Planning and Safety Basics
The ideal playground provides a carefree experience of learning, social interaction and fun. In order to fully realize that goal, your playspace needs to provide a safe play experience, in a safe environment, that is accessible to all children, regardless of their physical ability. And that's why the Safety Team, though perhaps unglamorous, is one of the most important planning teams and the one with the longest-lasting impact.
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Every year in America, more than 200,000 children visit the emergency room because of playground injuries. Countless other children are discouraged from playing because there's an obstacle at the playspace entrance, because they can't travel over the type of surfacing used, or because there are no play activities at ground level. Using certified equipment and proper safety surfacing helps prevent playground injuries while also ensuring full access for children with disabilities. And remember, an accessible playground is also open to grandparents and elderly guardians who might use walkers or canes. Intergenerational contact can enhance the social benefits of your playspace, while encouraging a safe environment.
What safety standards are there for playgrounds?
Some states have passed laws for playground safety; be sure to check with your state or local parks and recreation department to find out about laws in your area.
For those states without specific mandates, there are three important sets of guidelines and standards that ensure that your playground is safe for children. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has a set of standards that are updated every couple of years. The CPSC also issues product recalls and warnings on their website. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), which works to standardize the quality of materials used in manufacturing, has also issued a set of standards (ASTM F1487-95) for playgrounds. Finally, there is a standard for accessibility that comes from the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) that ensures that children of all abilities can have the opportunity to play. The CPSC and ASTM guidelines are not a legal requirements except in some states, but ADA is a law that all public playgrounds must adhere to. Even though they're not laws, ensuring that your playspace conforms to CPSC and ASTM guidelines can significantly reduce your liability.
Sound complicated? Don't panic! You don't need to know all the ins and outs of playground safety in order to make sound decisions about your playground. The International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) provides third-party certification of manufactured equipment and safety surfacing, verifying that all CPSC and ASTM standards have been met. Look for the IPEMA seal before you buy.
For communities choosing to build their own playspaces, project leaders must have a thorough knowledge of guidelines from the CPSC, ASTM, and the ADA. A certified safety inspector (CPSI) also must inspect the playspace before it is opened. For these reasons, most communities using the KaBOOM! model choose to work with professional playspace manufacturers whose products are already safety-certified and ADA compliant.
Alternatively, there are designers for hire who will work with community-build volunteers to create a unique playspace using local materials. Although this method can incur additional costs, it will help you resolve safety and liability issues. Architecture firms such as Leathers & Associates can be found online or through the Community-Built Association. For a model of safe "natural" playspaces that incorporate hills, boulders and other natural features, try Natural Playgrounds.
Since approximately 80 percent of all playground injuries are caused by falls onto unsafe surfacing, protective surfacing is the most critical safety factor on playgrounds. Hard surfaces such as asphalt, concrete, dirt, and grass are unacceptable because they have poor shock-absorbing characteristics. A fall onto these hard surfaces could be life threatening.
There are several synthetic and natural materials that offer adequate protection from falls. Acceptable surfaces include sand, pea gravel, mulch, engineered wood fiber, synthetic rubber mats and poured-in-place rubberized surfaces. Keep in mind that although the following surfaces are all recommended for safety purposes, only certain types of engineered wood fiber and rubberized surfaces are fully accessible to people using wheelchairs. Learn more about pro's and con's with this table.
Choose your equipment manufacturer and surfacing supplier
Find a list of the play equipment companies and surfacing suppliers that seem to be a good fit with your community's needs. (The searchable KaBOOM! Vendor Directory is here.) Schedule phone interviews with their representatives, and tell them you're gathering information for a community build; many companies have extensive experience with this sort of process. Be sure to consider the level and quality of service that representatives offer ― design experts and installers can be a great resource. Consider having a few candidates give presentations in front of your committee, and be sure to go over the terms of your contract as well as your project timeline before you make a final decision. Don't be afraid to take your time and ask questions. Company representatives should be readily available and eager to help!
Depth and placement of surfacing
Once your planning committee has chosen equipment and surfacing vendors, they will work with you to meet your surfacing needs. Basically, safety surfacing needs to extend to wherever a child might jump or fall from equipment (known as the "use zone"). Each specific play component has a standard use-zone measurement; for example, the use zone extends at least six feet in all directions from the edge of any stationary playground component. For swings, it extends in front and back to twice the height of the suspending bar. The entire use zone must be free of other equipment, obstacles or natural objects (such as roots and tree branches) onto which a child might fall, and covered with impact attenuating safety surfacing. Refer to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) guidelines for complete information on your playground components.
The depth of surfacing required will depend upon the type of surfacing you use (e.g. rubber mulch provides twice as much impact absorption as sand) as well as how high your equipment is. For loose-fill surfacing materials, generally 12 inches of mulch, pea gravel, sand or engineered wood fiber is recommended for the proper impact attenuation. Talk to your equipment and surfacing vendors to find out about your playspace's needs! And remember that over time, most types of surfacing compress, making falls more dangerous. Periodic replenishment of surfacing needs to be factored into your long-term playspace budget.
Safe equipment will save your money as well as your children! Equipment that carries third-party safety certification (from the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association - IPEMA) will generate lower insurance costs and probably require less maintenance over time. In general, there are four hazards to watch out for:
Protrusions and entanglements:
Pieces that stick out and could cut or wound a falling child are called protrusions. Pieces that might catch drawstrings and/or clothing are entanglements. Examples include: bolts that extend beyond the nut more than two threads, hardware that forms a hook, hardware that leaves a gap between components and open "S" hooks.
