The Playground Checkup

Safe, Long-Lasting Playgrounds Require Standardized Maintenance Practices

By Rick Dandes

Take a child of any age to a well-kept playground, and you can see by the joy on his or her face how much fun they can provide. A child's playtime, however, is about more than just having "fun," say educators and social scientists.

Well-maintained and regularly inspected playgrounds are places where children, under the watchful eye of teachers, parents or caregivers, can develop cognitively, physically, communicatively and socially. But the playground has to be safe, above all, and safety begins in most instances with the proper installation and maintenance of the play structures.

"The physical safety of the thousands of kids who use our 14 community playgrounds is absolutely the top priority we have," said Wixson Huffstetler, recreation director, Jonesboro (Arkansas) Parks and Recreation Department.

Huffstetler understands that among playground owner-operators and parents, there is genuine cause for concern—and reasons for establishing strict safety measures. As children use increasingly challenging but still age-appropriate equipment, there is the all-too-real potential for injuries.

Nearly 200,000 injuries that require emergency room treatment occur annually on public or private playgrounds, according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The good news is that these injuries can be prevented for the most part with proper playground design and installation, as well as a standardized inspection and maintenance program.

Along with helping to promote children's development, a quality maintenance program has many other positive outcomes, said Anne-Marie Spencer, corporate vice president of marketing, with a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company focused on play and recreation research, programming and products. "It allows owner-operators to protect their investment, manage risk and control expenses—all while promoting community values."

John McConkey, marketing insights manager of a Delano, Minn.-based playground equipment manufacturer believes that accidents caused by equipment issues are 100 percent avoidable. "If you are doing good maintenance," he said, "if you have good policy, procedures, and record-keeping and documentation, then a claim due to a maintenance issue should not happen. Vandalism you can't prevent all the time, but things like normal wear and tear, or equipment failure due to lack of maintenance, is something that is preventable."

Ensuring Safety

Because use, environmental factors and materials vary, every playground is different. "It is imperative," McConkey said, "that those responsible for maintenance of the playground understand the maintenance requirements necessary to keep it safe, attractive and to extend its useful life. It is the responsibility of the playground equipment manufacturer to provide instruction as to how the equipment is to be installed and maintained, as well as to provide a general guideline as to the frequency of those procedures. It is the owner's responsibility to establish a frequency schedule for each playground and to follow the manufacturer's recommended procedures."

Well-maintained and regularly inspected playgrounds are places where children, under the watchful eye of teachers, parents or caregivers, can develop cognitively, physically, communicatively and socially.

Having a safe playground area requires careful planning and monitoring. Remember that infants and toddlers (ages 0 to 2), preschool-age children (ages 3 to 5), and school-age children (ages 5 to 12) have different developmental needs and abilities. Different age groups need different playground equipment to ensure safe and fun play for everyone.

To ensure that a play space is well-maintained, said Jonathan Hardesty, vice president of a Carrollton, Ga.-based play equipment manufacturer, "it is imperative to have a well-laid-out plan." The plan should answer several important questions, he explained. For example: Who is going to be responsible for maintaining the play area? Will this be a school or park maintenance crew, or if it's a group of homeowners, who will be responsible, and what is the schedule?

"Second," Hardesty said, "what is required with the maintenance plan? What items should be inspected, and to what frequency should each item be inspected? What is recommended by the manufacturer of each piece of equipment and surfacing? Finally, what record-keeping processes will be in place? This final step is often the most overlooked, but can be the most critical if unlikely litigation were to occur. Many owner-operators take the time to do due diligence on their purchase and maintenance, but often overlook the important element of good record-keeping."

The first question to answer is, who is responsible for the play areas? Hardesty said. If the area is open to the public, the owner-operator has a duty to ensure that it is in good and proper working condition. Even if a private organization such as a church or HOA has a public playground, they must ensure that the equipment is well maintained to keep all users as safe as possible.

"The first step of a proper maintenance program is to appoint the person or persons who will be responsible," Hardesty suggested. "These designated inspectors should be given training. The manufacturer's representative of the equipment is often a great place to start for proper inspection techniques. Manufacturers are required to provide schedules of recommended periodic timetables and procedures on how to inspect their equipment and surfacing."

