Challenge Minus Danger
Playground Advancements Help Children Experience Risk With Fewer Big Injuries
By Chris Gelbach
Playgrounds can play an important role in helping kids feel adventurous and test their limits, without exposing them to unnecessary risk. While the pendulum several years ago seemed to be swinging toward more risk-averse designs, continuing advances in surfacing, rope-based structures and other options are facilitating a trend toward more 'wow' factor without more injuries.
According to Tom Norquist, president of the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA), AS™ standards have always focused on eliminating the potential for life-threatening or debilitating injuries.
Norquist noted that today's playground equipment is far superior to that of the past, from a design standpoint, with safer play in mind. These advancements have included huge strides in eliminating protruding hardware and equipment, entrapping equipment and entangling situations that could cause an injury.
As a result, injuries per year have stayed relatively flat year over year, even as the nation's population has increased and the number of playgrounds have increased tremendously.
"There may be some expectations by society that are maybe even a more severe elimination of risk or chance for injury," Norquist said. "For example, is it OK to break a bone on a playground or in the act of playing? That's a question we need to answer, I think."
It's a concern that surfacing manufacturers are trying to mitigate with ongoing surface advancements. "The surfacing industry is fantastic in what they've done in creating better surfaces that last longer, that are resilient and help attenuate potential injuries from falls," Norquist said.
A Return to Adventure
In turn, these advancements may even be nudging the industry back toward more adventurous equipment. "I think there's been so many years we've gone through of equipment that's kind of sterile and bland and unchallenging, and it's kind of worked along with kids and screen time and being away from playgrounds," said Scott Liebelt, engineering and product development manager for a Wisconsin-based manufacturer of playground structures. "But I think we're seeing a trend where it's going back the other way where we're recognizing that … kids really need a risk. Sometimes it's difficult to swallow that risk if somebody gets hurt, but kids need the risk, and there's all kinds of research and experts that tell you, you need to have risk and challenge for kids to have proper development."
Playgrounds can play an important role in helping kids feel adventurous and test their limits, without exposing them to unnecessary risk.
One trend contributing to this increased perceived risk—and abetted by safer surfaces and the popularity of rope-based structures—is a move toward taller playground structures.
"Some of the equipment is getting taller by design. Some of the surfacing is now attenuating falls from a much higher height than in the past," Norquist said. "So when you put the improved surfacing with some of the more challenging equipment, in theory, you have the same standard level of care."
According to Kevin Rambaud, regional sales director for a Germany-based manufacturer of rope-focused playground structures, his company typically keeps the fall height of its structure under 10 feet.
"I think people are seeing that it's a perceived risk—it's not a hazard," Rambaud said. "And kids are actually in more control when they're climbing because they're more focused and there's always two or three points connected at one time when they're climbing a rope structure, so they tend to be safer."
Liebelt noted that manufacturers are also creating perceived risk through the incorporation of lateral climbing. His company is also offering rope climbers with wall meshes of rope that are angled as opposed to strictly vertical to allow climbers with less upper-body strength to experience the risk and challenge of vertical climbing.
Mitigating Equipment Risks
According to 2009 data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the top four equipment pieces associated with injuries between 2001 and 2008 were climbers (23 percent), swings (22 percent), slides (17 percent) and overhead ladders (9 percent).
Falls and equipment failure were involved in 67 percent of incidents, with fractures being responsible for 36 percent of injuries. To mitigate these risks, the CPSC warns parents and daycare providers that children's plastic climbing equipment should never be placed on wood or cement floors, even if covered with carpet, or on other hard surfaces such as concrete and asphalt. The National Recreation and Park Association also adds surfaces such as packed earth and grass to the list in its Playground Safety Fact Sheet, while adding that acceptable surfaces can include "wood fiber and wood chips, sand, pea gravel, synthetic and rubber tiles, poured-in-place rubber, shredded rubber and mats."
"Surfacing is really the number-one problem that causes injuries," Liebelt said. "If you review some of the injury data from CPSC, it's always falls to the surface. And it's often hard to get exact information, but most times it's inadequate surfacing down there. So anything we can get out that says to make sure the surfacing is adequately maintained is worth a mention."
