Play It Safe
Improving Safety for Your Play Spaces
By Kelli Anderson
A hundred years ago, mothers around the country demanded a safer alternative to the city streets in which children often played and were sometimes killed or injured. The response was the invention of the urban playground. And, while the concrete-surfaced play areas of the 1900s were an enormous improvement over the dusty, traffic-laden streets, urban playgrounds, in turn, harbored plenty of dangers of their own.
More than a century later, our concept of a playground and "safe" play is still evolving and still improving. Open-ended play, play that includes natural elements, play that challenges the physical, social, emotional and cognitive functions of a child—all these and more—challenge today's designers and manufacturers to create play spaces that are more exciting than ever. And safer. But it's a tough balance.
While safety guidelines and licensed safety professionals in today's playground industry certainly contribute to make current playgrounds among the safest ever, safety is about far more than just purchasing certain kinds of equipment or installing certain kinds of surfacing. Some of the most engaging, safest spaces, in fact, may not contain a single manufactured element, but can be designed to be safe and fun if safety guidelines gleaned from traditional playground research are applied with common sense and professional know-how. Whether your playground is uber-traditional or one of the current trend toward alternative designs, when it comes to safety, it's all about what you know—and improving on what you don't.
It takes a well-planned, well-designed, well-supervised and well-maintained effort to make all the components come together successfully. Safety, in other words, is about applying a set of principles and guidelines that can make any play space a safer one.
By far the greatest source of injuries in children's play is falls. According to a study from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), from 1990 to 2000, of the 200,000 estimated visits to the ER each year by children injured on playgrounds, 79 percent were due to falls. Improper surfacing and heights are the main ingredients in the recipe for these disasters.
It is natural to assume, then, that by reducing heights of equipment and softening surfaces, these kinds of injuries would be reduced. The answer is both yes, and no.
What manufacturers have learned is that just because a piece of equipment is tall, doesn't necessarily mean the fall height is hazardous. For example, a climber may have a tall apex, but when it is in the form of a dome or pyramid, fall heights don't start at the top since children are climbing a sloped surface which, if slipped from, slows the rate of descent and eases the severity of the impact when they reach the ground.
Or, a 30-foot slide, which initially sounds like a playground "don't," suddenly earns a seal of approval when it has been embedded in a hillside, flush with the ground and in which there are no ladders or dangerous heights from which a child could fall. All the fun, lots of height and a lot fewer trips to the ER.
Likewise, assuming that softer surfaces will reduce injuries is only useful when the surfaces are installed and maintained as intended. Wood chips have a great reputation for absorbing impact, but they are only effective if they are installed at the recommended depth. Furthermore, they only remain effective if they are maintained at that depth over time.
Some, in fact, have even suggested that the mere notion of believing that we can create the ultimate "safe" play environment is a hazard in itself. In his controversial book, No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society, author and former director of the UK's Children's Play Council for seven years, Tim Gill, suggests that by over-emphasizing safety's importance and its role on the playground, parents and children develop a false sense of security that leads to riskier behaviors that increase, rather than decrease, the number of injuries. Whether or not you agree with that assertion, or Gill's data, one thing is clear: Safety, if emphasized at the expense of all else, and if applied without regard to the particulars of each unique design, can become its own worst enemy.
According to the Voice of Play, a group within the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA), finding the balance between safety and fun is a legitimate concern. "Safety is always a top priority for everyone in the industry, and safety advocates' concerns are justified," the document asserts, "but should be balanced with the value of play in children's learning and development."
In an effort, for example, to remove all hazardous elements, many playgrounds in years past made the mistake of being too predictable—with too many prescribed routes and too much narrative, leaving little to the child's imagination or freedom to keep play new and challenging. Once a child is bored, they will quickly turn their attention to finding more creative (i.e., unsafe) ways of using play equipment.
"For many years, the characteristic playground was a composite structure of posts, climbers, slides and platforms with clearly defined routes that would be fun for a period of time," said John McConkey, market insights manager with a manufacturing company. "At a certain point, however, they're going to want to do what they shouldn't because they want to challenge themselves. They need it. It's wanting to know can I climb on the outside? Can I hang from the roof? If they're not challenged, they'll find things to do."
Selecting equipment or designing play elements that can keep a child's attention for long periods of creative play is one way to decrease the likelihood of boredom leading to misuse and injury on the playground. It starts with knowing what you want, what your community wants and getting well-trained designers who know kids and know safety.
Part of designing a fun, safe playground, is making sure you know what you want as well as what your community and its children really want. When Shaani Splaver, a mother of several children attending a private elementary school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., got involved in the design of a new playground, she invested her money, her time and her opinions in creating the space best suited to the children's needs.
"My husband and I wanted to make a donation to the school and decided to earmark it for the new playground," Splaver explained. "We knew from past experience, from our child who broke their wrist twice on monkey bars, that monkey bars were a definite 'no'."