Identifying possible issues early on can help users avoid problems and save time and resources from later, more costly repairs while keeping playgrounds functioning, said Michael Ulrich, engineering manager of a playground manufacturer in Lewisburg, Pa.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and ASTM, an international standards association, both publish playground safety guidelines. One AS™ standard requires that the designer or manufacturer of each play structure will provide owner-operators with clear and concise inspection, maintenance and repair instructions, including, but not limited to, what, when and how to inspect, maintain and repair.

That's exactly what Josh Durand, park superintendent, Anchorage, Alaska, does, he said. He meets the standards, and then goes one step beyond that. "When a new or renovated playground comes online," he said, "we utilize the manufacturer's maintenance recommendations to add value to standard maintenance practices."

Inspections & Equipment Lifecycles

The frequency of inspection will be determined by many factors, including equipment age, usage and materials, as well as external factors like the age of the users, climate and vandalism, Spencer said.

In Alaska, Durand and his staff inspect their playground equipment five times a week during the summer months. In Anchorage during the summer, there is daylight 21 hours a day. "We do sanitation, loose soft fill adjustment, note any vandalism and dispatch a repair crew if any safety issues are observed, potentially closing a piece of equipment if repairs cannot be immediately realized. We also fill out a playground inspection form monthly and do power washing at the same time," Durand said.

The life cycle of his surfaces also affects maintenance, Durand added. "Engineered wood fiber (EWF) requires annual topdressing and almost daily raking; poured-in-place seems to have about a life span of about 10 to 15 years; synthetic turf fall surfacing is a new product for us, and we like its resistance to arson through the sand infill."

Meanwhile, Huffstetler, in Arkansas, has a similar schedule, minus all the daylight hours that Durand has to work with in the summer. "Our visual inspections are daily. We do major inspections every month. At that time we inspect every bolt. If a citizen sees a problem or broken equipment and reports it, we jump right on it. We power wash our equipment every quarter. With our poured-in-place surfaces, we use blowers everywhere twice a year. Fiber chip surfaces are replaced every two years."

The lifecycle of equipment, Spencer said, is highly dependent on many variables, the frequency of usage, number of people that use the space on a regular basis, type of equipment, weather conditions, likelihood of vandalism, care and maintenance of the equipment. "It's a good idea," she suggested, "to consider lifecycle costs when purchasing a playground, as these decisions will affect the cost and frequency of maintenance over time. For instance, poured rubber surfacing typically has a lower maintenance cost than loose-fill surfaces, but it's more expensive initially. Wood fiber is usually the least expensive surface initially, but it will need to be raked when displaced to maintain its attenuation properties and will need to be topped off as it decomposes or migrates outside the use zone.

"If there is proximity to a coastal environment," added Lukas Steinke, CEO of a play equipment company based in Greenville, S.C., "something installed directly on the beach and close to saltwater, then the need for maintenance goes up dramatically, and it is fair to assume that the lifecycle of the equipment also changes. Not a huge portion of our installations are directly on the beach, but the maintenance is fairly intense for the owner-operator when it is."

Maintenance Scheduling

Inspections can be broken into several groups, Hardesty said. Many routine maintenance tasks are custodial in nature, and should be completed regularly (some daily), including:

  • Picking up litter.
  • Sweeping walkways.
  • Checking potential wear points and moving mechanisms.
  • Inspecting and tightening hardware connections.
  • Leveling and replacing displaced loose-fill surfacing.
  • Loosening compacted surfacing.

Other tasks do not need to be completed as frequently. For these, create a schedule of preventive maintenance jobs that should be performed periodically due to age, use and the environment. For example, it may become necessary to touch up the paint on equipment that's been scratched and scraped, or install replacement swing clevises and motion bearings.

It is imperative that those responsible for maintenance of the playground understand the maintenance requirements necessary to keep it safe, attractive and to extend its useful life.

Lastly, the facility manager should plan on a detailed, thorough safety audit and inspection of the playground's structural integrity. This should happen at least once a year and be performed by experienced, trained personnel.

