Safe and Secure

Balancing Safety and Fun on the Playground

By Deborah L. Vence

When children go to a playground, fun is the ultimate goal—especially with so much to choose from. Twisty slides, crawl-through tunnels, swings, monkey bars and more can keep children entertained for hours. But, ahead of having fun, safety still needs to be the No. 1 priority.

The fact is that the main source of playground injuries is falls to the surface, though "there are three other areas that need attention because they are related: supervision of the children, age-appropriate design (taking the children to the wrong age level of equipment) and equipment maintenance (the equipment may be broken)," said Donna Thompson, Ph.D., executive director of the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS), a Cedar Falls, Iowa-based nonprofit organization that delivers training and services about outdoor play and safety.

According to information from the NPPS Web site, playgroundsafety.org, between 2001 and 2008, an average of 218,851 preschool and elementary children received emergency department care each year for injuries that occurred on playground equipment. Furthermore, 51 percent of the injuries happened on public playground equipment; and 19 percent occurred on home playground equipment; 20 percent were not recorded; and 1 percent were listed as "other." And, of the incidents reported, 67 percent involved falls or equipment failure; 8 percent involved hazards around, but not related to the equipment; 7 percent were collisions with other children or the equipment; 7 percent involved entrapments; and 11 percent were listed as "other."

"Safety and proper design is important and must be dealt with first. Fun is the result of interaction with the equipment and with other children," Thompson said. "If the area is designed to meet the children's needs, they will be safe and will have fun."

Moreover, a representative from the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA), which provides third-party product certification services for U.S. and Canadian public play equipment and U.S. public play surfacing materials, noted that the majority of injuries that take place on playgrounds are related to falls because "kids climb, jump and exercise their bodies in a variety of ways on playground equipment. To a certain extent, falls are inevitable—and are even a part of learning."

But, risk of injury can be minimized by ensuring these key points:

  • Installing IPEMA-certified playground equipment and surfacing materials, which are compliant with ASTM standards for impact-attenuation and fall-height requirements and are designed for specific age groups.
  • Ensuring compliant installation and maintenance procedures at proper intervals.
  • Having a participatory adult (supervisor) presence on playgrounds to help facilitate play activity.

Of course, both the ground surfaces and the playground equipment itself must be up to safety standards. In this issue, Recreation Management takes a look at the safety of playground surfaces and equipment today, and what playground owners and operators can do to ensure both are up to industry standards.

THE ROOT OF UNSAFE SURFACES

To help ensure safety on the playground, the right surface product can make all the difference. And, it turns out that there are three common causes of unsafe surfaces, noted Robert Zeager, sales manager at a Middletown, Pa.-based company that specializes in playground surfacing.

"First, surfaces that are not installed properly," Zeager said. "By now, most people are aware of the types of surfaces that are safe for playgrounds. But, what isn't as widely understood yet is that every surface needs a good foundation. More specifically, every surface needs a stable, well-drained base. Let's face it, budgets are tight and resources are stretched thin. So, the temptation is great to skimp on the base prep since no one will see that. For unitary surfaces, a good base is essential for strong seams, to maintain a level surface, provide for consistent and adequate fall protection throughout the play area, and more."

He explained that for almost any surface, a poor base leaves the surface with little to no drainage to reduce impact attenuation, wet and dirty surfaces, puddles and standing water, and very hard surfaces in freezing temperatures. Not to mention the fact that it leaves the owner without warranty and liability protection.

Playground buyers should always work closely with their sales person to ensure they understand the lifetime maintenance schedule of the surface they choose.

"So, what you see is a playground with a fun, inviting structure that says, 'come and play here.' The structure looks good, the surfacing looks OK on top, but underneath it may be a different story and the children and parents will not realize it until an injury occurs and people start asking why it happened," he said.

That leads into the second common cause for an unsafe surface: inadequate maintenance.

"Some surfaces require the use of certified installers for repairs or maintenance," Zeager said. "Consider whether you have the money and one available in your area that can respond fast enough to your needs. Waiting several weeks for a contractor to get there to make the necessary repairs is not necessarily good risk management.

"Other surfaces may not require certified contractors, but simply require more maintenance than your staff can keep up with," he said. "Consider a lower maintenance surface, outsourcing some of the maintenance, or if the money isn't there for either of those, then ask the manufacturer about affordable, maintenance-reducing upgrades, so that your staff can keep up with it."

Finally, the third common cause for unsafe surfaces is loss of fall protection as the surface ages.

"There are many certified surfaces to choose from today that provide excellent fall protection in the lab, and when first installed on the playground. However, as the surface ages, will impact attenuation diminish? If so, at what point in time does the surface become unsafe? Ask the manufacturer for a warranty and a set of test results on an aged surface," Zeager said.