A self-described over-protective mom, Splaver knew what elements on the playground she didn't want, but also, after interviewing other parents and kids, talking extensively to manufacturing representatives and visiting other playgrounds, she knew what she did want as well.
"Things are going to happen, but I wanted the safest playground possible. I picked certain things that you can't easily fall down or off of and my friends helped decide all of the features—we kind of did that together. The playground opened last year and the kids absolutely love it."
When Learning Circle Montessori Elementary School in Bozeman, Mont., was ready to replace an aging playground, the school invited designer and trained playground safety inspector, Ron King, to help assess their needs.
"We were sold on the concept that kids get bored on standard equipment and will use it improperly like jump off jungle gyms and swings," said Dani Stern, principal at the school. "Ron took us through an interview of kids and parents' favorite things they like to do that didn't involve standard equipment and it was really neat to see their responses were very similar: making forts, digging holes, building snowmen and igloos and rolling down hills."
What Learning Circle created, as a result, was a playground containing elements that are enormously popular, but not necessarily traditional. An embankment slide, cave, fort, stream, rain garden, sand area, nature trail, sledding hill and willow tunnel, are just some of the natural-based features that have made the school's play area a showcase for others interested in this growing trend in playground design.
But, safety was key and something Learning Circle set out to implement all along the way by using a designer certified in playground safety as well as involving a certified playground safety inspector (CPSI) to consult during the beginning, middle and end of the project to make recommendations or give the seal of approval as the project progressed. The result was a playground that, while untraditional in form, applied traditional safety guidelines to all its components.
"We liked the fact that Ron was certified on playground safety and took it very seriously, as do we," Stern said. "These playgrounds are such a hit. Anybody doing this, if they're smart, are going to be responsible and do everything they can with guidelines and common sense in their back pocket to make it as safe as possible."
Even in the traditional world of play equipment manufacturing, however, designers are creating new kinds of equipment that require the guidelines to stretch, rethink and reformulate their position. That is when finding a manufacturer with a proven track record in safety-minded design is a must.
"The biggest challenge is designing equipment for which there are no specific requirements," said Randy Watermiller, president elect of IPEMA for 2012. "Usually this can create questions related to compliance. However, I think the National Playground Safety Institute (NPSI) has done a great job of training playground safety inspectors to not deem equipment unsafe or non-compliant just because they don't fit into an existing category. They recommend addressing general hazards, and if need be, contact the designer/manufacturer to gain a better perspective of the design intent."
McConkey agreed, saying that in reality, standards for new equipment designs are always lagging anywhere from six months to a year by the time new play equipment is reviewed and revised. "That's not a bad thing," he conceded, "but it means you have to balance pushing the envelope to create more exciting, engaging environments that give kids what they need and yet have the widest appeal for those owners who need to follow the standards and be compliant from a risk standpoint. What we have to do is apply the known standard to the new equipment to make sure that we can apply the standards as they exist even though it is a new piece of equipment that doesn't neatly fall into a classification."
According to McConkey, a successful result happens when safety standards are applied, and kids are engaged on multiple levels that challenge them physically, mentally, socially and emotionally. That's a tall order but one that truly safety-conscious designers and manufacturers are trying to fill.
But even when safety guidelines have been applied, safety inspectors are consulted and equipment or designs are geared to address every possible play need, planners need to make sure that they also consider the age-appropriateness and the geographical environment before play elements are chosen.
"Make sure the equipment is designed to meet the ages you are intending," Watermiller advised," and that the equipment and surfacing is installed and maintained according to manufacturer's specifications."
For the inclusive playground re-design in Warren, Ohio, choosing an accessible play surface had to take into the consideration the fact that the existing playground site was in a flood plane. "When we put in rubber tile, we were going to put it in over gravel but the more we talked about drilling holes after the fact and cementing posts in the ground, we'd have over 100 holes," said Chuck Joseph, then-president of the Mainstreet Warren Project responsible for the playground transformation. "So, we decided to pour a cement pad and we'd bolt the ground-level poles to height with metal plates and had the interlocked reground rubber mats cut to match up with the posts. Because of the flood plane, we glued down more than normal, but we were strategic." And the results were an accessible, safer play space.
There is seldom—if ever—a one-size-fits-all product that will guarantee that safety results in the lab will be duplicated in the real world without some special considerations. Many factors affect the performance of an installed surface, for example, including geographic region, temperature extremes and the skill level of the installer.
Making sure a safety element will perform as it should must never be taken for granted and always considered in light of these and other variables. To that end, some manufacturers, in response to buyers' concerns, are now providing on-site testing of their materials after installation to ensure that their performance is in compliance before payment is complete.
