Feature Article - September 2004
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Go Play

Making playgrounds appealing, safe and challenging enough to keep kids interested

By Elisa Kronish

Play it safe

In the planning stages of a new playground and especially the update of an old one, one of the most important considerations is safety. With federal and consumer product safety standards that started emerging in 1981, playground injuries have decreased over the years, but they're still a concern. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 200,000 preschool and elementary children receive emergency care for injuries that occur on playground equipment, three-quarters of which happen on public playgrounds.

"Years ago, the most popular surfacing was asphalt because it was considered softer than concrete," says Fran Wallach, Ed.D., president of Total Recreation Management Services, Inc., in New York. "Now surfaces are much safer. There are rubber mats, engineered wood fibers, mulch and other soft surfaces."

While manufacturers carry much of the responsibility in creating safe equipment and surfacing, it doesn't mean rec managers can go to recess.

"Many people in our industry don't even realize how bad their surface is," King says. "If they had the training, they wouldn't wait until there was a lawsuit."

New or simply properly maintained surfacing is an investment that King says indicates that the city or facility is determined to provide the highest safety standards for its playground users.

Playground Safety Checklist

Besides working with your playground design team, hiring official playground safety inspectors can go a long way to insuring the initial and ongoing safety of your playground. This list will give you background knowledge on what to look for in your routine checks and what your inspector will look for in terms of the safety of your playground.

1. Surfacing. Falling is the number-one cause of injuries on the playground. A child who falls on concrete or even grass can be seriously injured. The material underneath and around the playground should be soft and forgiving according to industry standards.

2. Spacing. There should be ample and appropriate space underneath and around equipment pieces. For example, for swings, the safe-use zone is twice the height of the swing hanger both in front of and behind the swing and six feet on either side of the swing support. There should also be adequate space between playground equipment. Twelve feet is recommended. Make sure to work with spacing issues with your designer.

3. Age-appropriateness. There should be separate areas for pre-school and school-age children.

4. Hardware. No piece of equipment should have hardware or jutting pieces of metal that can cause serious injury. There should be nothing that could snag on clothing, jewelry or strings that could lead to strangulation. No moving pieces should run the risk of pinching a child's skin or fingers.

5. Smooth surfaces. There should be nothing that might cause a child to trip. Surfaces should be smooth and level, with no tree stumps or roots interfering.

6. Maintenance. All parts of the playground and playground equipment should be in good shape. Rust and other signs of deterioration may signal poor maintenance.

7. Updating. All playgrounds installed before 1993 should be updated, as outdated playground equipment can be dangerous. During the 1960s, '70s and '80s, heavy metal animal swings were commonplace on playgrounds. It's now known that these items can act as lethal battering rams, killing children who walk in front of them.

Source: Courtesy of the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association,
www.ipema.org, 888-944-7362