Feature Article - March 2011
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Play It Safe

Improving Safety for Your Play Spaces

By Kelli Anderson

Location, Location, Location

After interviewing nieces, nephews and his own children to help select the equipment that they thought would be the most fun, Snow turned his attention to the layout of the design to ensure that age-appropriate equipment was placed in ways that would create the safest environment for supervision from caregivers and to keep age groups in their appropriate areas.

"We put in a smaller playground for the 2- to 5-year-olds and put a fence around it," Snow explained of the design solution. "Parents can watch on one side and not worry about them going behind the playground and leaving."

Placement of equipment by activity level, by age group and for proper supervision all add up to a safer playground design. For the playground design in Biloxi, being able to ensure caregivers could keep an eye on their children's whereabouts was key.

For the natural play space designed for the Thatcher Brook Primary School in Waterbury, Vt., ensuring that active and passive play areas were segregated (in their case, by a hillside) was also an important factor in the design and has resulted in far fewer clashes during play time.

"It's important to emphasize that active play and exploratory don't mix," said Don Schneider, principal for 10 years of the school. "Kids who don't play sports, don't want to hear it and are in their own little world, so anything to separate the active from discovery play is important—and to have both is important."

Providing an area for discovery play has also contributed to a safer, more incident-free environment. "I still have kids doing things they shouldn't, but it's cut down 60 to 70 percent from what it used to be because kids are engaged," Schneider explained. "Most of my problems are in the soccer field. You don't get it from down below (in the discovery area) where they're trying to dam up water and not getting into arguments. Amazing, really."

Equally amazing to Stern was the fact that not only did their play environment reduce incidents of fighting over equipment, but it also drew age groups together that had not previously interacted. "There are far less squabbles over 'it's my turn' or 'I don't get to play,'" Spears said. "The former head of the school was here recently and she says it's a different environment altogether—very positive. We see younger and older kids playing more than they used to. It's neat to see the amount of kids who love to sand play near a stream and can use the water with sand structures."

Designing a play area for adequate supervision is also a safety must. Line of sight and well-trained supervision staff (where applicable) is part and parcel of the safety formula. "Safety has to do with monitoring the play—that's a huge part of it," Stern said of the safety record her school has enjoyed. "Know your kids, have trained professionals on the playground and be consistent. We use first-aid trained people—not even the parents do this. If you see kids using something that looks a little 'off,' you nix it." That's a huge part."