The Play's the Thing

Innovation and Safety Meet on the Playground

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Although you may think fondly of a childhood spent spinning yourself silly on a metal merry-go-round, climbing high above the concrete on a jungle gym (metal again), and landing hard after flinging yourself off a swing in mid-flight—those were the days, weren't they?—these days playgrounds are required to be a bit, well, safer.

Not that this is a bad thing. Playgrounds should be safe places for kids to play, and the reasons to support this goal range from protecting our little darlings to protecting park management from costly lawsuits. But the way this goal is pursued can vary widely, and there are times when a battle rages between the rigors of safety standards and the desire for a creative, challenging play place.

"At present time, national safety standards and guidelines have become so complex that they are creating difficulties," said Dr. Joe Frost, professor emeritus at University of Texas in Austin, member of the IPEMA (International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association) Voice of Play advisory board, and renowned researcher of children's play and play environments. "There's also inconsistency between national and state standards, which leaves people who develop and sponsor playgrounds in a quandary."

In the most extreme instances, "people are taking out playgrounds and eliminating recess for liability reasons and fear of being sued," Frost added.

Everything from not having enough staff or budget resources to keep up with playground maintenance to some equipment being more trouble than it's worth can cause playground options to shrink—or even disappear. Particularly in school settings, where educators have so much on their plate already, along with ever-shrinking budgets, playgrounds and recess may go the way of the dodo bird. But this can't be the answer.

"Playgrounds are essential for children," Frost said. "They're essential to developing play-related skills that allow cognitive development, social development and physical development. Play has therapeutic power. It helps children deal with trauma, with problems in life, and it helps keep kids fit. Play is just as important as an academic subject."

A recent study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, "Recess Rules," confirms Frost's perspective. Just 36 percent of children meet doctors' recommendations for physical activity, but "if kids are fit, they are more likely to be fit to learn," the study explains.

Not only is the downgrading or disappearance of places to play to the detriment of children, it can be to the detriment of your facility if word gets out that your playground is a dud—or dangerous. But you don't have to choose between safety and fun, innovative playground design. Playground equipment manufacturers and those who study this sort of thing have developed some quite progressive ideas in recent years, and with a little research, planning and preparation, your park can reap the benefits.

Taking Access to the Next Level

When it comes to making your playground "accessible," Teresa Hendy, International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) Voice of Play advisory board member and universal access expert, suggests that you think beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act's minimum requirements:

"Manufacturers are very quick to provide ramps and accessible platforms, but they have been slower to actually be concerned about whether a child can use something when they get there," she said.

The ADA paved the way for those with disabilities to have equal access to facilities, buildings and even play equipment. "[The ADA is] all about getting there and being part of the mix, which is very important," Hendy said. "You don't want segregation."

However, getting there is not really enough if the equipment is not designed so a child with a disability can actually use it. "How much energy does it take to turn or manipulate a knob on a play panel?" Hendy suggested asking. If your park offers steering wheels or knobs to pull or handles to twist at ground level, that's great. But are they arranged in such a way that a child using a mobility device (like a walker or wheelchair) can get in position to use them?

Hendy is encouraged by the latest equipment options she's seeing, which include "a lot of climbing structures that are accessible at ground level," she said. "The beauty is that a child in a wheelchair is right there in the middle of the mix. If they can hold on and pull up out of their chair, they can do that, or otherwise they can hang onto the cable another kid is trying to climb. That's an important part of social learning, and when you talk to children with special needs, that's really their emphasis. They don't want to be left out or on the sidelines. Even if physically they can't do everything, it's important to be there interacting. So the closer we can get them to the play the better."

Safety First

Because safety is at the forefront of parents' and park managers' minds, a little review is in order. At their most basic, the keys to playground safety can be defined by this acronym: S.A.F.E, which stands for supervision, age-appropriateness, fall protection and equipment maintenance. More specifically, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends about 12 inches of "loose-fill surfacing materials" such as wood chips, fine sand or gravel, or shredded bark mulch, to provide cushioning and protection for children in case of a fall. Swings should be spaced a safe distance apart from each other (2 feet) and at least 30 inches away from supports. More details and further suggestions from the CPSC can be downloaded at

Where your playground is located is another factor in its overall safety. Choose a spot that is visible from the street—or at least accessible by a parking lot where there's an easy view. "Locating a play environment for the general public to see and know what's going on does impact safety, as well as whether or not it is going to be vandalized," said Teresa Hendy, president of Site Masters Inc., a playground consulting group, and another IPEMA board member. More and more playgrounds are also opting for hidden cameras or other kinds of video surveillance, Hendy noted. This can serve as a vandalism deterrent (or at least make it easier to catch the perpetrators), as well as help prevent situations where children might be endangered.

