Play It Safe
The Latest Playground Safety Trends
By Chris Gelbach
Playground safety has been a focus of both equipment manufacturers and regulators for decades. Yet injury numbers have changed little in recent years: More than 200,000 children ages 14 and younger visit emergency departments across the United States for playground injuries each year.
Given the nation's population increase, the fact that injury numbers have stayed steady reflects an overall increase in safety, if a marginal one. But many children are still being injured, and the majority in the same way. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, 79 percent of playground injuries are the result of falls.
"One of the lessons that we're learning is that when children are active and aggressively playing, sometimes they fall," said Teri Hendy, a spokesperson for the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association's Voice of Play initiative and president and owner of Site Masters Inc., a design and safety consulting company based in Cincinnati, Ohio. "The surfacing we put under play equipment doesn't really address long-bone fractures, and that's where we see the greatest number of injuries."
Engineered wood fiber has historically been one of the best impact-attenuating surfaces, offering both good protection from serious head injuries and the advantage of displacing when a child falls. "We know that there's a level of protection in the fact that that surfacing moves away from the child's hand as the child is sliding through the wood fiber," Hendy said. "We have not been able to measure the protective characteristic, but we know that we have fewer long-bone fractures on loose surfaces like engineered wood fiber than on a unitary material like a poured-in-place rubber or a tile."
This consideration may be more important for higher pieces of equipment. "It may be more appropriate to put in loose fill when the equipment is higher than six feet, since we find that they don't get as many broken arms at those heights on loose fill as on solid surfacing," said Donna Thompson, Ph.D., executive director of the National Program for Playground Safety.
Loose fill's safety downside is that its protection lasts only as long as the material remains in place. It needs to be raked to remain level and replenished to maintain a safe depth. "People don't always do as good a job as we think they should in terms of keeping it raked and checked on," Thompson said. "So we usually recommend at least 12 inches of loose fill—how much you need depends on the height of the equipment."
IMPACT PROTECTION MEETS ACCESSIBILITY
Another issue with loose fill is that it's only considered accessible if it's drained well, compressed and well-maintained. If those three components of maintenance aren't present, it's no longer accessible.
For accessibility, a beveled edge or a ramp in to the playground area is also a practical necessity with a loose-fill surface. "You can't have a change in elevation greater than half an inch and maintain accessibility," Hendy said. "If you have a 90-degree drop-off into the wood fiber, it's really impossible to maintain it so that it's always within a half an inch of the sidewalk's edge."
As a result, many schools and municipalities are opting for unitary materials such as poured-in-place rubber or tiles, expecting that impact attenuation should stay consistent with less maintenance and that it should maintain its accessibility better. "One of the problems is often that the softer you make it, and more impact-attenuating, then it's no longer wheelchair accessible," Hendy said. "So there's kind of a fine line between maintaining your impact attenuation and your wheelchair accessibility at the same time."
As playground owners and operators struggle to straddle these considerations, many are also turning to hybrid surfaces that include a layer of loose fill material in bags underneath with a tile or carpeted surface on top of it. "Because it's still loose under the top surface, you don't have a hardening over time as the unitary surfaces have," said Ian Proud, market research manager for a Lewisburg, Penn., manufacturer of playground equipment. "The head impact criteria is maintained over time, and you have the kind of access for wheelchairs and mobility devices that you have on the unitary surface. That's the beauty of the hybrid."
Regardless of the surface, proper installation, drainage and maintenance are all critical to ensure the accessibility of any playground. A 2013 longitudinal study of playground surfaces by the National Center on Accessibility that studied engineered wood fiber, crumb rubber, unitary tile and poured-in-place surfaces, and hybrid surfaces found that no type of surface material was better than others in its ability to meet the accessibility standards when issues related to installation and maintenance were considered.
"One of the things they discovered was that a lot of the unitary surfaces were not put in at the correct slope and cross-slope, so they were therefore technically not accessible—even though they had spent thousands and thousands of dollars on this surfacing—because of slope considerations," Hendy said.
Regardless of the many surfacing issues that playground operators can encounter, experts agree that playground surfacing is improving in quality, and that its performance should continue to improve over time.
