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Encourage Risk, But Safely

Playground Safety From Concept to Completion and Beyond

By Dave Ramont


As the saying goes, kids will be kids. And as much as we'd like to, we can't always protect them from themselves—including on the playground. Around 190,000 playground accidents occur each year that require emergency hospital visits. Children aged 5 to 9 have the highest injury rate, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who also tell us that approximately 45 percent of these injuries are severe. But there are things that playground designers, manufacturers, installers, park personnel and parents can do to help reduce the risk of accidents while still keeping playgrounds challenging and fun for kids.

Ken Kutska is executive director of the International Playground Safety Institute, a member of various American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) subcommittees, and a founding member of the US Play Coalition. He's written extensively on playground safety, including co-authoring Playground Safety Is No Accident: Developing a Public Playground Safety and Maintenance Program. He tells us that "Playground owners, designers and manufacturers need to become more vigilant in their own risk assessment early on in the process of creating a safe but challenging play area for children. Children will continue to use equipment in unintended ways, and much of this can be considered foreseeable. We all must become more informed on all issues related to child development needs and more knowledgeable in the area of injury prevention."

Kutska added that while we can't prevent all injuries, we need to understand the causes of serious to severe injuries and death. "The number one challenge facing this industry is the lack of adequate and informed maintenance of these important child development facilities," he said. "Building these places is important, but maintaining them throughout their functional life is even more important to injury prevention."

Maintenance Matters

In fact, it's estimated that more than one-third of all playground injuries are due to poor maintenance. Parks, schools and municipalities should regularly inspect and maintain equipment throughout the year, looking to identify any rust, corrosion or loosening of parts. Snow, rain, temperature extremes, insects and even high winds can damage equipment, as well as heavy use and abuse. The most popular equipment can deteriorate quickly. Parks may want to use an outside consultant to do their inspections. Some organizations, such as the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), offer training for Certified Playground Safety Inspectors. And since brands and types of playground equipment can be significantly different, park managers should make sure that equipment follows U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and ASTM guidelines.

Around 190,000 playground accidents occur each year that require emergency hospital visits.

Many manufacturers offer detailed instructions and recommendations for installation and maintenance. In their Playguide Bulletin Number Five, Landscape Structures, a playground equipment manufacturer, tells us that inspections should be thorough. For example, instead of saying "Check swing hanger for excessive wear," a maintenance checklist should read "Replace swing hanger when worn to 50 percent of original diameter."

Inspections can also help identify hazards from equipment that was improperly designed or installed. The guide also suggests keeping maintenance records, which can be important if a facility is faced with a possible lawsuit: who did the inspections, when were they performed, what were the results, and what repairs were made.

Safety and Risk

Some of the things designers consider when planning a playground that help to promote safety include: protecting certain areas and equipment from sun exposure; providing separate areas and equipment for preschool kids (ages 2 to 5) and school-age kids (ages 5 to 12); keeping sight lines in all playground areas clear, allowing for proper adult supervision; keeping "active" play areas (such as swinging) and "quiet" play areas (such as sandboxes) separate; making sure the site is well-drained; keeping the site visible from nearby paths, but away from bicycle or car traffic.

The most popular activities should have plenty of space to avoid overcrowding, and all equipment should have adequate space for entering and exiting. And it's important for designers to understand circulation patterns through and around equipment, and how these are affected by children's play patterns.

The US Play Coalition is a "partnership to promote the value of play throughout life." Their membership includes parks and recreation professionals, play researchers, landscape architects, educators, designers, planners, manufacturers, health scientists, business and community leaders, physicians, psychologists, and parents from across the United States and beyond. Each year they hold an educational Play Conference, where the latest research and practices in the field are presented, including ways to minimize risk of playground injuries. The event includes keynote and featured speakers, roundtables, educational sessions, grant opportunities, networking and more. The 2017 conference, "Where Design Meets Play," will be held from April 2 to 5 in Clemson, S.C.

