Feature Article - March 2011
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Play It Safe

Improving Safety for Your Play Spaces

By Kelli Anderson

Nature vs. Nuture

Whether playgrounds today subscribe to the trends toward natural or accessible or alternative, safety proponents agree that applying guidelines recommended by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), just makes sense. Fall zones, correct surfacing, in addition to attention to details like layout and fun-factor, all contribute to whether or not a play area is as safe as it should be.

Where the industry has tended to struggle, however, is in the ongoing debate of how to approach play elements that do not yet fit into neatly assigned categories. What does a certified playground safety inspector make, for example, of a large boulder or climbing elements incorporated into a tree? Or what to do with a new design of equipment that moves in ways no one has before seen?

According to soon-to-be president of IPEMA, Randy Waterman and natural play designer, Ron King, the answer is, use common and professional sense.

"When I am asked to speak to licensing people, they often come in really skeptical and they start asking about safety," King said of his national seminars on the topic of natural play. "At the end of the program, they say, 'Oh, that's what you're talking about. I don't have a problem with that.' It's a misconception. I've been through CPS training myself, so when we design anything we look to the regulations for guidance and try to incorporate it into elements we design."

Climbing boulders, for example, with smooth surfaces and sloping sides (read: not steep or sharply angled), surrounded by an appropriately constructed 6-foot fall zone, can be no more hazardous than an artificial climbing structure designed of hard steel or plastic.

Similarly, newly designed manufactured equipment doesn't always fit into a neat category for easy safety evaluation. That's also when common sense comes into play. "Just because they don't necessarily fit into an existing category," Waterman said, "they (the inspectors) recommend addressing general hazards," and should not, he added, "deem equipment unsafe or non-compliant just because they don't fit into an existing category."

What is clear, however, is that regardless of playground style, safety should never be presumed either because something is "natural" or because it is comprised of equipment stamped with IPEMA certification. Correct product installation, proper supervision, proper maintenance and environmental considerations all have a part to play in determining whether or not a playground is sufficiently safe. To that end, safety inspection and design consultation by a CPSI, is always the best way to play it safe.