Spurred in part by the attention the NFL has brought to the topic of traumatic brain injury, Hendy noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is considering reducing its previous threshold for how much impact the brain can absorb by half. "It will have a huge impact on the protective surfacing that we put underneath play equipment, and I think that there's going to be more emphasis in the future on onsite testing of surfacing," she said. "We're seeing surfacing manufacturers making some positive improvements to their surfacing material because they're also very aware of the CDC research, and if they're smart, they'll want to be ahead of the game."
For example, you can find a tile safety surface that goes well beyond the HIC and gMax requirements to provide an even safer-than-expected surface, when installed properly. And some manufacturers, understanding that surfaces can provide varying levels of protection in different situations, provide onsite testing of the installed surface to ensure that it is performing at expected levels.
PLANNING FOR SAFETY
Selecting the appropriate surface is only possible when the equipment and playground layout it accompanies is also taken into account. "When people are verifying or installing a new piece of equipment, the mistake I see is that they don't consult a professional to ask them where to put their equipment or what kind of surfacing to use with the type of equipment they're buying," said John Damyanovich, a Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI) and the owner of Playground Police in Mesa, Ariz.
A variety of programs exist to certify this professional knowledge, including the CPSI Certification from the National Recreation and Park Association (www.nrpa.org) and the Outdoor Play Inspectors Programs from the National Program for Playground Safety (playgroundsafety.org).
Damyanovich recommends bringing in such a consultant at the beginning of the process. "The CPSI should be consulted when you decide you're going to buy a piece of equipment," he said, "so you know that you're buying the right equipment, you're spending the right amount of money in the right areas, you're buying the right surfacing to go with the equipment. It's the totality of the whole playground environment that the CPSI is looking at."
A knowledgeable playground inspector can also help guide you through the process to ensure you're securing the right documentation to protect your organization for liability purposes. "You want to have compliance documents for your swing saying it passed the impact test," said Caroline Smith, playground safety manager for the National Recreation and Park Association. "A lot of people buy equipment and are not even aware of the documentation they should be getting from the manufacturer or the surfacing provider, and that puts you at a disadvantage right off the bat."
When it comes to surfacing, it's important to ensure that the slope of the area is appropriate before construction begins. "The slope is not created by the surfacing supplier but by the person who did the grading and preparation of the area so that surfacing can go down," said Hendy. "So our contractors and owners need to be more aware of the importance of maintaining these slopes when it comes to accessibility."
For this and other reasons, selecting a contractor with a proven track record of playground installations is critical. "If you're just going to hire the cheapest bid, and they've never put in a playground before, they may cause some unintended issues just because they're not aware of the standards and guidelines they need to follow," Damyanovich said.
Smith also recommends that an independent expert be brought in to do a final inspection on the playground, even if your manufacturer or construction contact is also certified. "It's just a safety check," she said. "Instead of completely relying on the people you're paying for the equipment or the installation, I think the better practice is to bring in an independent CPSI to evaluate that equipment at the end."
It's also good to plan for the regular maintenance of the equipment upon purchase, and to buy replacement parts that will be needed over time—particularly since the equipment warranty may be voided if the manufacturer-recommended parts aren't used.
"You want to think ahead to keep certain parts on hand, when you do have equipment with moving parts, you have the parts to replace them," Damyanovich said. "Once you buy it, it's not over with. You have to maintain it, you have to inspect it, you have to keep the life cycle and the functionality of that equipment going."
The inspection plan is something that can also be determined before the playground opens, though it may be modified over time since factors such as the number of users, their age, the age of the equipment, vandalism and the environment can influence how often the equipment needs to be checked.
"They ought to inspect the playground at least once a month if not more frequently if people are using it a lot," Thompson said. "And they certainly ought to do as big an inspection as they can at least once a year."
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRAINING
To help enhance playground safety, a growing variety of training options now exist for those inspecting the playgrounds, as well as those maintaining and supervising them. The National Recreation and Park Association's goal is to train and certify at least one person from every community across the United States to be a Certified Playground Safety Inspector.
The National Program for Playground Safety also emphasizes the need for training of playground supervisors. "They really need to have people taught how to supervise," said Thompson of the National Program for Playground Safety. "We have a program to do that. It's not very expensive, and they can do it online."
