Feature Article - March 2010
Find a printable version here

All Together Now

Making Play Safe & Accessible

By Matthew M.F. Miller

A playground's grand opening—the day the ribbon is cut and the first flock of local children gleefully take to the swings and slides—is the seminal moment most planners think about when launching a new project. After months of fundraising, planning and construction, the opening of a new play facility brings a sense of satisfaction and pride to both the team involved in creating it as well as the residents of the community.

What happens before and after the grand opening, however, will determine how long those children and their parents will be satisfied patrons of your new playground. It also will determine who has access to your facility, how children will interact with one another during playtime and the shelf-life of the equipment and play surfaces that serve as its backbone. Making sure the money you spend produces the most useful, safe environment for the families of your community must be the top priority.

Jennifer Skulski, director of marketing and special projects for the National Center on Accessibility in Bloomington, Ind., said that in recent years the bar has been raised for local parks.

"Visitors coming to playgrounds have much higher expectations for parks and recreation facilities than they used to," said Skulski, who also serves on the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) subcommittee for playground surfaces. "If you're going to do the fundraising and the celebration, asking people to help pay for and support the new playground, the public's expectation is that when they show up a month later or a year later it will look as good as it did on the day of the grand opening."

According to Skulski, if you have a playground built more than five years ago, the equipment was designed to meet older safety standards and many materials will begin to degrade. The life cycle of equipment, in terms of safety, is 10 to 15 years, she said.

"A playground isn't a one-time purchase, install it and walk it away," Skulski said. "That is the mindset that playground owners had in the '70s and '80s. And they didn't look to see what it takes to maintain a structure. We did not have clear accessibility guidelines in that time. It's only been in the last five years from the United States Access Board, that we now know what it means to have an accessible playground."