Feature Article - January 2019
Find a printable version here

Challenge Minus Danger

Playground Advancements Help Children Experience Risk With Fewer Big Injuries

By Chris Gelbach

In terms of the playground equipment itself, the CPSC's Public Playground Safety Handbook published in 2015 recommends against the use of certain types of equipment on public playgrounds, including:

  • Trampolines
  • Swinging gates
  • Giant strides (a piece of equipment mostly eliminated by the 1960s, involving a pole with ropes attached that children could grab and circle so their feet would leave the ground)
  • Climbing ropes that are not secured at both ends
  • Heavy metal swings such as animal figures
  • Traditional multiple-occupancy swings
  • Free-swinging ropes that may fray or otherwise form a loop
  • Swinging dual exercise rings and trapeze bars

Equipment failure—be it through wear, breakage, design issues or improper assembly—is second only to falls as a cause of playground injuries. It's also the cause recreation managers and their teams are most able to prevent through proper playground maintenance.

This should start upon installation of the equipment by having a Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI) inspect the installed playground. "Making sure everything is in order can help to make sure you don't start out with any issues vs. trying to catch them after you open the playground," said Sarah Liesiecki, CPSI, marketing communications specialist for a Wisconsin-based manufacturer of playground structures. She also recommends always buying from companies that have IPEMA certifications on their products and that follow AS™ and CPSC guidelines.

For quality training in playground maintenance, Norquist strongly recommends the Eppley Institute's Playground Maintenance Technician Program (PMT). The two-day program focuses on practical playground maintenance practices, inspection principles and best practices in making repairs.

"It's a maintenance program where you're trained on how to properly maintain playgrounds, and it is thorough and it's new and it's great," Norquist said. "And when they're putting these on right now, they're selling out."

According to the program site, the program provides knowledge about the equipment, how to inspect it, how to correct common issues to prevent hazards, and how to document repairs properly. It is designed to train front-line maintenance staff on how to improve playground user safety and prolong the useful life of equipment through proper playground maintenance.

In addition, quality playground manufacturers typically provide materials such as maintenance information, checklists and safety kits to assist with the proper ongoing maintenance of specific pieces of equipment.

"Documentation is huge," Liebelt said. "That helps you if there is any kind of litigation later. Knowing that you've done your maintenance, you've done your checks."

Designing for Better Safety and Fun

Thoughtful playground design can add an additional level of safety for kids. This can include strategic placing of the equipment to ensure proper flow and circulation of children among the various pieces of equipment. "You don't want to have somebody have to get from the climber to the slide and walk through the middle of the swings or something," Liebelt said.

He also recommended laying out the space with a clear separation between the equipment for ages 2 to 5 and the 5-to-12 area—and it's not just because some of the equipment for older kids may be dangerous for the younger ones.

"There's different play behaviors there," Liebelt said. A 2- to 5-year-old is expecting the play behavior of somebody their own age. If they're in the middle of 5- to 12-year-olds, there can be some problems because there's something that they don't expect."

Norquist is also seeing industry designers opt to include design elements on playgrounds for older kids that are provided to protect even the youngest users. This becomes particularly important with newer playgrounds that are designed to be inclusive.

"When we add transfer and/or ramp accessibility to that 5-to-12 structure, we've given physical access to lots of it, including equipment that we may not have designed for those preschoolers," Norquist said. "So we have designers thinking about that in terms of how do we make it not just compliant, but beyond compliant, to help protect the younger user that might be there without proper supervision?"

At the same time, design elements can be included that actively encourage proper supervision that can help mitigate some of these concerns. For example, including comfortable spaces for adults to sit inside of the play space encourages multigenerational engagement while providing an opportunity for proper supervision without helicopter parenting.

"Research shows that having comfortable accessible seating for anyone—the supervisor or the caregiver—gives children more time at the playground," Liesiecki said. "But it also gives kids that opportunity for proper supervision without being over-supervised."

Keen attention to placing the equipment in shady areas and deploying shade structures where needed also contributes to increased safety, better utilization and longer play times. "You don't want to go build a playground and have it too hot to be played on six months out of the year," Norquist said.