Where supervision is concerned, most public parks rely on parents and caregivers to make sure children play appropriately. "We're seeing more signs and more rules associated with playgrounds—activities allowed and not allowed, hours for playgrounds," Hendy said. "We're seeing playgrounds closed in the evenings, and we're also seeing more signs that speak to the age of the intended user and requiring adult supervision. That's probably the best protection for a park district—at least inform the user who the area is intended for. But that doesn't mean people will follow the signs." So other means of ensuring safety are also a must.

In most cases, the time to begin is when choosing equipment. "If you're buying traditional equipment through a manufacturer, it's important to look at equipment that is IPEMA-certified," Hendy said. "This doesn't mean that if it isn't [certified] it's not safe or doesn't meet standards, but manufacturers involved in the IPEMA certification process are also very involved in safety standards."

However, Hendy is the first to admit that it is hard to keep up with evolving safety standards and certifications. "Manufacturers want to develop new, exciting products that are appropriate for children and challenging," she said. "[But] sometimes safety standards can put designers in a box. Our safety standards can't keep up with innovation, and often people think that just because a type of product isn't specifically covered in the safety standards, you can't use it."

For example, climbing boulders are among the newer additions to many playgrounds, but "they're not specifically called out in ASTM [American Society for Testing and Materials] standards as an equipment type," Hendy said. "They're sort of lumped in with the climbers. When they were first introduced, we had a lot of safety inspectors asking what to do. ... It's a catch-22: Am I brave enough to put a not-specifically-covered product in my park?"

Whatever type of playground equipment you have, much of what keeps it safe is maintenance. The CPSC recommends regular inspection of playgrounds so loose hardware can be tightened, chipped or splintered equipment can be repaired or removed, missing guards and handrails can be replaced, debris can be cleared, and protective surfacing can be replaced as needed. Many parks report that this is a big job.

"Washington State Parks is a self-insured agency," said Mohammad Mostafavinassab, park manager at Saint Edward State Park, just outside Seattle. "We have to be very conscious. If there's a lawsuit, it comes out of our operating budget."

To avoid this ugly situation, park staff inspects its popular playground weekly: repairing and replacing equipment, getting the sand back into the sandbox, replacing deteriorating chain covers, filling in holes. "It's not that I don't want to do it," Mostafavinassab said. "But the problem is, the community built a great playground, but they never really considered the operating impact on our staff and budget." He gets some help from volunteer high school students, but maintenance is "not only to keep things looking nice, but for safety reasons," so much of it requires professional attention.

The good news is that as time- and labor-intensive as these safety procedures may be, they are working. "The literature shows that [playground] safety issues have been solved as well as they'll ever be solved," said Robin Moore, Ph.D., director of the Natural Learning Initiative and professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University and longtime play researcher. "We'll never be able to protect children from scrapes and bumps—they're a part of childhood. We've done a fantastic job with safety in this industry, now we need to move on."

And what, exactly, would he like to move on to? "Safety has completely overshadowed play value," Moore explained. "There's much too much talk about safety and no equivalent talk about play value."

In other words, it's great that playgrounds are safe, but if they're safe to the point of boredom—without anything fun and challenging to engage children in the crucial developmental process of play—that's not a winner either. So if added safety features aren't going to save the day, what is?

Playground Profile:
Saint Edward State Park
in Kenmore, Wash.

In 2003, the community near 316-acre Saint Edward State Park (about 10 minutes from Seattle) raised about $600,000 and built a brand-new 5,000-square-foot playground.

"It was built in less than a week and here we are," said Park Manager Mohammad Mostafavinassab, who arrived shortly after the playground was built. "We have an amazing structure that is well-used by the community."

The park grounds were once home to a Catholic seminary, "so we have about 90,000 square feet of Romanesque buildings," Mostafavinassab said. "We wanted to mirror that in the design of the playground so it fits."

The result is a castle-like wooden structure, replete with towers, slides, bridges, stairs, rope swings and climbing walls. "There's a big-kid section with balance beams, things to hang from and a big sandbox," he explained. In the section of the playground geared toward smaller children (which is fenced off and referred to affectionately as the "baby jail"), there is a multitude of spring toys and "sound play equipment" that kids use to make noises heard throughout the park.

