Safe, high-quality public playgrounds lay the foundation for healthy, active lifestyles. Consider equipment selection, placement, and maintenance to limit liability and create a safe and sustainable playground.
Playgrounds are at the center of most neighborhoods in America and play a vital role in the lives of children. Children need access to open areas and facilities where they explore, develop, and challenge themselves as part of their physical, intellectual, creative, and social development. Providing safe, high-quality public playgrounds represents a valuable investment for organizations and society as a whole by laying the foundation for healthy, active lifestyles. Accessible equipment and surfacing is essential, so children have the opportunity to grow and develop through different types of play experiences.
To increase safety and operational effectiveness, key team members in public agencies need to make informed decisions regarding playground location, design, accessibility, equipment, surfacing, and maintenance.
Planners must consider safe access to and from the playground site. Create a barrier such as a fence or dense hedge to keep children within the playground if there are nearby hazards such as roads, bodies of water, or other dangerous conditions. Consider adequate slope and drainage to reduce the loss of loose-fill surfacing materials, limit the potential for standing water that could create health hazards, and prevent rusting or rotting of playground equipment and surfacing. If the site is not naturally shaded, install appropriate plants or shade structures to protect playground users and supervisors from direct exposure to the sun and reduce the potential for skin cancer. Shade also helps to prevent playground components and protective surfacing from becoming hot and causing burns.
Planners need to design a playground based on the ages of the intended users. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission provides guidelines for age-appropriate public playground equipment for three age groups: toddlers (6-23 months), preschoolers (2-5 years), and grade-school-age (5-12 years). Providing playground equipment specially designed for the different developmental levels of each age group can reduce the potential for injuries. For example, a track ride that requires the user to have the upper body strength to hang on while the ride moves is appropriate only for children five years or older. Children younger than five who use it may not have the strength to hold on while gliding over a distance, and could become seriously injured. Creating a buffer zone or physical separation with benches or landscaping between structures designed for older and younger children can help reduce injuries.
Planners must ensure the playground is accessible in accordance with requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The law sets rules to include accessible routes to a variety of age-appropriate components at ground level and in elevated areas, such as those accessed from a transfer station, or platform. ADA also sets the minimum number of individual play components required to be accessible based on the total number of components provided in each play area. Revisions to the ADA standards will become effective March 15, 2012.
While following the standards is essential, planners also must learn from feedback of playground users. For example, Santa Fe Public Schools installed engineered wood fiber in a playground with access to a variety of different play components. The school system was surprised to receive a report that a child was having difficulty moving an electric wheelchair across the ADA-compliant surfacing. After officials further compacted and added moisture to the surfacing material, the child was able to move easily throughout the playground.
Deciding what type of equipment and components to include on a public playground can be overwhelming. Purchasers should select commercial-quality playground equipment that is certified by the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association. IPEMA provides third-party product certification for public playground equipment in the United States for conformance to the American Society of Testing Materials International (ASTM) standards.
Providing a wide variety of age-appropriate playground experiences that will stimulate the growth of children and encourage imagination should be a primary goal when planning a playground. A high level of play value in a playground enables children to be engaged and challenged. Agencies should not shy away from including components with moving parts because they wear out more quickly than stationary parts and need to be inspected and replaced more often. Moving components significantly increase the level of user excitement. A child’s sense of adventure is heightened through inclusion of components that rotate, tilt, glide, spring, or provide other types of movement. Although safety is always the priority, the fun or wow factor also must be considered when selecting playground equipment.
Select type and placement of playground equipment that provide open sight lines for caregivers and supervisors, within and between each playground area. Minimize visual barriers between the playground components and surrounding benches. A well thought out playground design can maximize play value, provide barriers between areas designed for different age groups, and still allow parents and caregivers to see what is happening on the playground. Children may love tube slides, but they limit visibility and may hamper supervisor effectiveness. One tube slide could be included on a playground, along with open-design slides to enhance visibility. Open sight lines also are important to reduce vandalism and enable a clear view by security or police personnel, especially those who periodically observe the playground from a nearby road or parking lot.
Signage and Labels
There are a number of safety guidelines and standards regarding signage for each area of the playground and warning labels on each playground component. Signs or labels should designate age-appropriateness, state that adult supervision is recommended, and warn parents or caregivers about the potential for burns due to intense sunlight. Caregivers and supervisors also should be warned about the danger of strings on children’s clothing or items worn around the neck (such as binoculars), which could become entangled and cause strangulation. Planning managers also should consider surface-marking stickers that mark the correct level for protective surfacing.
Buying the right equipment and providing appropriate signage and labels does not guarantee the safety of a playground. Problems with manufacturing, construction, or installation could lead to hazards such as head entrapments, entanglements, or protrusions that could cause injury to users. Ensure user safety and reduce agency liability by installing playground equipment correctly by trained professionals. The International Playground Contractor’s Association pre-qualifies contractors to playground safety industry standards based on criteria such as licensure, liability insurance, workers’ compensation coverage, presence of at least one national playground safety inspector on staff, and factory certification of the equipment to be installed.
After installing the equipment, agencies should conduct an inspection and pre-opening safety audit to establish that the equipment has been installed correctly and is free of hazards.
In a safety audit of a newly installed playground in Southern California, inspectors identified a head entrapment; a tic-tac-toe play panel had been inadvertently left out, which created an unsafe opening in the structure. This simple error might have been overlooked without a complete inspection, but was identified and corrected prior to opening the playground for use. Agencies must use qualified professionals to install and inspect playgrounds to enhance user safety and contribute to effective operations.