When playground equipment was chosen for the new playground built at the Martin Lake Resort in Biloxi, Miss., manufacturers were quick to note that the environmental hazards of high winds from hurricanes and high heat and dangerous sun exposure meant that certain adaptations needed to be made in the otherwise standard safety-compliant play equipment.
"We were pretty much confident that everything in the catalog was safe—our concerns were about hurricane strength and everything engineered for footings. Another concern was the heat," said Jay Snow, owner and manager of the resort. "We needed something enclosed and safe. For us it was important that the manufacturer be able to customize. You don't compromise on the safety, and you don't compromise on your design. And you don't have to, if you have the right company."
After interviewing nieces, nephews and his own children to help select the equipment that they thought would be the most fun, Snow turned his attention to the layout of the design to ensure that age-appropriate equipment was placed in ways that would create the safest environment for supervision from caregivers and to keep age groups in their appropriate areas.
"We put in a smaller playground for the 2- to 5-year-olds and put a fence around it," Snow explained of the design solution. "Parents can watch on one side and not worry about them going behind the playground and leaving."
Placement of equipment by activity level, by age group and for proper supervision all add up to a safer playground design. For the playground design in Biloxi, being able to ensure caregivers could keep an eye on their children's whereabouts was key.
For the natural play space designed for the Thatcher Brook Primary School in Waterbury, Vt., ensuring that active and passive play areas were segregated (in their case, by a hillside) was also an important factor in the design and has resulted in far fewer clashes during play time.
"It's important to emphasize that active play and exploratory don't mix," said Don Schneider, principal for 10 years of the school. "Kids who don't play sports, don't want to hear it and are in their own little world, so anything to separate the active from discovery play is important—and to have both is important."
Providing an area for discovery play has also contributed to a safer, more incident-free environment. "I still have kids doing things they shouldn't, but it's cut down 60 to 70 percent from what it used to be because kids are engaged," Schneider explained. "Most of my problems are in the soccer field. You don't get it from down below (in the discovery area) where they're trying to dam up water and not getting into arguments. Amazing, really."
Equally amazing to Stern was the fact that not only did their play environment reduce incidents of fighting over equipment, but it also drew age groups together that had not previously interacted. "There are far less squabbles over 'it's my turn' or 'I don't get to play,'" Spears said. "The former head of the school was here recently and she says it's a different environment altogether—very positive. We see younger and older kids playing more than they used to. It's neat to see the amount of kids who love to sand play near a stream and can use the water with sand structures."
Designing a play area for adequate supervision is also a safety must. Line of sight and well-trained supervision staff (where applicable) is part and parcel of the safety formula. "Safety has to do with monitoring the play—that's a huge part of it," Stern said of the safety record her school has enjoyed. "Know your kids, have trained professionals on the playground and be consistent. We use first-aid trained people—not even the parents do this. If you see kids using something that looks a little 'off,' you nix it." That's a huge part."
Then there is the safety issue of maintenance, probably the biggest challenge of all. With 40 percent of playground injuries due to failures in maintenance and non-conforming equipment, this issue is more than just academic.
When asked to identify the most common mistake most facilities and playground managers make, Watermiller's response matched the stats. "Not understanding the importance of maintaining the equipment and surfacing per the manufacturer's recommendations," he said, adding that one way to avoid that mistake is to take training from the NPSI and become a certified playground safety inspector.
Having well-trained staff who know what to look for and how to follow the recommended manufacturer's schedule for checks and repairs is certainly important. Where many fall down, however, is in factoring that practice into their budget. Paying staff to do regular checks and purchasing replacement materials when wear, tear and exposure to the environment takes their toll, takes, well, money.
"Eighty-three percent of injuries due to lack of supervision and maintenance is significant," McConkey said of one combined statistical total. "Because from a maintenance standpoint, since cost of maintenance is by the owner, it's the most challenging. Often they raise money or get grants to help with a capital purchase, but operating budgets that are downsized more and more these days affect maintenance."
Following the guidelines, logs and schedules recommended by the manufacturer should be required for every piece of equipment and will not just reduce injuries, but will reduce greater exposure to liability.
Some creative solutions, however, may include making the most of your volunteers. Because so many playground projects involve community focus groups, donations and even labor in construction, the resulting buy-in can often motivate the public to help with ongoing maintenance needs as well.
"There are organizations and communities with parks and partnerships and sometimes in those environments, where we engage the public in design and meetings to invite kids and families, they create a sense of ownership and then can use them to be their eyes and ears to help them," McConkey said. "It works successfully in pubic gardens. It's the same kind of model."
When maintenance repairs do need to be made, however, whether it's from the help of volunteers or paid staff, they need to be made quickly. "We put in wheelchair swings and you know that putting anything in a park, kids will do everything they can," Joseph said of the problems his park quickly encountered. "Kids jumped on the wheelchair swing's clip and snapped them off. We've replaced them all now, and we're in good shape."
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