It's no accident that the features of this playground sound like a kid's dream. "The community group went to local grade schools and had kids design what they wanted," Mostafavinassab said. Not only did this ensure the playground would be a place they'd enjoy, it has benefited upkeep as well. "All the kids made something with their names on it—there are tiles throughout the playground—and it's nice now because four years later, the fifth-graders are in high school. They come out and volunteer in the yearly maintenance project."

Because the playground is constructed of wood, it has to be re-stained annually in a painstaking process that takes 100 people two full days. Mostafavinassab is more pleased with other features of the playground. "There are areas around the outside where we put in benches, so moms and dads can sit and watch without being in the playground," he said. "We also have gathering areas for groups of moms. Lots of moms clubs come to the playground, and they can still keep an eye on their kids.

"The baby jail is pretty cool," he continued. "You can put a kid in there and he can't get out. There's one gated entrance, so they have to go by you. [That] provides security for a lot of moms during the weekdays. They read a book or have coffee while the kids play."

It's this overall sense of safety that is among the playground's best features. Two onsite rangers patrol the park regularly, and Mostafavinassab lives onsite with his wife and two children, who are also big fans of the playground.

"The fact that we live in the park, parents know that, and that's been a key," he said. "With a city park, there's a city officer who may be in the city somewhere, but not always available. We're around."

Play Appropriately

The key to balancing safety with fun and challenge seems to lie within the realm of "developmentally appropriate" play.

"Play is what it's all about," Moore said. "It's the way children explore the world, explore social relationships. You can't separate [those skills] from interaction with the environment, so [a playground] should be a diverse environment to focus on different play needs depending on the child's age."

So, when playgrounds are tailored to provide the right amount of challenge for a particular age group and designed to encourage kids to explore the skills and activities they need to develop at a certain age, this enhances safety, as well as making the playground interesting to the child—and provides an opportunity to learn and grow as an extra bonus.

What does this sort of playground look like? "This manifests as areas set aside and designed predominantly to appeal to a younger child—a 2-to-5-year-old, or preschooler," Hendy said. "Then there's school-aged equipment, and some manufacturers have broken it down further than that. We're beginning to see playgrounds introduced with graduated levels of challenge, and we're also seeing manufacturers providing a greater range of types of equipment."

For example, much like an aquatic center might have a separate baby splash pool, a shallow pool for beginning swimmers and a deeper pool with slides and play equipment for older kids, playground pieces can now be found with varying degrees of difficulty: A low, short monkey bar with evenly spaced bars will work well for young children. "If you want to make that more challenging for a school-aged child, you can raise the height of the horizontal ladder, and instead of going straight [across], you go in a circle or zigzag," Hendy said. "Instead of a horizontal bar, you have trapeze rings hanging down," she continued. "It's graduated levels of challenges."

As children get older, they "need large-scale, exciting places to play with some challenge built in," Moore said. And this is where finding the right balance comes into play. "They need a challenging environment to take some risks—otherwise they won't learn—but it must be a safe setting." Which is why soft surfaces below climbing areas and swings are invaluable. "Data show clearly where most more serious injuries happen: falls from specific types of equipment onto a hard surface," Moore said.

But even as you attend to children's specific developmental needs, different age groups should not be so separated that opportunities to socialize are eliminated. Climbing nets are a good way to address this conundrum. "They provide a lot of creative and challenging play for a large number of children and a wide age range," Hendy said. "Kids can choose how high they want to go up, and [younger kids] get the same benefits from going around close to ground without having to go high. It also offers the opportunity for more than one kid to be on a structure safely at the same time," she said. "Socialization is also part of play."

As more research is done about the specific skills and movements kids need to master as they grow, more of these are being incorporated into playground equipment. "Children desperately need swinging and rocking and spinning movements," Hendy said. "In previous years, [a playground might] have a swing set or spring toy, and that's it. Spring toys are boring for older kids, but manufacturers have [now] designed really awesome new spinners and bouncers that appeal to older children." Rocking helps children develop balance and depth perception, and it stimulates their inner ear. "It ultimately relates to the ability to read," Hendy said. "If the brain hasn't formed synapses, it won't be able to form connections to read and follow from one word to another."

