Swings, sandboxes and slides -- once upon a time, these were the usual suspects in playgrounds everywhere. In fact, without them, it wasn't really considered a playground.
But times have changed. Today's playgrounds are expected to be accessible and safe, and to engage a child's imagination and senses, according to Kirsten Rimes of O'Boyle, Cowell, Blalock and Associates Inc., in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Rimes, a Certified Playground Safety Inspector as well as a licensed landscape architect (and a parent of playground users as well), says that standards govern the construction and equipment of modern play areas.
“The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) Handbook for Public Playground Safety and the American Society of Testing Materials (ASTM) F1487-07a are the two primary playground safety documents in the United States,” notes Rimes.
“The CPSC handbook was first established in 1981 and addresses the safety of the entire playground. ASTM F1487 was established in 1991 with a primary focus on the safety of the equipment. ASTM is updated every 3 to 4 years, while CPSC only recently issued its third update. Several states have passed laws that any new playground must comply with one of the two standards; however, some states do not have any laws regarding playground safety. The standards were established to protect kids from life-threatening injuries and seriously debilitating injury."
On The Surface
It used to be that playgrounds were simply located in grassy areas, which quickly became bare from the constant foot traffic. Today's playgrounds are expected to have some form of safety surfacing under and around the play structures. According to Rimes, 79 percent of injuries on playgrounds are caused by falls; 68 percent are falls to the surface.
“Proper safety surfacing is arguably the most important safety feature on playgrounds today," she notes. "However, the two things that contribute to the injury statistic are lack of supervision and lack of maintenance.”
There are two types of surfacing:
2. Loose fill
Unitary surfacing includes mats, tiles or poured-in-place rubber surfacing, and is typically accessible to children in wheelchairs or those with other mobility challenges. Loose-fill surfacing includes wood chips, bark mulch, sand, pea stone, shredded rubber or engineered wood fiber (the last two are the only accessible loose-fill materials). New hybrids are also available that encapsulate loose fill so it has a uniform surface.
Maneuvering on unitary surfaces is much easier than on loose fill; however, the cost is significantly higher for unitary surfacing.
According to Edward Norton of Holcombe Norton Partners in Birmingham, Ala., it is essential to use safety surfacing, not just under playground structures but around them.
“The biggest mistake we see is the playground that will have a good surface beneath the equipment, but it does not extend far enough out around the perimeter,” Norton notes. “Manufacturers publish the distances the safe zone should extend.”
Keeping It Accessible
The advent of ADA has brought not only curb cuts and accessible parking, but changes to the game face of playgrounds.
“ADA has established some very basic standards for which playgrounds need to comply,” notes Rimes. “The overall goal is to provide like play experiences for all kids. First, there needs to be an accessible route to get to the playground and a path linking all accessible elements of the equipment.
"Second, there needs to be a means to get a person with a physical disability onto the equipment: either a transfer platform where a person would transfer out of one's wheelchair onto the structure, or a ramp, allowing access with the wheelchair. If a transfer point is used, there are requirements for stairs and transfer supports to allow a person to move through the structure without the use of a wheelchair.
'Third, there are (a) required number of ground-level events and elevated events based on the total number of activities on the structure. Unless there are more than 25 elevated play elements, a ramp is not required.”
Most parks, she adds, are seeking to make their playgrounds more accessible than the minimum required.
“By adding ramps to access elevated decks and arranging play equipment so there are parallel activities for able-body kids and kids with disabilities, all kids are able to be in the center of play. Other freestanding equipment has been designed where kids can access it in their wheelchairs and have a similar experience to that of able-bodied kids.”
A segment of the population that might be overlooked includes children with spectrum disorders, including autism. As a result, she says, there is a growing demand for “sensory-rich equipment, such as musical instruments or swings with backs, along with others [that] can provide positive stimulus for these kids. However, often children with developmental disabilities are highly sensitive to stimulation: light, movement, sound, etc. It is important to provide areas that reduce the stimulation and provide a calm space.”
The most important thing a camp or rec director can do when seeking to accommodate special populations of any type is to obtain all necessary input before making purchasing decisions. After all, most of the directors and managers are able-bodied and not as attuned to the needs of the target audience.
“Get kids with disabilities and their parents or caregivers involved,” says Rimes. “They are the experts on what they can do and how they want to do it.”
Trends For Tots
Unlike the structures of years ago, today's playground equipment is expected to serve more than one purpose, and to stimulate the imagination of a child. For example, playgrounds once were set up with unconnected pieces of equipment. The swings were in one place, the monkey-bars in another, and the slide somewhere else.
Now, they're likely to be connected to one another, encouraging children to experience the whole playground.
And of course, says Rimes, children always want to try equipment that looks like something the ”big kids” would use, and not like a toy in a tot lot.