"There have been some pretty cool structures designed in recent years. Some are starting to go taller, use climbing nets, incorporate boulders, ropes, and other natural climbing elements. The children love the variety of textures and natural elements and challenging climbing opportunities. They love the challenge of climbing to higher heights," he said.

"We say, fine. Just make sure you install a protective surface designed for that fall height," he added. "Use a surface that provides more fall height than the equipment requires, if possible, since children will often use the equipment in ways we adults did not intend."

CHOOSING A SURFACE

When deciding on a surface for a playground, you should consider more than one type, to offer children a variety of textures.

"Artificial grass is a nice texture for some areas, particularly to give children the texture and feel of grass," Zeager said. "Engineered wood fiber fits nicely with a natural theme where you might see logs and climbing boulders, plus you can easily make it thicker in areas where you need more fall protection; it's very scalable in that regard. Most unitary surfaces can be made thicker where needed, too."

And, before a surfacing product is laid out, you should plan ahead.

"Plan ahead for any changes in surfacing thickness, so the proper excavation and base prep can be made," Zeager said. "Wear mats are an affordable way to maintain sufficient fall protection in the high wear areas. In addition to the fall height of your surface, consider your playground's sun exposure. Burns from hot surfaces are often an afterthought. If your playground isn't shaded, choose a surface that doesn't get as hot.

"So, consider surfaces with lots of fall protection, surfaces that can be made thicker in areas where your fall height is higher, consider wear mats for high wear areas to keep your fall protection intact at those places and consider the sun exposure," he said. "In summary, first of all, we're seeing an increased interest in prefabricated, easy-to-install foundations, if you will—a base that provides drainage and stability for the playground's protective surfacing."

We have recognized that the vast majority of injuries occur from falls off of equipment and onto the underlying surface.

Second, he said, there also is more interest in surface-mounted wear mats and bonding products that allow playground owners to upgrade their loose fill for little money. Playground owners are seeing maintenance requirements drop significantly to the point where they can keep up with it the way they should be.

"Plus, the upgrades, if done right, are helping them to improve accessibility, too," he added.

Finally, Zeager pointed out that there also is increased interest in a surface that will remain safe for a long time, which can be achieved by choosing one that has proven how long it remains resilient, installing it over a good base and keeping up with maintenance.

Anne-Marie Spencer, vice president of corporate marketing for a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based playground manufacturer, noted that there are a number of surfaces available, in both "loose fill" and "unitary" varieties, to provide safety to the overall playscape.

"Playground buyers should always work closely with their sales person to ensure they understand the lifetime maintenance schedule of the surface they choose," Spencer said. "While loose fill surfacing like wood fiber offers a lower initial cost, budget must be planned for ongoing maintenance and topping off to ensure it stays as compliant and fall-attenuating as originally designed."

Whatever the case may be, there are many surfaces available for placement under and around playground equipment.

"Rubber tiles and poured-in-place are options for children ages 0 to 5," Thompson said. "Loose fill surfacing, such as sand, pea gravel, wood products and loose rubber products are appropriate for school-aged children."

FIELD TESTING

Besides deciding on the type of surface for a playground, a field test of that surface material is an important step to take as well.

"We have recognized that the vast majority of injuries occur from falls off of equipment and onto the underlying surface. We also understand that all playground equipment is designed with an approximate 3-foot guardrail around all of the play decks designed for the sole reason of preventing falls to the surface," said Jeromy Morningstar, managing director of a Petrolia, Ontario, Canada-based company that specializes in the manufacture and distribution of safety surfacing products for use under children's play centers.

"This begs the question: Where are all of the kids falling from? It is our contention that falls are both more probable and more severe when kids are using the equipment in a manner not consistent with the manufacturer's original design intent, i.e., climbing over the railings, standing on the railing, etc.," he said.

For this reason, Morningstar said that his company designed a tile that performs almost 50 percent better than current safety standards.

"This means that although the safety standards require the playground surface to be safety rated to the height of the walking deck, our surface performs at the height of the railing," he said, noting that more comprehensive tests are done now to determine the impact of a fall from playground equipment.

For example, the Gmax, or g-force test, and the Head Injury Criteria (HIC) are two key measurements that are used to determine safety performance. HIC is defined as a measure of the likelihood of head injury arising from an impact.

What happens is that a playground owner will say that the surface impact needs to be under 1,000. But, then the surface tests at 950, which indicates that the surface is compliant. "To me, that's like purchasing new tires, and having almost all of the tread gone on day one," Morningstar said, adding that his company offers free performance testing on all of its surfaces.

