Feature Article - January 2009
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Safe Havens

Building & Maintaining Safe Playgrounds

By Richard Zowie

The Manufacturers' Perspective

From the perspective of the playground builders, building and keeping playgrounds safe can be an arduous checklist: research and development, market research, customer feedback, performing any needed maintenance, taking information on current playgrounds and using it to build the playgrounds of tomorrow. It's a list that can easily go on and on.

Companies that build playgrounds find that the best way to make their playground equipment safe and ensure future equipment is safe can be boiled down to a twofold standard: adhering to federal standards and listening to customers.

One of the biggest concerns of the customers of Kevin Cook, a sales and marketing director for a playground-manufacturing company, focuses on protecting children from falling. This, Cook said, is the single-greatest cause of playground injuries. Falls to the ground can damage the back, cause jaw damage, knock out teeth or cause concussions.

"Customers are also concerned about finger entrapments, shoelace or hood-string entanglements or children getting stuck between pieces of equipment," he said.

To prevent these and other potential injuries, the CPSC and the ASTM provide guidelines and standards that companies like Cook's follow when they design and manufacture playground equipment. Adhering to these guidelines can reduce the likelihood of injuries.

Cook noted that these guidelines and standards are not a cure-all. However, they do significantly reduce the risk. He recommended that buyers verify that manufacturers they're working with participate in the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) Equipment Certification Program and that the product is certified.

"This is an important step to promote safety," he explained. "Additionally, care providers taking children to a playground should maintain proper supervision and encourage play on age-appropriate equipment."

Merv Walker, a Canada-based business owner and a seller of playground equipment, said that sometimes problems can arise when people try to install playground equipment in an area that's too small for the amount of equipment they want to put in it. Everything his company does conforms to the Canadian Standards Association.

"You have a lot of old playground structures out there, whether they're private housing or schools or public facilities," he said. "You have a lot of old structures, and they're trying to replace them and quite often the areas are very small. That would be one of the main things I deal with. Sorting out what area they can allow for and what we can put into that space."

While factors like design, aesthetics and play value are important considerations when having a playground built, safety remains the number-one issue for Cook's customers. After all, what good is a playground that's designed well, looks nice and has lots of things kids like to play on if it poses major safety issues?

"Safety always comes out on top," Cook said. "Design and aesthetics may look good on presentation posters or other types of marketing pieces, but if customers perceive a product or collection of products will put children in harm's way or expose them to an unacceptable level of risk, customers won't buy the product. Frankly we would not want them to."

The idea, Cook explained, is to design playground equipment that allows a child or user the ability to assume a level of risk that's appropriate for their age or stage of development.

An example of this is Cook's company's "Deep Rung Arch Climber," which allows a child to climb up and down between the ground and a deck.

"[They] experience the benefits associated with climbing, such as risk assessment and reward," he added. "The key to this climber, however, is the design, which allows the child on the climber to maintain his or her body weight over their legs instead of on their arms and shoulders—the last part of the body to develop."

Walker said that in his experience, design is also critical to his company's clients—especially since each customer has their own specific tastes.

"[The customers] trust the manufacturer that the design will meet safety standards," he said. When you give a customer the designs and drawings for a playground, he added, a CSA statement has to be on the drawing. "There are no gray areas about it."