The organization offers a similar class for front-line playground maintenance employees, and Clemson University offers a two-day Playground Maintenance Certificate of Completion that can be hosted by any interested agency, organization or group of organizations interested.
Beyond employee training, valuable safety information can be shared with playground patrons via signage.
"You can put some signs out so that people know this area is designed for grades K-1 and supervision is recommended," said Thompson. "You're better off saying recommended than required, particularly in school, because people aren't out there to supervise the kids after school and recommended goes better in court."
Likewise, signage should indicate if certain pieces of equipment will get too hot in the sun and offer the potential for burning. Thompson recommends shade structures in hot climates, as well as the planting of 10- to 12-foot trees on the south and west sides of the playground outside the usage area to help shield the sun.
Signage can also warn against other potential playground hazards, including the danger of drawstrings on children's outerwear, something the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends against because they pose a strangulation hazard. Also to be avoided is the wearing of bicycle helmets on the equipment. Playgrounds are designed based on the child's anthropomorphic dimensions and helmets can create an entrapment hazard.
COUPLING ENGAGEMENT WITH SAFETY
As playground safety evolves and concussion awareness increases, playground manufacturers and consultants are focused on increasing surface quality as opposed to eliminating the risk of falls through less challenging equipment.
"Babies will climb before they can walk, and I think for this reason, if you don't provide challenge to children, they will create their own challenge," Hendy said. "If the climber isn't high enough, kids have the tendency to get to the top of it and try to jump off it. Kids are going to create their own challenge, so we have to be careful in the height that we create things."
How high is too high? "We recommend limiting the height of the equipment to eight feet for school age or six feet for childcare—because there's been research to show that at anything above those heights, kids get hurt twice as bad," Thompson said.
But as new products come out, many are being designed to be even taller. At the same time however, they are being engineered to limit fall heights. For instance, three-dimensional climbing nets are surging in popularity and are now produced by several manufacturers. While some reach 30 feet in height, they're designed so that children can't fall more than six feet on the inside from one layer of net to the next.
"They provide a great measure of safety and an incredible amount of climbing and social interaction," Hendy said. "Plus, kids feel a great sense of accomplishment when they make it all the way to the top of the climber."
Through equipment like these climbers, as well as other playground innovations such as zip-line-inspired attractions, combination swings that require children to work together and new electronic play equipment options, equipment manufacturers are striving to create greater engagement with children without compromising safety.
"We're competing against screens of all kinds, and the conventional wisdom is that the age group we can successfully appeal to has declined," Proud said. "We've got to move that dial back up. We've got to have greater engagement and do that without endangering children and to break that perceived correlation between safety and perceived boredom."
As Proud noted, childhood opportunities for free play have declined since the 1950s. The number of activities that children can do on their own that are perceived as safe has declined, and parents are starting their children in sports programs earlier.
"I would argue that sports are not a replacement for free play because the child is not determining how, when, why and what they do—it's being determined by an adult," Proud said. "The child is not growing in understanding their limits and understanding what risk is and what their own limits are when a parent is directing them."
As playground equipment manufacturers innovate with more new and different products to spur child engagement, approaches to playground safety are shifting in tandem.
"In the past, the standards were written to say, this is what a swing should have, or this is what a slide guideline should look like," Smith said. "Now, we're heading to a more hazard-based safety view of things. We do this now, but it will be more important moving on. You'll be looking for neck entrapments, head entrapments, entanglements, sharp edges. As the equipment designs grow and change over time, it's too hard to continually define every piece of playground equipment. You have to take a different approach when you look at safety."
This hazard-based approach is particularly important in evaluating natural play areas. "I'm seeing a lot of natural play areas being created with very high structures that are created out of natural materials," Hendy said. "And because it's a natural rock or a giant log, the owner doesn't think they have to put surfacing around it."
Operators creating natural areas for active play should still take the same diligence in evaluating the area for hazards as they would in a traditional playground.
As playground manufacturers and operators try new approaches, they agree on one thing: Safety and engagement can go together. "We can introduce challenge and maintain safety at the same time," Proud said. "To do that, though, we have to rethink some of the assumptions about what a playground is. This is an inflection point where we can do that for outdoor play."
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