Feature Article - January 2006
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Play to Live, Live to Play

Playground development, from design to construction and beyond

By Kyle Ryan


As with anything in life, the better you care for a playground, the longer it will last. That goes double for outdoor playgrounds, which face inhospitable weather and, in many cases, vandalism. Riggs puts it simply: Every playground needs a maintenance plan and someone to be in charge of it. For example, surfaces contribute to 79 percent of all injuries, but Riggs suspects that better maintenance would lower that rate.

"Consumers for the most part are not maintaining their equipment, which, as a businessman that I am, just boggles my imagination," he says. "If I bought me a $40,000 car, I would certainly take it in to change the oil."

Playgrounds need regular inspections based on an itemized checklist. Those inspection records need to be kept on file in the event of a lawsuit; they show that playground managers performed routine inspections, which could help minimize their liability. Most playground equipment will come with some kind of warranty, which should cover most maintenance issues. But even if it's a lifetime warranty, that may not mean, well, life. According to Riggs, some states define life as 20 years.

Maintenance becomes a particularly important issue at schools, where children are concentrated. Injuries are a factor, but schools at least have a maintenance staff that should be able to perform inspections. One of Riggs' clients in the Lee's Summit, Mo., school district has statistical evidence that suggests maintenance inspections decrease the risk of injury on playgrounds.

Vandalism is a factor, but Riggs says that it's usually limited to people defacing or tagging the equipment. Of course, keeping vandals away from the playgrounds in the first place would help.

"One of the best ways to address that, we've found in our parks nationwide, is that a well-used park is a safer park," Clark says. "If you have families regularly in and out of a place, you're much less likely to have drug dealers. That's not the 100 percent solution, but it does certainly help, so just having a place that is full of life and activity has really helped in all of our parks."

Advice from the experts

Riggs isn't an objective source on the matter, but other people tend to agree with him: When you need a playground, work with someone who knows how to build one.

"Find somebody who designs playgrounds," he says. "My deal is quit asking for catalogs. It's fine to find out what's out there and maybe some pricing, but you need to get somebody that does it for a living."

Riggs again takes a holistic approach: Design work doesn't stop at the equipment. The whole playground environment must be taken into account, or it could negate the playground's impact, no matter how cool the equipment. Even if the entire playground is planned out with particular attention to safety, accessibility and play value, it will only work as long as it's maintained properly.

And be patient—building a playground is not a fast process, particularly when schools or government bureaucracy is involved.

"They need to believe that they can do it and be patient and committed to the process," Clark says.

It's a process that had Joseph Lee's full commitment. In 1904, the American Civic Association sponsored a "model street" for the World's Fair in St. Louis. Lee designed a playground for it that attracted more than 7,000 kids. It's not surprising, really, because Lee still seemed to be a kid at heart: "We do not cease playing because we are old," he said. "We grow old because we cease playing."