"What most [playground] owner/operators don't understand is that these surfaces that are poured-in-place are porous. Poured-in-place gets fall protection, and in between all of those granules is air. When something hits it … the rubber can move in relation to air voids," he explained. For example, sand, bird excrement, etc., works into the pores of a surface. And when that happens, the cushioning property of a surface starts to decline. Over a period of time, a surface will begin to lose its impact attenuation.

Because this can happen, it's important that surfaces are tested over time, and not just at the time they're being installed.

"Our philosophy is that rather than try to make the equipment so safe that it becomes boring, let's focus on how we can remove the hazards. By that I mean the hidden dangers that are not seen and therefore not anticipated," Morningstar added. "A good example would be unsafe or underperforming surfaces—or surfaces that are performing, but just to the minimum requirements of the standards.

In this case, "What we've done is designed a surface that performs much lower than the standard," he said. "We identified certain criteria numbers, and we followed the lead of highway traffic and safety administration and current playground safety standards."

In addition to surface tests, Spencer pointed out that playground owners should always conduct regular maintenance and safety inspections to guarantee the condition of their equipment as well.

"If there is not a Certified Playground Safety Inspector on their staff, they can contact their local playground sales representative who can help in this regard," she said. "Many playground manufacturers send out maintenance and supervision guidebooks with their equipment to help owners establish a routine.

"A very important factor in the overall safety of a play space is surfacing maintenance. It is of the utmost importance to ensure that the surfacing under the playground is installed and maintained to attenuate the specified fall height for the equipment," she said.

"If the equipment is found to be out of compliance, there are many alternatives for replacement, including adding linear trail play opportunities, phased playground design, removal and replacement of the components found to be non-compliant, etc." she added. "A good playground designer or sales person can help provide alternatives for any budget."

SAFE, RELIABLE EQUIPMENT

When it comes to playground apparatuses, playground manufacturers are making equipment safer today by following the ASTM standards, and some are even following the suggestions of child care development experts and meeting the needs of children.

"More of them need to use child development specialists in the design of their equipment," Thompson said. "Recreation facility individuals need to keep that information in mind when choosing equipment. They also need to review the ages of the children who use their facility and select equipment that meets their needs. One piece does not fit the needs of children ages 0 to 12. They may not need as much equipment for older children since they tend not to visit the park area as much."

Most equipment, though, that was IPEMA certified within the last decade and installed per the manufacturers' instructions meets the current ASTM F1487 standard.

"Minor railing upgrades to non-climbable barriers on stepped platforms and changes to stepped platforms and stairs above 48 inches can be retrofitted by most manufacturers," said an IPEMA representative. "The addition of signage outside the play area can be accomplished easily if this is not already a risk management practice for the agency or owner. The most important action that an agency and or owner can perform would be to audit for compliance with ASTM F1487-11 and the Department of Justice's 2010 Standards for Accessible Design. Once all non-conformities are identified and prioritized, reasonable and prudent compliance transition plans can be made and implemented."

To take it a step further, Spencer said that by following the established standards, you are ensuring that the play adventures you create are captivating.

"A good play experience isn't about the height of the equipment, it is about engagement. A truly beneficial playground infuses adventure along a continuum of development, ensuring that children have exciting experiences, while also providing design elements that challenge their current level of skill, so that they continue to build strength, confidence and move to the next skill level," Spencer said.

"A great example is a play space we observed in Germantown, Tenn. It's themed like a great big tree house, so right away, you have children drawn to it by virtue of its design," she said. "Included in the overall plan are slides at a variety of heights, a variety of climbers that utilize and develop upper body strength in a variety of ways, and a large footprint that encourages cardiovascular engagement as children move about the play space from one adventure to the next."

She went on to say that "The space also contains under-deck cozy spaces, sound-making elements, and design details to facilitate imaginative play—creating additional ways to keep children engaged with the environment. It is designed for children of all abilities, and at any given time, you will find children thoroughly engaged in their play, interacting, playing independently and having a great time. At the end of their play time, they don't want to leave, always the mark of a great playground."

Other play spaces that demonstrate this point are the PlayTrails that were built in Springfield, Mo., and Chattanooga, Tenn. Many play components along the trail are ground level, but they are stationed along the path in related topic groupings: bees, butterflies, ants, trees, etc.

"Each grouping offers signage with fun facts about the grouping, like how many stomachs bees have, how fast a dragonfly can fly, and how ants live in colonies, etc. Entire families play on and among the equipment groupings, reading the signs to each other and playing games," Spencer said.

"They are engaged, getting exercise, enjoying nature and being a family," she added. "It's the overall design of the path, the unique nature of the equipment, and the continuum of adventure that keeps them active and engaged."



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