can eat their lunch on-site and resume play instead of playing for 15 minutes before heading to McDonald's."

Behind the Scenes

Not all safety advances are visible to the naked eye, however. Most manufacturers have begun to put an emphasis on using recycled and eco-friendly materials in the creation of their goods. Most of the steel used in today's playgrounds is made from recycled steel and much of the plastic used has a large percent of recycled material in it.

Teri Hendy noted that there also is a movement to bring more of our natural world into the playground environment.

"Designers are looking at being able to maintain a playground with the least amount of energy," she said. "All of the loose-fill materials that we use, with the exception of recycled tires and other loose rubber products, are entirely green. Many would argue that the use of recycled tires as surfacing material is 'green.' Engineered wood fiber is in my mind the most eco-friendly surfacing material that meets the recommendations of the ADA and of our impact attenuation standards."

Hendy believes that the use of sustainable, recycled and chemically safe materials only increases the safety and long-term endurance of not just the park, but also the world which your park is aiming to enhance.

With all of the planning required to make a park safe and accessible, the one thing a park planner should never overlook is the fun to be had by all.

A new trend Hendy is seeing in accessible parks is the construction of ground-level equipment where there are no platforms and the children move in a circuit from one climber to another. She also is seeing a lot of climbing nets and new creative swinging opportunities.

And for Hendy, nothing is as important as the timeless swing set, which is essential to the development and continued development of a person's inner ear, which helps us maintain our depth perception and balance.

For Bruce Hronek, professor of recreation and park administration, Indiana University, something for children to hang on and crawl on, over and through is the key element for modern parks. More important, however, is to create a space that welcomes all to explore and enjoy, and benefits the community in ways most would never dream.

"Imagination equipment that allows children to make believe and be creative is now recognized as very important to the mental and physical health of children," he said. "All research data indicates there is a distinct value to playgrounds and recreation programs including child socialization, family stability, reduction in obesity, reduction in juvenile crime, general health benefits and even an increase in property values."

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