In general, you can break down maintenance inspection schedules in this way, Hardesty said: "High-frequency inspections are daily or weekly inspections that examine items such as: Is there any broken glass on the playground or surfacing? Has there been any vandalism? Does the equipment appear to be in good working order? Is there any insect infestation? Has any loose-fill surfacing been displaced and in need of maintenance?"

These general and quick inspection questions are items that should be considered daily by the owner-operator and the supervisors who are watching over the play area, he said. "A great tip for catching these items is to post signage with phone numbers and ways to communicate if the general public notices apparent hazards in the play area. The general public and its users can be a great tool for the overall care and maintenance of play areas if creative ways to involve them are sought."

Monthly or quarterly planned inspections, Hardesty said, would cover such items as: broken equipment such as loose bolts, missing hardware or cracks in the equipment; loose anchoring; insect infestation or insect damage; problems with surfacing; vandalism; and rust, corrosion or rot.

Ulrich agreed, "To help keep a play space well-maintained, it's important to look for potential hazards such as sharp points, corners and edges, protrusions, tripping hazards, hardware and maintenance installation, among others."

With poor maintenance being responsible for some 36 percent of all playground injuries, McConkey said, it's vital that your organization develop a suitable preventive maintenance program. Manufacturers can help, suggesting that owner-operators remember these rules:

  • Be thorough. A maintenance checklist shouldn't merely say, "Check swing hanger for excessive wear." Instead, it should say, "Replace swing hanger when worn to 50 percent of original diameter."
  • Maintain records. Being able to show who did the inspections, when they were performed, what the results were, and what repairs were made can be important when you're faced with a possible lawsuit.
  • Inspections aren't just to ensure proper maintenance. They can also help you identify hazards from equipment that was improperly designed or installed in the past. Several manufacturers suggest doing a safety audit of all your playgrounds to ensure compliance with current ASTM, CPSC and ADA guidelines. Whenever possible, have such audits performed by a staff member or outside consultant who has completed the Certified Playground Safety Inspector training via the National Recreation and Park Association. (For more information on this education and certification program, visit www.nrpa.org/CPSI.)

Preventing, Recovering From Vandalism & Graffiti

Short of having 24-hour guards monitoring and securing the area, vandalism and graffiti can't always be averted, but Durand, in Alaska, said his department has a good prevention record through thoughtful design. "For example," he said, "we recently designed and installed a park that uses the synthetic turf with sand infill, poured concrete seat walls with anti-graffiti coating, stainless-steel slides, smaller-caliper powder-coated steel structures and eliminated large plastic pieces—canvases for graffiti. This was a renovated project in an area that is subject to significant vandalism and graffiti."

Start by selecting play equipment from a manufacturer that puts its products through rigorous testing, Ulrich said. "Most manufacturers' products are durable and will withstand some level of misuse and even offer some remedies for products such as repair materials or graffiti remover. The best way to prevent misuse and vandalism is supervision. However, products will likely be misused, marked with graffiti and/or destroyed. If a product is vandalized to the point that it is not safe, prevent the product from being used and call the manufacturer for replacement parts."

Nobody wants graffiti in a play area. The owner-operator will want to remove it quickly when it does happen, Hardesty said. It is important to contact the manufacturer of the piece exposed to ensure that proper materials are being used. Major manufacturers often sell graffiti removers that are not harmful to the coating of their equipment. Some store-purchased products can have corrosives that will be harmful to the equipment or users. Never apply any chemical to the equipment without checking the MSDS sheets and getting approval from the manufacturer first."

The best prevention, Spencer suggested, is to get the community actively involved at your park. Much like neighborhood watch programs, the more eyes and ears involved, the less likely someone is going to engage in vandalism.

"If it does occur," she said, "damaged equipment should be replaced to reduce the likelihood of injury. If the playground is subjected to graffiti, there are graffiti remover solvents available, as well as touch-up paint to deal with the problem. The faster graffiti is removed, the stronger the signal that this site is well cared for, and vandals may stay away. If you can utilize lighting at night, this also helps deter vandals as they prefer to work in places where they aren't readily seen."



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