Feature Article - January 2008
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The Play's the Thing

Innovation and Safety Meet on the Playground

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Safety First

Because safety is at the forefront of parents' and park managers' minds, a little review is in order. At their most basic, the keys to playground safety can be defined by this acronym: S.A.F.E, which stands for supervision, age-appropriateness, fall protection and equipment maintenance. More specifically, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends about 12 inches of "loose-fill surfacing materials" such as wood chips, fine sand or gravel, or shredded bark mulch, to provide cushioning and protection for children in case of a fall. Swings should be spaced a safe distance apart from each other (2 feet) and at least 30 inches away from supports. More details and further suggestions from the CPSC can be downloaded at www.cpsc.gov/CPSCPUB/PUBS/playpubs.html.

Where your playground is located is another factor in its overall safety. Choose a spot that is visible from the street—or at least accessible by a parking lot where there's an easy view. "Locating a play environment for the general public to see and know what's going on does impact safety, as well as whether or not it is going to be vandalized," said Teresa Hendy, president of Site Masters Inc., a playground consulting group, and another IPEMA board member. More and more playgrounds are also opting for hidden cameras or other kinds of video surveillance, Hendy noted. This can serve as a vandalism deterrent (or at least make it easier to catch the perpetrators), as well as help prevent situations where children might be endangered.

Where supervision is concerned, most public parks rely on parents and caregivers to make sure children play appropriately. "We're seeing more signs and more rules associated with playgrounds—activities allowed and not allowed, hours for playgrounds," Hendy said. "We're seeing playgrounds closed in the evenings, and we're also seeing more signs that speak to the age of the intended user and requiring adult supervision. That's probably the best protection for a park district—at least inform the user who the area is intended for. But that doesn't mean people will follow the signs." So other means of ensuring safety are also a must.

In most cases, the time to begin is when choosing equipment. "If you're buying traditional equipment through a manufacturer, it's important to look at equipment that is IPEMA-certified," Hendy said. "This doesn't mean that if it isn't [certified] it's not safe or doesn't meet standards, but manufacturers involved in the IPEMA certification process are also very involved in safety standards."

However, Hendy is the first to admit that it is hard to keep up with evolving safety standards and certifications. "Manufacturers want to develop new, exciting products that are appropriate for children and challenging," she said. "[But] sometimes safety standards can put designers in a box. Our safety standards can't keep up with innovation, and often people think that just because a type of product isn't specifically covered in the safety standards, you can't use it."

For example, climbing boulders are among the newer additions to many playgrounds, but "they're not specifically called out in ASTM [American Society for Testing and Materials] standards as an equipment type," Hendy said. "They're sort of lumped in with the climbers. When they were first introduced, we had a lot of safety inspectors asking what to do. ... It's a catch-22: Am I brave enough to put a not-specifically-covered product in my park?"

Whatever type of playground equipment you have, much of what keeps it safe is maintenance. The CPSC recommends regular inspection of playgrounds so loose hardware can be tightened, chipped or splintered equipment can be repaired or removed, missing guards and handrails can be replaced, debris can be cleared, and protective surfacing can be replaced as needed. Many parks report that this is a big job.

"Washington State Parks is a self-insured agency," said Mohammad Mostafavinassab, park manager at Saint Edward State Park, just outside Seattle. "We have to be very conscious. If there's a lawsuit, it comes out of our operating budget."

To avoid this ugly situation, park staff inspects its popular playground weekly: repairing and replacing equipment, getting the sand back into the sandbox, replacing deteriorating chain covers, filling in holes. "It's not that I don't want to do it," Mostafavinassab said. "But the problem is, the community built a great playground, but they never really considered the operating impact on our staff and budget." He gets some help from volunteer high school students, but maintenance is "not only to keep things looking nice, but for safety reasons," so much of it requires professional attention.

The good news is that as time- and labor-intensive as these safety procedures may be, they are working. "The literature shows that [playground] safety issues have been solved as well as they'll ever be solved," said Robin Moore, Ph.D., director of the Natural Learning Initiative and professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University and longtime play researcher. "We'll never be able to protect children from scrapes and bumps—they're a part of childhood. We've done a fantastic job with safety in this industry, now we need to move on."

And what, exactly, would he like to move on to? "Safety has completely overshadowed play value," Moore explained. "There's much too much talk about safety and no equivalent talk about play value."

In other words, it's great that playgrounds are safe, but if they're safe to the point of boredom—without anything fun and challenging to engage children in the crucial developmental process of play—that's not a winner either. So if added safety features aren't going to save the day, what is?