Feature Article - January 2015
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Safety for the Duration

Keeping Playground Equipment & Surfaces Safe Now & in the Future

By Rick Dandes

Children are wired to play and have fun, and some of their favorite things to do are found at playgrounds, where there is a variety of heavy-duty equipment in an open space to climb, swing, crawl, dig, slide, jump, hang and run. Taking the kids to a playground gives both kids and adults unstructured playtime out of the house, in the fresh air. Kids get to use up some of their boundless energy, and parents get to enjoy watching their children as they play on safe equipment they don't have at home.

Meanwhile, for both the user and the operator of a playground, safety is a critical issue, and here's why: More than 200,000 children across the United States ages 14 and under are taken to hospital emergency rooms each year due to being injured in playground and play area accidents, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The CPSC also said there are on average 17 deaths each year. The toll on these children and their families is immeasurable. The dollar costs to a playground operator, in terms of liability and litigation, is potentially staggering.

Start Safe

When installing a playground, you first need to think about site selection, shade, traffic, drainage, and proximity to potential dangers, including ponds, public places and steep fall-offs said Caroline Smith, senior manager of professional development, National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). In selecting equipment, a group should make sure the equipment is age-appropriate and is spaced properly to ensure adequate use zones and sight lines for supervisors. Accessibility and inclusion should be considered throughout the process.

Today's playgrounds are very safe if installed and maintained correctly, Smith added. But safe now doesn't mean safe later. So it's important to not only have a safe playground at installation, but also to be safe through the entire lifecycle of the equipment. That's accomplished through regular inspections and proper maintenance.

There are many potential hazards on a playground, explained Tom Norquist, senior vice president of product development and marketing for a Fort Payne, Ala.-based play equipment manufacturer, and past president and current secretary of the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) and long-term active American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) representative. "Number one would probably be the lack of an adequate surface material," he said. "Usually, we see a lack of maintenance on a loose fill, especially engineered wood fiber surfacing systems that have been installed and not maintained. After that would be poor maintenance on equipment. And then lack of signage for age appropriateness."

An example, Norquist said, is when you see a big, beautiful play environment, and everyone seems to be drawn to the equipment for the older children, including parents, who might be taking their 2- or 3-year-old to that equipment, but children that age are not quite physically able to conquer some of the more challenging equipment geared toward school-age children.

"It's a very common thing to see," Norquist continued. "I see parents being hazards, in some instances. I've seen children lifted up on overhead devices, parents encouraging children to climb real tall climbers at the ages of 2 and 3. We are overzealous with our desire for our children to have fun, do great things.

"We are encouraging a child's development," Norquist explained. "But please, take them to a playground that is more appropriate from a developmental standpoint. It's a real challenge for designers to create environments that encourage parents and young children to have developmentally appropriate fun on the smaller equipment."

That's right, added Kevin Cook, sales manager for an international play equipment manufacturer based in Lewisburg, Pa. "You want to ensure that the equipment you select is age-appropriate. Know the ages of the children that will utilize the playground most often. Assess the environmental conditions relevant to your play area. It's also important to determine usage. For example, if it's a school playground, do you anticipate additional use by the community in off hours and on the weekend? Shaded areas and supervision should also be considered when selecting equipment."