Feature Article - January 2016
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Balancing Act

Safety & Risk on the Playground

By Chris Gelbach

A Potential Shift to More Adaptable Standards

As they consider the dangers of falls versus the developmental benefits of giving kids the opportunity to climb and take appropriate risks, the developers of playground standards are considering taking an approach that gives the owner and designer of the playground environment more responsibility and choice in determining the level of risk and challenge that they're willing to take in their playgrounds.

Hendy has been involved with developing and shaping safety standards since 1987 through work with the AS International, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and the National Playground Safety Institute. She noted that this shift in thinking has been spurred, in part, by criticisms of the current standards. "We've been accused over the years of dumbing down playgrounds to the point that they're no longer challenging and developmentally appropriate, and we're trying to negate that," she said.

For example, current playground standards include reasonable requirements for guard rails or protective barriers when children are on platforms above a certain height. Those kinds of rules would remain in place. But Hendy noted that there's also been a lot of discussion over the years about whether there's any value in climbing high at all, or whether it's better to use climbers that encourage more climbing sideways than up. Climbers are responsible for more injuries (23 percent) than any other type of equipment. It is in these kinds of decisions where more leeway may evolve in terms of acceptable risk. "Those are the kinds of decisions that a designer and an owner-operator working with a playground sales rep, for example, might make in the type of equipment they put into their play environment," Hendy said.

Adjusting to New Playground Designs

As more and more new pieces of equipment enter the market, this trend toward innovation is also being accompanied by an attempt to also shift away from design-based standards to hazard-based ones that can more adequately gauge and promote the safety of new pieces of equipment. CPSC's Public Playground Safety Handbook, for instance, currently only addresses log rolls and merry-go-rounds in its standards for rotating equipment. But manufacturers have continued to innovate, designing and manufacturing multitudes of new products with rotating elements, making it difficult for standards-makers to keep up.

"When we evaluated writing standards for the different types of rotating equipment, we discovered that we would need 33 different standards to address the various types of rotating equipment that are on the market today," Hendy said. "We are beginning to realize that we can't be design-based standard. We don't want to have to come up with a new standard every time a manufacturer creates a new piece of equipment that we haven't seen before."

The Struggle to Offer Age-Appropriate Challenge

Another difficulty that playground experts face is creating age-appropriate equipment that's actually interesting for the prescribed age ranges of the playgrounds. The current delineation between playgrounds for ages 2 to 5 and those for ages 5 to 12 can sometimes be insufficient, which is causing the industry to consider making changes in this area.

"The reality is that equipment for a 2- to 5-year-old is probably pretty boring for the average 4-year-old," said Hendy, who sees a similar dynamic at play in playgrounds intended for the older demographic. "By the time kids are 10 years old, they're bored to death with our traditional playground equipment, and they're seeking other ways of challenging themselves."

In addition to these realities, many families who have both younger and older children will tend to gravitate toward the playground intended for the older kids. Hendy noted that she doesn't see the 2-to-5 structures getting nearly the use of the 5-to-12 structures. "But there are clearly things on a 5-to-12 structure that really, from a developmental standpoint, would not be appropriate for a 2- or 3-year-old," Hendy said.

In these instances, there's not much for a park district to do except post clear signage about the ages that the playground and specific pieces of equipment are designed for. Recreation managers can also take care to select equipment that provides different levels of challenge for different kids, while also offering them opportunities to turn back if the challenge gets too intense.

Another trend that is enabling playground owner-operators to provide developmentally appropriate challenges to a broader age range is that of adventure playgrounds.

One example might be a rock-climbing element that also includes a stairway beside it that a younger child could use, or a platform that a child could rest on halfway up. "You want to make it challenging enough for a 12-year-old to enjoy, but you also want that 5-year-old to go out there and try," Smith said.

Because today's typical playgrounds aren't always sustaining the interest of older kids, some designers are striving to create options that are more appealing to an older demographic. These include options such as challenge courses inspired by the popularity of things like the NFL Combine and shows like American Ninja Warrior.

"That's definitely what we're wanting to fill is that need for older ages specifically—the 8-to-12-year-old group who's really looking for a challenging experience," said Fred Wiechmann, vice president of marketing and product development for a manufacturer of playgrounds and challenge courses. According to Wiechmann, these challenge courses can offer more interest to this demographic while still meeting current playground safety standards.

A representative course includes a 40-yard-dash event that includes timing pads embedded in the surfacing at the start and finish lines, along with an obstacle course that includes timing that is activated by pushing a plunger at the beginning and end of the course. The timing element gives kids a way to offer ongoing interest as they strive to hit new records, while also encouraging fitness.

"It's really a win-win in that that age group can have something that is dynamic and really focused on fun fitness. Because if fitness is fun, kids are going to do it more often. And they're not going to hop on a treadmill," Wiechmann said.