This refers to any opening that is large enough for a child's body, but not his or her head, to pass through. No space on a playground (including spaces between guard rails and ladder rungs) should measure between 3.5 and nine inches.
Pinch, crush, sharp and shearing edges:
Sharp and shearing edges may cut or puncture the skin. Moving components and hardware (on suspension bridges, seesaws, swings, etc.) should be checked for places where a child's finger might be pinched or crushed.
Accidental fall hazards:
Elevated surfaces above a certain height should always have guardrails or enclosures. For preschool children, that height is 20 inches; for older children, 30 inches.
Source: Consumer Product Safety Commission
Tip: You don't need to choose between fun and safety! Remember that children should be challenged to push their limits and learn new skills while they play. Therefore, it's impossible (and even counterproductive) to eliminate every potential form of risk. When designing your playspace, first choose the play activities that will benefit children the most, and then make those activities safe with proper surfacing and certified equipment.
Dealing with old equipment
For many communities, the driving force behind a playspace project is the need to replace old, unsafe equipment. Whenever possible, you should consult with professionals to determine how much, if any, of your existing equipment needs to be fixed or removed. One option is to hire a Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI) to perform an official safety audit. Your local Parks and Recreation department, local insurance carriers, and the National Recreation and Park Association can generally provide a list of CPSIs in your area.
Once you have had your existing equipment inspected, you have several options:
Keep it if the equipment meets all safety and accessibility guidelines.
Renovate it if you can eliminate safety hazards or barriers to accessibility without making structural changes to the equipment. Remember that altering equipment may destabilize the entire structure, and if done without the manufacturer's consent, it may also void the warranty.
Move it if its current location presents a safety hazard.
Remove it completely if repairs cannot be made to improve safety and accessibility, or if it doesn't conform to current safety standards.
Signs, signs, everywhere a sign!
Signs are an important but frequently overlooked aspect of playspace safety. After all, what happens when you and your Safety Team aren't around to field questions and monitor the playspace? We recommend installing a permanent, eye-catching sign that displays the age-appropriateness of the equipment, playspace usage rules, hours that the playspace is open, the importance of adult supervision, and where to report equipment damage or misuse. You may also want to acknowledge major donors, or commemorate a person's memory.
Keep in mind that a playspace sign must be geared toward every possible user. Considerations include: making the letters big enough to read easily, adding other languages spoken in your community, and including simple graphics for non-readers.
Choose bright colors, and position the sign in a prominent location, either at the entrance to the playspace or on the equipment itself. Signs are generally inexpensive and easily customized; if you don't have a local signmaker, order a sign from your play equipment company or ask them for a reference.
Accessibility guidelines: Safe and equal play for all
Defend every child's right to play! No child should be denied access to a safe play experience simply because of a disability. Whether you are building a playground, skatepark or other recreation area, you should become familiar with the guidelines established by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. This act is relevant for playspaces that are owned and operated not only by parks and schools, but also by non-profit organizations, clubs, private businesses, restaurants and most childcare centers. For a full report, go online or contact the Access Board at (202) 272-0080. In addition, some states have accessibility laws that are more stringent than the current ADA, so be sure to verify your state's requirements.
Despite some public perceptions, designing an accessible playspace is neither difficult nor costly. It just requires some forethought and planning. The first thing to remember is that not all children with a disability use wheelchairs. Children cope with a variety of disabilities that affect the way they play, including visual, hearing, developmental, emotional and social impairments. In order to facilitate safe play for these children, you may want to investigate special types of play activities that stimulate hearing, touch and social cooperation; you may also consider creating a position for a volunteer moderator and/or mentor on the playground.
For those children who do use wheelchairs, ensuring safety and accessibility simply requires the incorporation of a few basic design elements; you can work with your play equipment designer to meet federal guidelines.
Why protect against the sun?
When most people think of playspace health hazards, they probably think of bullies, scraped knees, or hurt feelings. But the most prevalent and perhaps the most dangerous hazard – sun exposure – is often ignored. The sun is the primary cause of all forms of skin cancer, and it also contributes to premature aging. We can't achieve the goal of "healthy outdoor play opportunities" without sun protection! Many playground equipment manufacturers offer shade products; or search KaBOOM! DIY projects for wood construction plans that you can use to build a shade structure on your Build Day(s)!
What kind of damage does sun exposure cause?
Part of the sun's energy reaches us as rays of invisible ultraviolet (UV) light. When UV rays enter the skin, they damage the skin cells, causing visible and invisible injuries. Sunburn and tanning, the same visible type of damage, appear just a few hours after sun exposure. Invisible damage, on the other hand, accumulates year after year. Eventually, it will appear as wrinkles, age spots, and even skin cancer.
When should sun protection begin?
Sun protection should begin in infancy and continue throughout life. It is estimated that children get 80 percent of their total lifetime sun exposure by the time they turn 18. The earlier parents incorporate sun protection into their children's daily activities, the lower their lifetime risk will be for developing skin cancer, including melanoma.
How can I protect my children from the sun?
Begin now to teach your children to follow the ABCs for FUN in the SUN.
- AWAY: Stay away from the sun in the middle of the day.
- BLOCK: Use SPF 15 or higher sunscreen.
- COVER UP: Wear a t-shirt and a hat.
- SPEAK OUT: Talk to family and friends about sun protection.
How can we make our community playspace sun-safe?
You can begin by choosing a site with plenty of natural shade. If you live in a region or neighborhood with few trees and lots of sun exposure, select equipment that has a built-in "roof" over open platforms. You can also build permanent or semi-permanent shade structures to shield the entire play structure; these should be seven feet above the highest point of the structure. Don't forget about gazebos or awnings for adult supervisors!
Information from the American Academy of Dermatology