Perhaps you never considered your playground as a building block toward reading, but "a lot of activities kids do on playground help their minds develop synapses," Hendy said. "When kids are learning to use a horizontal ladder, they're hanging from one bar and moving to the next bar with alternating hands. That's a higher-level skill. ... A lot of people don't want swings because they take up a lot of room, need protective surfacing, and require a lot of maintenance because kids are on them constantly—a lot of places just take swings out so they don't have to deal with them—but those are the most important thing you can have on a playground," Hendy said. "It gets back to that need for rocking and vestibular stimulation."

Playground Profile:
Delta Kelly Elementary School
in Oakland, Mich.

About six years ago, Delta Kelly Elementary School got a new building, and as part of that project, they also got a new playground.

"We have two playground areas because our building has two wings—lower elementary and upper elementary," explained Principal Marsha Andres. "One playground is designed for the needs of kids in kindergarten through second grade, and the other is third to fifth grade."

Both playgrounds have a set of tire swings and a set of conventional swings, "but the ways kids are required to sit are different because of the size of the students," Andres said. "The lower-elementary playground has a few more things that rock and are not as high—slides are adjusted to be a bit lower, and platforms are lower to the ground and a bit larger."

Along with age-appropriate equipment choices, adequate play space was also a consideration in Delta Kelly's playground plan. During recess, the playgrounds are used by a full grade level (about 100 students) at a time, "so we focused on how we could design it in a way that there was enough for 100 to do and stay busy, with a flow that wouldn't cluster them all in the same space at the same time," Andres said.

Several of the equipment suppliers the school spoke with wanted to design a centralized main structure, but ultimately, they chose a "more linear approach" that gave kids more space and a better way to flow through the equipment. As a result, each playground has a main structure with "a lot of slides coming off," Andres explained. "There's a monster slide, a circular slide, and there's a slide that kids can climb up. They always want to do that, so we just made one." Tree climbers build arm and leg strength, and there's a zip line on the upper elementary playground that kids seem to love.

"Our gym teacher was involved in the playgrounds' design and was particularly interested in promoting elements that provided upper-body strength for kids," Andres said. "She felt they get a lot of lower-body action with running and playing," but might need some extra (fun!) incentive to use their upper bodies.

Construct Creatively

If the opportunity to craft your playground into a bastion of safety, fun and learning sounds appealing, consider the following suggestions as your guide to get there:

Get Adventurous

Several of the experts consulted for this story mentioned "adventure playgrounds," which have been popular in Europe for years, but a little slow to catch on stateside, as a great model for play.

"At adventure playgrounds children get to play how they choose," explains Lia Sutton, an adventure playground researcher, on her Web site ( "They are not limited by fixed play equipment or by organized activities or games. Children are given the safety of an enclosed supervised environment. Playworkers are always present to mediate disputes between children and help them when necessary."

Ideally, these sorts of playgrounds "extend the typical playground to incorporate natural materials, a storage place, natural habitats, construction materials, sand and water," Frost said. "A typical park playground includes none of those features, only manufactured equipment and swings—large structures," he explained.

Look for ways to create unstructured areas with the building blocks kids may need to play together imaginatively. "When children have an opportunity to play in mixed groups, older kids do tend to pitch in," Frost said. However, it's likely that parents or other play supervisors will need to be present as well. Which brings us to the next suggestion...

Provide Amenities for Caregivers

In today's world, it's not particularly useful to talk about "children's playgrounds," Moore said, "because children don't go there on their own anymore, or even with peer groups, we're beginning to discover in research. So locations have to be relevant to caregivers. That's a new reality parks departments need to face."

Don't just smack some play equipment down in the center of a cleared site and call it a day. After all, it makes the playground safer when children bring their own supervision. Consider all the potential users and the features you can add that will make their visit more enjoyable—and perhaps more lengthy.

"If [a playground is] not comfortable in terms of shade and seating, people won't stay and won't enjoy it," Hendy said. "We forget that adults still like to swing."

More than swinging, adults also like to be out of the sun and to have a spot to change their babies, use the restroom or perhaps even buy a snack. "Bathrooms are crucial," Moore said.

And what about comfortable picnic areas, barbecue spots or water play areas to cool off together? Practically speaking, "very few parks recognize the needs of families with very young children in public," Moore said. "What about an enclosed, fenced area for toddlers so parents can feel safe? A space like that is appreciated by young parents, and it's good to have places where they can meet in open, social situations."

