Feature Article - November 2016
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The Playground Checkup

Safe, Long-Lasting Playgrounds Require Standardized Maintenance Practices

By Rick Dandes

Take a child of any age to a well-kept playground, and you can see by the joy on his or her face how much fun they can provide. A child's playtime, however, is about more than just having "fun," say educators and social scientists.

Well-maintained and regularly inspected playgrounds are places where children, under the watchful eye of teachers, parents or caregivers, can develop cognitively, physically, communicatively and socially. But the playground has to be safe, above all, and safety begins in most instances with the proper installation and maintenance of the play structures.

"The physical safety of the thousands of kids who use our 14 community playgrounds is absolutely the top priority we have," said Wixson Huffstetler, recreation director, Jonesboro (Arkansas) Parks and Recreation Department.

Huffstetler understands that among playground owner-operators and parents, there is genuine cause for concern—and reasons for establishing strict safety measures. As children use increasingly challenging but still age-appropriate equipment, there is the all-too-real potential for injuries.

Nearly 200,000 injuries that require emergency room treatment occur annually on public or private playgrounds, according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The good news is that these injuries can be prevented for the most part with proper playground design and installation, as well as a standardized inspection and maintenance program.

Along with helping to promote children's development, a quality maintenance program has many other positive outcomes, said Anne-Marie Spencer, corporate vice president of marketing, with a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company focused on play and recreation research, programming and products. "It allows owner-operators to protect their investment, manage risk and control expenses—all while promoting community values."

John McConkey, marketing insights manager of a Delano, Minn.-based playground equipment manufacturer believes that accidents caused by equipment issues are 100 percent avoidable. "If you are doing good maintenance," he said, "if you have good policy, procedures, and record-keeping and documentation, then a claim due to a maintenance issue should not happen. Vandalism you can't prevent all the time, but things like normal wear and tear, or equipment failure due to lack of maintenance, is something that is preventable."

Ensuring Safety

Because use, environmental factors and materials vary, every playground is different. "It is imperative," McConkey said, "that those responsible for maintenance of the playground understand the maintenance requirements necessary to keep it safe, attractive and to extend its useful life. It is the responsibility of the playground equipment manufacturer to provide instruction as to how the equipment is to be installed and maintained, as well as to provide a general guideline as to the frequency of those procedures. It is the owner's responsibility to establish a frequency schedule for each playground and to follow the manufacturer's recommended procedures."

Well-maintained and regularly inspected playgrounds are places where children, under the watchful eye of teachers, parents or caregivers, can develop cognitively, physically, communicatively and socially.

Having a safe playground area requires careful planning and monitoring. Remember that infants and toddlers (ages 0 to 2), preschool-age children (ages 3 to 5), and school-age children (ages 5 to 12) have different developmental needs and abilities. Different age groups need different playground equipment to ensure safe and fun play for everyone.

To ensure that a play space is well-maintained, said Jonathan Hardesty, vice president of a Carrollton, Ga.-based play equipment manufacturer, "it is imperative to have a well-laid-out plan." The plan should answer several important questions, he explained. For example: Who is going to be responsible for maintaining the play area? Will this be a school or park maintenance crew, or if it's a group of homeowners, who will be responsible, and what is the schedule?

"Second," Hardesty said, "what is required with the maintenance plan? What items should be inspected, and to what frequency should each item be inspected? What is recommended by the manufacturer of each piece of equipment and surfacing? Finally, what record-keeping processes will be in place? This final step is often the most overlooked, but can be the most critical if unlikely litigation were to occur. Many owner-operators take the time to do due diligence on their purchase and maintenance, but often overlook the important element of good record-keeping."

The first question to answer is, who is responsible for the play areas? Hardesty said. If the area is open to the public, the owner-operator has a duty to ensure that it is in good and proper working condition. Even if a private organization such as a church or HOA has a public playground, they must ensure that the equipment is well maintained to keep all users as safe as possible.

"The first step of a proper maintenance program is to appoint the person or persons who will be responsible," Hardesty suggested. "These designated inspectors should be given training. The manufacturer's representative of the equipment is often a great place to start for proper inspection techniques. Manufacturers are required to provide schedules of recommended periodic timetables and procedures on how to inspect their equipment and surfacing."

Identifying possible issues early on can help users avoid problems and save time and resources from later, more costly repairs while keeping playgrounds functioning, said Michael Ulrich, engineering manager of a playground manufacturer in Lewisburg, Pa.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and ASTM, an international standards association, both publish playground safety guidelines. One AS™ standard requires that the designer or manufacturer of each play structure will provide owner-operators with clear and concise inspection, maintenance and repair instructions, including, but not limited to, what, when and how to inspect, maintain and repair.

That's exactly what Josh Durand, park superintendent, Anchorage, Alaska, does, he said. He meets the standards, and then goes one step beyond that. "When a new or renovated playground comes online," he said, "we utilize the manufacturer's maintenance recommendations to add value to standard maintenance practices."