Back when most of us were little kids, playground equipment largely consisted of a swing-set here, some teeter-totters there, a merry-go-round, a metal slide (which was often scorching hot—and unusable—in the summer sun), some monkey bars, a few basketball hoops and perhaps a tetherball pole.
Unfortunately, what was fun for us at the time was also pretty dangerous. Children often fell off the teeter-totters, slides and monkey bars onto painful asphalt or concrete surfaces, jacket strings got entangled on slides and merry-go-rounds causing serious injuries (and worse), children regularly got their heads stuck between poles and bars, and rough metal edges and surfaces led to many scrapes and burns.
New Rules Prompt New Designs
As a result of all this carnage and mayhem, in 1981 the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) published their Handbook for Public Playground Safety, which was designed to provide guidelines for efforts aimed at making playgrounds safer. The handbook was definitely a step in the right direction, according to Tom Norquist of ASTM International, a voluntary standards development organization for technical standards. But, "the guidelines failed to include adequate technical requirements needed for a testable standard; subsequently, inconsistent interpretations of the guidelines occurred," he says.
According to Norquist, a new approach to playground safety was put into place in order to avoid further misinterpretations and to include requirements set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As a result, the ASTM and the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) have worked together over the years to constantly improve and monitor these standards.
Since then, the new standards—coupled with stiff competition among playground manufacturers—have lead to the creation of colorful, interactive, and even themed play structures that are not just safer than previous equipment, but which provide a ton of fun for both parents and children alike. If your building is lacking a great playground, or if the equipment you have is outdated or beginning to show its age, investing in a new play area is not only good for the kids, it may be a boon for the community and the association's bottom line.
Building Community Through Play
Play areas bring a sense of community to an association, says Eric Severance, marketing manager for Little Tikes Commercial, a play equipment designer and manufacturer based in Farmington, Missouri. "And an amenity will boost value," Severance says. "Even if you can go into a site and just pull out the old and put in the new, it's an equal trade off and improves the site, increasing the property value."
Every year, the playground industry introduces new and updated products to the market that allow children to twist and turn through tunnels, climb rock walls, make their way over shaky bridges, race down hilly slides, walk a tightrope over an imaginary ocean, push buttons, pull levers, and much more. What hasn't changed over the years is that kids still like to climb, slide, swing and bounce, but on today's equipment they typically will do that on one giant playground unit instead of several small structures scattered throughout the playground.
"You can afford more play components—climbers and slides and different activities—when they are attached to the same post system," says Andy Kush, sales manager for General Recreation Inc. in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. "The other slides, and so forth take up too much space."
To determine what your association needs and wants, Kevin Cook, director of sales and marketing with Playworld Systems in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, suggests asking a few basic questions.
"You have to ask, 'What is the play value of the playground?'" he says. "Is it a place that will be for all ages? Do you need benches to have everyone sit and be part of the environment? Is it for structured learning?"
Then, Cook recommends gathering information from various playground manufacturers on what's available, and visiting other similar associations to see what types of equipment they have. Once you've determined what type of structure will benefit your own association, says Cook, it's time to think about more specifics like equipment, surfacing materials, installation and cost.
Play equipment has come a very long way since the dark days of white-hot metal slides and rusty swing-sets. Today's equipment can be customized to reflect just about any theme or fantasy an association can dream up. "Let's say your association name is 'Mallard Point,'" says Cook. "We can create custom graphics—even a pond scene—and customize the entire structure to your theme."
At the higher end of the playground spectrum, Cook explains that associations can create full parks. "This includes skate parks, rock climbing areas, climbing boulders, life trails for everyone that augments the walking experience," he says. "You can create a play area for all ages, everyone and their interests."
And that means designing for the way kids play today, which by most accounts is more inspired by activities like rock climbing and skateboarding than the old standbys like tag and capture-the-flag. Twenty-first century play equipment might include something like the Nexus System from European company SMP Playgrounds, which includes everything from undulating steel curves for climbing and swinging to a suspended "snowboard" structure that lets kids replicate the action of swooshing down a snowy hill—without the attendant risk to life and limb. Still other companies design and build zip-lines, climbing walls and rope courses that make yesterday's teeter-totters seem quaint.
For smaller kids, there are sprawling playsets cast in brightly-colored, heavy-duty, reinforced plastics that allow for gently curved edges that take some of the "ouch" out of playtime. For an earthier aesthetic, companies like Homeplace Structures, based in Kinzer, Pennsylvania specialize in handcrafted wooden towers, lofts and bridges that look and feel like something out of the Swiss Family Robinson.
Though plastics and wood are becoming more and more common in this latest generation of play structures, the steel skeleton is still the fundamental component of play structures meant for the public or semi-public. "Some associations don't want plastic because it can be vandalized," says Severance, "so they will still build a structure out of steel."
But what about those nasty welts from sliding down a scorching slide in August? "Everything with the exception of a slide is painted with a polyester coating that cools the temperature down considerably," says Severance, "but stainless steel slides will still heat up."
To help reduce the chance for burns and dangerous ultraviolet sunlight rays on children from any product, shade canopies can be set up over slides and other highly reflective surfaces. Putting a cover on the top of a small climbing structure helps a lot—or better yet, a whole playground can be designed to include shade structures throughout.
Protecting from Falls
Each year in the United States, emergency departments treat more than 200,000 children ages 14 and younger for playground-related injuries—most of which occur from falls and jumps, so what children land on is extremely important when building a play area.
The CPSC says that hard surfacing materials such as asphalt or concrete are unsuitable for use under and around playground equipment of any height unless they are required as a base for a shock absorbing unitary material, such as a rubber mat. Earth surfaces like sand and hard-packed dirt are also not recommended because they have poor shock absorbing properties. Similarly, grass and turf are not recommended because wear and environmental conditions can reduce their effectiveness in absorbing shock during a fall.
"Choosing material density is based on the height of the playground," says Cook.
The Cost of Fun
Several factors go into determining the cost of a new playground—whether or not the playground is new or is a replacement for an older unit, the size of the site, how many children the structure must hold, the association's budget, the surfacing material and whether or not the manufacturer also installs the equipment. In some communities, a landscape architect may be called in, at a fee, to design the play structure and make recommendations to the homeowners associations.
"Today, it's more cost-effective to build one structure than separating it and buying different structures," says Severance, "because the surfacing material is the key driver in cost. The more independent structures you have, the more surfacing material you are going to need."
Typically, these experts agree you're looking at approximately $1,000 per child, but, says Kush, "Every manufacturer has different criteria they use," so prices can vary.
Manufacturers can install the playground equipment, but to reduce cost, associations have the option to do-it-themselves as a group project.
"We do about 100 community builds per year where an HOA will participate and we supervise," says Severance. "This provides a community feel, and lowers the cost of installation."
However, if the association decides on a community build, be careful about liability factors. "Some associations won't do these builds because they don't want the liability with the installation," says Severance. "If something happens and we did the build, the liability is with us."
Taking care of the equipment is just as important as picking the right kind of equipment, Severance continues. "Every manufacturer has companies that they can use to do safety checks once the equipment is installed. If there is a problem, the selling agency can be called in to fix the problem. Oftentimes, we will make adjustments if those are necessary."
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about purchasing playground equipment is, "Play is about more than running around. It's about wellness, whole body fitness, socialization and emotional wellness, and play provides an environment for unstructured learning," says Cook. "Play is for all ages and it's about fun."
Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer living in Poughkeepsie, New York and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.