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Playground Lessons

July 13, 2015

caution tape across a playground

The most vivid memory of my childhood occurred late one warm afternoon at our neighborhood playground. This particular playground was not unlike many of the day with little more than a wooden structure connecting a slide, a tunnel and a set of monkey bars, sitting a top of an unkempt sand base filled with ruts and weeds.  


Becoming a little bored with the usual playground antics, I suggested a game of freeze tag. After all I was the fastest, most agile kid in the neighborhood so I was anticipating tasting the spoils of victory. As the game got underway I saw my friend Christina approaching me full speed from the corner of my eye. Having to make a split second decision in order to avoid being caught, I made an evasive slide that any ball player rounding third would be envious of.  I was safe, but that fleeting feeling of victory suddenly became the least of my concerns.  In my haphazard attempt to avoid capture I had slid, with full force and weight, directly onto a sharp and rusty piece of rod iron that was being used to secure the wood curb around the playground.


What ensued was nothing short of carnage. The rusty old iron re-rod penetrated the back of my thigh to the full 4 inch depth. I must say that the 5 minute bike ride home, peddling with only one leg, felt more like an endless trek across the country.  


Life in those days was simpler and after a visit to the emergency room for a tetanus shot and more stitches than I care to remember, the next order of business was a call from my father to the township to ask them to repair the protruding iron rod which they promptly did.  No investigation, no finger pointing, no law suits.  Just a simple request to fix the problem.


Since that time I hadn't really given much thought to playgrounds and how they have changed over the years until recently being charged with researching playground options for our schools PTA.  My first thought as I began the process was that the term "they don't make’em like they used to" has taken on a whole new meaning"!


I am not sure if the vast changes in todays playgrounds are the result of a more litigious society or rather a conscious effort of the part of manufacturers to take a more calculated approach to early childhood development.  Whatever the reason the playgrounds of yesteryear bear virtually no resemblance to the options available for todays children.


With our new playground complete, thought I would share with you a few of the lessons we learned along they way.



Design Safety from the ground up:  The most exciting aspect of our playground project was selecting equipment.  The choices were vast, fun, exciting and challenging but, with challenge come risk. The old adage “the higher they are the harder they fall” would seem particularly fitting in the playground setting. In fact we learned that over 70 percent of all playground accidents are the result of falls to the surface.  


Armed with this information, much of our focus was on playground surfacing and we were surprised to discover that the options were almost as plentiful as the equipment designs themselves. 


Loose-fill materials like rubber mulch are surfacing favorites because of their excellent shock-absorbing properties. Most shredded rubber comes from used tires and is a great choice if you want to use recycled products in your playground environment. 


Unitary playground surfaces are smooth, seamless surfaces that come with a higher upfront cost but less overall maintenance.


 We elected to use rubber mulch in our design due to the safety ratings, lower cost structure and because we were able to install it ourselves.


Know your user groups and design age appropriate equipment: In the world of playground design one size does not fit all, as manufacturers design different playground structures specifically tailored to the developmental stages of each age category.. Since our playground is open to the public after school hours and on the weekends we also looked at other potential users of the playground and made sure we had easy access, resting areas and plenty of shade for caregivers.


Create a realistic budget.  Playgrounds can represent a significant investment ranging from $30,000 on the low side up to several hundred thousand dollars depending on how large and elaborately themed the structure is.  By determining the approximate number of users that will be on the playground and allotting approximately $1000.00 per user you can come with a reasonable budget number.


Look for IPEMA certified equipment.  IPEMA is a third party organization that provides product certification to manufacturers of playground equipment and surfacing.  By looking for their seal of approval you can help ensure that your equipment meets the highest safety standards.


Involve the kids in the design process:  Our research showed that a playground tends to be more functional and popular when the children are involved in the selection process.  Although this seems obvious, we learned that play features that seem really exciting to an adult may get little use from the kids.  By having kids in the community become part of the process you end up with more creativity, a higher usage rate and less potential for vandalism because with involvement comes a sense of ownership.


Most importantly have fun.  From conception, to budgeting, fundraising and finally ribbon cutting, designing a playground is no small task.  The process can be daunting and wrought with unexpected surprises and setbacks.  During this process keep the end goal in mind and enjoy the process knowing that you are creating lasting memories not only for this generation but future generations as well.