And these aren't just luxuries. Many of the options that will make your playground more inviting will also make it universally accessible—and Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant. When wide, pleasant paths are constructed to make a play area accessible to children with special needs, "we're also making it accessible to mothers with infants and toddlers in a stroller, also to a grandparent who is using a walker or a cane and might not be as steady on their feet as they were at one time," Hendy said. "If we have seating with arm rests, that makes it easy for senior citizens to get up and down off of the bench. A great playground is really one that brings people of all ages and abilities together."

Include the Natural Landscape

Not only does a playground that incorporates a natural environment look nicer and create a more pleasant, shady atmosphere, it also enhances learning and development for the children who play there. Surveys conducted by the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have revealed that spending time in a "green setting," such as a playground that includes trees, grass and flowers, can reduce the symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in children.

Spending time in nature can help with a child's individual growth, and also provides a way for children to learn about nature itself and perhaps become less afraid of it, Moore explained. "If we're going to do something about the global environmental crisis, it's important [for children] to become eco-literate, informed citizens," he said.

From an aesthetic standpoint, "good shade trees and flowering plants increase comfort level, and they provide a change in the landscape throughout the seasons," Moore added. And, thinking again of the adventure playground model, elements from the natural world—water, sand, dirt—can make excellent (and delightfully messy) creative playthings. To get some professional help in accomplishing these goals, bring a landscape architect into your playground planning, Moore suggested.

Playground Profile:
Sahuaro Ranch Park
in Glendale, Ariz.

Located on the cutting edge of cool places to play (and also in Glendale, Ariz.), the Sahuaro Ranch Park playground features a spherical play structure with "lots of netting," said Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation Bill Schwind. It also offers an assortment of unusual slides. "Your body actually rides them more like a banister than sitting on a metal or plastic slide," he said. "In order to use [the equipment] you're physically active, using all types of ways to get on. You get an upper-body workout with the climbing ropes, climbing through tunnels, so it has a fitness component."

Another thing the Parks and Recreation Department appreciates about this play equipment is its ability to accommodate a crowd. "You can access it and use features at any point on this structure," Schwind said. Another bonus of this setup: It's easy to add additional elements to the playground in the future, as they can be attached at either end.

Schwind is also fully confident in the safety of the playground. "It's an open park, so it's very user-friendly," he said. "Safety is a major concern of any municipality, so safety fall zones are addressed at this and all playgrounds. If [playground users] were to fall, there's nothing they can injure themselves on. The net fabric and ropes and climbing apparatus all have safety wood fiber around them." The park maintenance staff does regular inspections to ensure the playground is play-worthy, and so far, "everything is holding up quite well," Schwind reported.

Select Stimulating Equipment

By now you have a sense of the types of learning and development opportunities playground equipment can provide, so now you just need to select accordingly.

"I think there are some pretty exciting innovations in terms of materials, durability of materials and the variety of equipment we can get with a lot of plastic products," Hendy said. "We're seeing an introduction of artificial rock work—climbing boulders and walls—and the introduction of combination steel climbers with cable netting attached to them."

When you begin your search—whether you're starting from scratch or just adding an item or two—"go with a reputable vendor," Hendy said. "Go with someone you have experience with or an agency whose opinion you trust." Don't be afraid to interview an assortment of vendors before you make a decision, and if you do choose someone who will provide something custom-made and unique, "be careful that the custom designer has experience in the playground industry and is familiar with safety standards," Hendy said.

As you're planning the playground, don't fill your space with too many equipment options. "Sometimes we take up a lot of space with one piece," said Tammy Schilling, director of Tots in Action, a program that creates and educates about physical activity programs for preschoolers. "If you can have open areas for kids, they are more active. Don't fill up your space with all the different stuff. Kids have less room to move then."

Clearly there's work to be done where balancing safety and innovatively designed playgrounds is concerned, but as more and more parks and schools begin to factor developmentally appropriate play into their playground plans, progress can be made. "Fixing children's play is an all-inclusive task," Frost said. "Parents, agencies, schools, parks—all these need to come together." However, he is encouraged by what he has seen in recent years. Groups like No Child Left Inside, Children in Nature and Voice of Play "are taking steps to educate people about the critical importance of kids and outdoor play," he explained.

Case in point: A few months back, Frost and eight others from fields including architecture, parks and wildlife, health and medicine, and education started getting together in Austin, Texas, where he lives, to discuss "getting kids out on the playground back in touch with nature." Already the group has grown to 120 people. "This is happening around the country," he said. "People need to begin to look at playgrounds with a new eye. We need play leaders and educators at all levels who have training in children's play and how to interact with children."

There's work to be done. So let's get playing!

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