Maintenance staff must comply with the manufacturer recommendations when caring for equipment to maintain product liability coverage. Effective and safe operation of playgrounds requires compliance with manufacturer’s installation and maintenance recommendations. Obtain replacement parts and maintenance kits from the manufacturer when the time the equipment is purchased to save time, aggravation, and money in the long run, and reduce the need for non-compliant emergency repairs in the event of vandalism, wear, or breakage. Playground maintenance staff members must have copies of the manufacturer’s recommendations, and perform maintenance and repairs in accordance with those documents; they should contact the manufacturer’s representative if questions or concerns arise regarding the equipment. Based on knowledge of the type of equipment selected and the manufacturer’s recommendations, planners and maintenance personnel can anticipate the ongoing maintenance needs for the playground.
It is critical that planners select impact-attenuating surfacing when planning a safe and sustainable playground. Falls constitute one of the most common playground hazards and can result in catastrophic injuries or death. Placing protective surfacing under and around playground equipment will absorb and disperse the kinetic energy created during a fall and is key to reducing injuries. ASTM, CPSC, and ADA provide protective surfacing requirements for public playgrounds. The depth of protective surfacing required depends on the fall height from the equipment to the surfacing and the type of protective surfacing selected.
The protective surfacing must be installed by certified professionals and tested prior to opening of the playground to assure compliance with safety standards. Test methods simulate and quantify impact of a child’s head with the protective surfacing to verify compliance with performance requirements. Protective surfacing on playgrounds that meets the standards for impact attenuation is vital in terms of reducing the number and severity of injuries to children. The installation of appropriate protective surfacing under and around playground equipment also can provide accessibility and decrease the level of ongoing maintenance required for a playground.
Loose-fill surfacing materials such as sand, engineered wood fiber, shredded rubber and pea gravel are used frequently on playgrounds and meet the standards for impact-attenuation when the correct depth is installed and maintained. Considerations when selecting loose-fill surfacing materials include containing the materials within a border to reduce displacement, the need for periodic loosening to reduce compaction (except with engineered wood fiber), the necessity of routine leveling and periodic replacement to maintain the required depth. Some loose-fill surfacing materials provide an accessible route for individuals with disabilities and some do not. Accessible loose-fill surfacing materials include engineered wood fiber and shredded rubber. Sand, wood chips, and pea gravel do not meet ADA accessibility requirements.
Unitary surfacing requires less ongoing maintenance than loose-fill surfacing materials and may bring long-term savings. Part of the ongoing maintenance requirements for unitary surfacing includes removing debris and contaminants along with regular inspection. Tiles, mats, and poured-in-place materials often meet ADA accessibility requirements. Planners should select playground-surfacing tiles manufactured in compliance with applicable ASTM standards and International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 9000 standards. Materials that comply with ISO 9000 standards are manufactured with controls in place for humidity and other production issues.
A combination of loose-fill and unitary surfacing on a playground may be useful in terms of providing accessibility and reducing the maintenance requirements for high traffic areas. For instance, installing a layer of wood chips under a swing will reduce displacement of loose-fill materials, help prevent the mat from becoming dislodged, and provide adequate impact attenuation in heavily used areas of a playground.
Carefully selecting plants, with attention to the level of maintenance required, toxicity, and hardiness will save time and resources over the long run. Plants can be a valuable addition to a playground in terms of providing shade, but planner must include provisions for ongoing upkeep of the vegetation. Areas around, above, and below equipment must be kept clear of plants and debris such as leaves and branches, so plant selection and placement is important to consider.
Good planning of playground design, equipment, and surfacing will pave the way for effective operations once a playground is open to the public. Planning ahead can save time, effort, and money for the agency, and extend the lifetime of the playground. Even high-quality playground design cannot withstand a lack of an ongoing, comprehensive maintenance plan. Normal wear, amount of usage, environmental factors, and vandalism take a toll on playgrounds and create hazards. A systematic plan including weekly, monthly, and annual maintenance is necessary for all playgrounds. Prior to opening a playground, supervisors should design methods for playground maintenance crew members to document maintenance and repairs based on manufacturer’s recommendations. Supervisors also should create a system for storage of and easy access to the documents.
Staff members must receive training specific to upkeep of the playground equipment, surfacing, plants, and other amenities. Well-trained staff members who have the knowledge, tools, and time necessary to responsibly care for equipment, plants, and surfacing are instrumental in providing for user safety and long life of playgrounds. Thoughtful evaluation of the maintenance capabilities of an organization is necessary in the planning stages of a playground. Considerations include the number of playground maintenance staff, types and number of playgrounds, usage, vandalism, and environmental factors (sun, temperature, humidity, rain, and wind).
Planning is Key
In 2000, the City of Phoenix conducted a thorough review of its playgrounds. Based on the analysis, city staff developed a plan for replacement of equipment and surfacing, staff training, and expansion of an aggressive maintenance program to increase user safety.
A concerted effort is necessary to increase user safety, which includes funding operations and maintenance when planning significant capital outlay for any public project, the corresponding need for funding of operations and maintenance for the project must be taken into account. Informed decisions should be made based on knowledge of playground safety standards to create a safe and sustainable playground. Assessment of the capabilities of the agency prior to selection of equipment, surfacing, signage, and plants will enable planners to design a playground that can be well maintained over time. Consideration of other factors such as the environment and needs of users will help ensure success of the project as well.
Planning ahead for safety and operational effectiveness of public playgrounds will ensure that a sound investment is made in the growth and development of children.