“The trends I see in new playground equipment have mainly two things in common. First, the equipment had to have a perceived risk. Equipment that goes faster, higher and has fewer boundaries are all appealing things for many kids; if these elements can be combined, even better. Unlike 30 years ago, research and engineering today is highly sophisticated, and safety is designed into the equipment so, although it may look dangerous, the risk is limited.
"Second, they don’t look like the standard equipment although the function may still be quite similar. For example, a net climber that has a rubber disk incorporated into the structure; is it a foothold for the climber, is it a bouncer, is it a seat, can you hang upside down from it? Yes, its use is determined by the creativity of the user.”
While it's true that today's playgrounds are made of sturdier materials and have better design than those from years gone by, they still need upkeep.
“One of the biggest things that is neglected on playgrounds is maintenance,” notes Rimes.
“The equipment is built to be durable and withstand the elements, but there are limits. Without proper maintenance, metal can deteriorate, causing safety issues. Loose-fill surfacing requires at a minimum weekly maintenance to rake displaced material back into place. Often, this maintenance is neglected and accidents happen. Proper maintenance and routine inspections help protect playground owners from liability.”
And these are kids we're talking about, after all.
“When kids get bored with equipment, they start pushing the boundaries. Climbing on the top of the structure, running down the slid, [sic] and jumping from the top are all tempting activities for an adventurous kid. If the resilient surfacing is not maintained, this can be a dangerous adventure.”
Some equipment isn't as prevalent as it once was. Sandboxes were once found in every playground, but these are falling out of favor because they can't be controlled. Backyard sandboxes, for example, usually have covers to keep out the rain, and to keep sand from being displaced by wind or littered with yard debris. Public sandboxes are rarely covered, and are also at risk of being vandalized or littered with harmful materials, such as cigarette butts or glass, or frequented by animals in the area.
Several factors play into keeping children safe on a personal level:
Rimes says a lack of supervision can be as dangerous as a lack of maintenance. If camp counselors and other assistants are not expected to interact with the children when they are inside the playground, there should be adjacent benches with an unobstructed view.
Selecting a site for a playground near a parking lot is obviously good; however, notes Rimes, “It needs to be a safe enough distance that kids do not wander into the parking area or busy street. Other hazardous areas should be avoided as well, such as open water, steep drops and heavily wooded areas.”
3. The Equipment
Shade should be provided, and the orientation of the playground is important for slides, particularly those made of metal, which need to be pointed north, if not placed in a shaded location. In addition, notes Rimes, “Today, most slides are made of polyethylene or other plastics; however, plastic slides produce a fair amount of static electricity. Kids with cochlear implants cannot use the plastic slides because of the static build-up, so metal slides are important to this population.”
4. Safety From Threats
Protecting kids from predators is a real concern now. Rimes suggests the camp-maintenance crew should cut back overgrowth, including large shrubs and low-hanging trees. Even the playground itself, especially areas like tunnels and playhouses, should be inspected and risks eliminated or minimized, since “some of the very large, older structures have lots of hiding places that make it hard to supervise, and can create hiding places for others.”
The Bottom Line
It's easy to create a wish list for a playground, and to keep adding elements. In reality, though, there are limits to the budget, to the space, and to the square footage of the play area the camp staff can reasonably be expected to supervise.
In camps where park and municipal playgrounds are used, grant funding may be available, and can be used to provide a wider array of equipment. Private camps, however, may not have this option.
Something that might tempt lower-budget operations is the opportunity to create a do-it-yourself playground. While this can save money in the short run, says Norton, it can cause long-term trouble.
“I would advise caution to people who want to build their own playgrounds from scratch,” he notes. “The CPSC handbook is very detailed regarding the design. Playground manufacturers have spent a lot of time designing safe equipment and age-specific components.”
Then there's the question of who's making the decisions -- and what they grew up with, says Rimes.
“So often, it is the adults designing the playgrounds, and they choose the known classics -- slides, climbers and swings. The newer equipment is more compact than traditional [ones] and comes with a greater price tag. With such tight budgets, it seems classics win out.”
In years past, playgrounds were often an afterthought, a haphazard collection of disjointed equipment on the grounds of camps, churches or parks. But with today's improved safety standards, better methods of inspection and designers who specialize in a wide range of needs, playgrounds are serving a wider public than ever before.
They're teaching kids the joy of movement and how to combine that with their own limitless imaginations. And who knows? It might just help them become more interested in remaining active, and even athletic, as they get older.
Mary Helen Sprecher has been a technical writer for more than 20 years with the American Sports Builders Association. She has written on various topics relating to sports-facility design, construction and supply, as well as sports medicine, education, health and industrial issues. She is an avid racquetball and squash player, and a full-time newspaper reporter in Baltimore, Md.