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:
- 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.
Variety for All
As recreation departments strive to provide playgrounds that up the entertainment and developmental value, they are increasingly opting for a broader variety of play options.
"Something interesting trend-wise that we're seeing is having a huge amount of play variety," Liesiecki said. This helps create a playground space that gives all kids the opportunity to be challenged at a level at which they're comfortable while also pushing them a little bit. "It meets them at the level they're at and gives them a level to step up to and work toward and maybe fail and then be taught resiliency by keeping going back," she said.
In his work, Rambaud is also seeing more and more requests for custom playgrounds that are unique and offer more 'wow' factor. "People are looking for something different. I hear that all the time," Rambaud said. "They want something less plastic, something more transparent, something that nobody else has."
According to Rambaud, these requests often include taller rope towers, more embankment slides, and slides that go down to different elevations and levels of the structure. This can also include rope structures and other elements en route to the top of the slide.
"That's the key—functional—not just a bunch of steps to get to a slide," Rambaud said. "They want something that adds play value and function, while they're getting all the things they're looking for, which is the height, the visual, the unique and something inclusive. They seem to want everything, and there are options to get it—or at least diversity in the playground."
He's also seeing more interest in spinning elements and group swings. Providing a diversity of options within a category of play to better serve and include all users is another growing trend.
For instance, swing areas are now more likely to contain options such as traditional belt swings, swings with back support that children with mobility issues can use safely and face-to-face parent/toddler swings. In addition to boosting the fun factor for all, this approach also helps children build empathy for others, helps build stronger bonds and encourages collaborative and group play.
Group spinners that include seating options that allow children of all abilities to play together are also becoming more popular. Along with other options such as zip and cable rides, a general trend toward more motion on the playground is growing.
With these moving parts come increased maintenance obligations. "Motion products require even more maintenance than the normal playground does because there's something moving, there's a bearing or rope or chain—something's rubbing somewhere to have motion," Liebelt said. "So the maintenance program becomes even more important with those types of products."
The Importance of Community Support
Getting buy-in from the community is important to maximizing the play value of a new playground. Building these relationships can also provide valuable touchpoints at which to reiterate the importance of certain safety measures.
"If I'm a recreation manager and I'm thinking about my job, I want to provide some of the most fun play experiences that I can," Norquist said. "And I want to do that in a way that people in my community get excited about it and they want to come and play in the parks. So I'm thinking I'm going to be exploring some of the newer play equipment."
Norquist recommends conducting community meetings about play and playgrounds at community centers or other local gathering spaces to have a two-way communication to inform the public about what facilities are available. It can also be an opportunity to remind people about important safety procedures such as being sure kids aren't wearing drawstrings to the playground, aren't wearing bike helmets while on the equipment, and aren't doing things like tying a rope onto an overhead ladder to make a Tarzan rope.
At these meetings, parents and children can also be given a number to call and encouraged to contact the recreation department if they observe any kind of equipment malfunction on any playground.
These hazards, as the NRPA notes in its Playground Safety Fact Sheet, can include "things such as missing, broken or worn-out components; fatigued or deteriorated metal, wood and plastic; and vandalism or graffiti. All parts of equipment should be stable with no signs of loosening, and surfacing material should be maintained."
The meetings can provide additional value in giving the department an opportunity to dive deeper with patrons and learn what equipment and offerings they like and don't like. "Listen to the community and use that as the basis for your capital improvement programs over the next five, 10 years," Norquist said. "That would be a great support system and would create alignment with your users and get them on board with your program. When it comes time for a bond [down the road], they're probably going to pass it."
Proper surfacing and equipment design to minimize fall heights and the consequences of falls are critical. But maximal safety also requires ongoing maintenance and proper supervision. In the end, recreation managers are responsible for creating the safest, most entertaining and most adventurous playgrounds they can. But the best playground results in terms of safety, utilization and fun will always come through a commitment to ongoing community involvement.
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