Fran Mainella is the founder and a co-chair of the US Play Coalition, and the former National Park Service director. She worries that we've become too overprotective of kids. "Part of what's happened in the past 30 years is what's called a play deprivation crisis, and it's not because we didn't want play, it's because we were all as parents trying to protect children and make sure that they didn't get dirty, that they didn't get hurt."

She added that research shows how play is crucial to character development in children, pointing to the example of how nearly 40 percent of schools have pulled recess, many for reasons of safety. "And now the science is showing that you can academically score better if you are allowed to have that recess back in," she said, adding that kids' behavior and focus in the classroom also improve when they have an opportunity for play.

"The cognitive skills of imagination, decision-making and creativity have been actually negatively impacted because we took play away because we were so afraid," Mainella added. "We're trying to be such great parents that we didn't allow sometimes any risk for our children, and in all honesty, there needs to be an element of risk that we allow them to experience."

This, she said, is why they put on the annual conference, to help educate about the value of play. "We're helping architects, landscape architects, planners and others—and they've asked it of us—better understand play, so that they can better design not just playgrounds but communities, hospitals, schools—so play is available. And yes, there may be some risks—we still want to have it, though, as a very calculated risk."

As far as the nuts and bolts, Landscape Structures' Playguide Bulletin Number Five suggests some things to look for as far as engineering and construction features: Deck heights should be appropriate for the age group using the equipment. Secure fastening methods should be utilized, for example clamp-and-post systems or through-the-post fasteners. Check the structural integrity of posts, decks and other components. Look for corrosion protection, such as the use of aluminum or galvanized steel components with coatings of polyester or PVC. Bolts and pins should be plated or made from stainless steel. Require special coatings on decks, handrails and other areas that provide maximum traction and insulation from temperature extremes. Use plastics with UV stabilizers and other additives that prevent deterioration, and non-toxic coatings such as polyester powder coatings instead of paint. Look for protrusion-free designs to avoid puncture wounds, eye injuries, cuts and bruises. Decks and other components should be gap-free, to prevent fingers, heads and bodies from becoming entrapped. Slides should have entrance hoods and run-out areas. Require swing fasteners that use a fully enclosed design, rather than older and more dangerous S-hooks. And look for vandal-resistant hardware that requires a special tool for removal.

Manufacturers are always working to strike a balance between developing innovative and challenging products while still making them safer and easier to maintain. Kutska mentioned a few of the things that he has seen lately. "I see the new deck-less systems an interesting departure from the more traditional post-and-deck composite playgrounds. Fiber-reinforced concrete structures are adding more creativity to playful designs. Three-dimensional cable climbers are a big part of today's designs. Inclusive design will continue to be a big part of the owner's responsibility to make playgrounds more useable by all people. Surfacing performance and longevity will continue to be an ongoing challenge to owners and designers alike."

What's Under Foot?

Surfacing is a crucial part of minimizing serious injuries, considering that approximately 70 percent of playground injuries are due to falls. Hard surfaces such as concrete and asphalt have no shock-absorbing properties and are unsuitable under any equipment. Grass, turf, packed dirt and soil are also not recommended since their ability to absorb shock can be reduced by weather conditions and wear. Some playgrounds utilize a loose-fill surface, such as engineered wood fiber (EWF), shredded rubber, wood chips or shredded bark mulch, or even certain types of fine sand or fine gravel. Also popular—though more expensive—are unitary surfaces such as rubber tiles or poured-in-place safety surfaces.

Loose-fill materials, such as EWF, do provide superior impact-resistant qualities, but also require more maintenance and upkeep, especially with regard to providing accessibility. Some playgrounds solve this problem by using loose-fill materials for the use zones and a unitary surface on routes where more accessibility is required. Jeff Mrakovich, Certification and Services Manager for a Middletown, Pa.-based manufacturer of engineered wood fiber surfacing and other playground safety solutions, offered some ways to keep a playground more accessible, including providing a smooth transition from the exterior surface into the playground surface; checking slope measurements on the entry route and other access routes around the play equipment that connect all entry and exit points; and making sure entry and exit points have a firm and stable 48-by-30-inch clear floor space to provide access for a person with a disability.