It’s a tough balance to strike: kids want to have fun at the playground, but they must be safe. It takes a lot of planning and care to pass playground safety standards. For a while, playgrounds were fairly basic and lackluster because the American Society for Testing and Materials and Canadian Standard Association standards became more difficult to meet.
But now the face of park playgrounds is evolving as designers are developing innovative ways of meeting safety standards and maintaining play-value.
The Safety Obsession
Initially, a growing focus on safety risked compromising the very purpose of playgrounds. Teresa Hendy, a board member with the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association and president of Site Masters Inc., noted that “every play area has risk, and in an all-out-effort to eradicate it, play equipment and designs had become dumbed-down and boring.”
It’s true that playground safety has come a long way. Once upon a time, low-equipment transparency and shallow levels of loose-fill surfacing were the norm. Still, the growing concern with playground safety risked taking the spirit out of playgrounds. Some parents still outfit their children in helmets, and, of course, recreation directors want to keep their grounds as child-safe and secure as possible. Better safe than sorry, right?
The irony is that the obsession with safety has in some cases been a liability. On at least two occasions, the helmets parents used to protect their children on the playground ended up strangling them (please note that the Consumer Product Safety Commission has since formally advised that helmets should never be worn on playgrounds).
No wonder playground-safety regulations have grown more stringent over time. But while designers were scrambling to meet strict CPSC regulations--decreasing fall height, increasing accessibility, eliminating the potential for clothing entrapment, and removing the potential for limb entrapment--play-value was taking a nosedive.
Making Playgrounds Fun Again
Designers go about it in different ways, but one thing is for sure--play-value no longer needs to be sacrificed for safety.
There are several particular methods that are injecting fun back into playgrounds:
Playground equipment designers have picked up on a new trend--movement. The industry has developed movement-based designs that protect against falls and accidents. Internal rotating mechanisms and controlled fall, as well as the creation of stable and predictable movement patterns, make it possible for kids to interact with equipment safely. Now, not only do you see the usual movement of a swing set in a playground, but creative new ideas are integrating movement into traditionally static designs--climbing nets are mounted on rotating platforms, bouncing mats are integrated into surfacing, and generally dynamic concepts are incorporated into play structures wherever possible.
The engineering principles behind safe movement-based play structures have been groundbreaking. Given that swing sets were one of the primary causes of playground injury, according to 2001 CPSC statistics, the ability to create secure movement engineering is working wonders to reaffirm safety. Swing sets are now designed to limit lateral movement and have proven far more secure.
Multi-user play structures are popping up everywhere in playgrounds, and the concept can be incorporated into almost any play structure. Multi-user swings, slides, nets and climbing structures tend to be more spacious and stable for kids. Plus, kids absolutely love them! The advantage is two-fold, as the extra room afforded by multi-user equipment also accommodates the increasing population of obese children. Also, the premise is simple, and it encourages kids to interact and develop their social skills and teamwork.
The trouble with climbing nets has always been fall height. In fact, the CPSC estimates that falls account for at least three-quarters of playground injuries. Modern climbing-net designs protect against falls by using a widening structure for support, and significantly decrease fall height. If a child loses his or her grip at the top of the net, the child will be supported by the surrounding net layers and regain balance without further incident. Limiting the size of underlying net openings ensures that kids are safe, no matter how high they climb.
Use Of Electronics
Electronic components are increasingly common in playgrounds. Electronics offer a simple, safe way to stimulate children based on the same kind of incentives we find in computers. This is not one of my favorite trends, however, as it relies heavily on technological components; I’m an advocate of more natural forms of play that stimulate movement.
Surfacing is an extremely important part of playground safety. Early playgrounds had shallow, low-quality surfacing. When kids fell to the ground, there was little impact absorption to protect against injury. Today, surfacing features deep impact-absorbing layers. Different solutions--from loose fill to rubber to synthetic turf--have come to focus on impact absorption as the main safety goal. The result is taller playground equipment with better protection.
Surfacing design also has become integrated into playground fun. Hopscotch, race-car tracks, tic-tac-toe and other creative designs are now embedded in the ground at children’s feet. Surfacing has been a fundamental factor in transforming playgrounds into both safe and fun places for children.
Add-On Play Structures
Recently, add-on play structures have become increasingly popular as designers have learned to safely map playgrounds within confined spaces. This is in large part because breakthroughs in movement engineering have allowed designers to predict the pattern of falls in more controlled ways. In the past, a child could fall from a swing and hit his or her head on a nearby steel structure. Now, a better understanding of movement-based dynamics has virtually eliminated this possibility.
In addition to increased safety, add-on play structures also offer financial benefits in this down economy. Park and recreation directors can choose to finance a single, elaborate play structure, and gradually invest in add-ons over time. Add-ons are great for kids because they diversify the stimulation they get on the playground. Different structures can offer varied play options, like rocking, turning, or swinging. They also allow for different groups to play in different areas, creating space for more children.
It’s been great to see the face of playgrounds changing as designers wake up to play-value. After all, playground design should be about thinking outside the box. People in the industry are realizing that safety is not the only part of playground design and that creative solutions can breed fun and secure play structures for children.
Keep an eye out--I think we’ll be seeing more innovations in the years to come, and more “play” in the playground.
Serge Morin is an award-winning industrial designer. He has patented several playground product designs, and is president of ElephantPlay, Inc., a playground-equipment company focused on innovation and safety. With over 15 years of experience in the playground industry, Serge continues to develop safe and fun play structure designs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org