The Play's the thing Everything You Need to Know About Playground Equipment

The Play's the thing

 Back in the day when most of us were little kids, playgrounds largely consisted  of swing-sets, teeter-totters, some monkey bars, and maybe a metal slide or  two, along with the requisite basketball hoops and tetherball set-up.  

 Since then, playground equipment has come a very long way—gone are the colorless pieces of welded metal set up in merciless black asphalt.  Kids today get to play on all kinds of cool, interactive equipment, and if they  happen to take a spill, chances are their fall will be broken by several inches  of industrial-grade foam padding instead of concrete or pea-gravel.  

 Swing Shift

 Starting in the 1980s, playground equipment began to shift away from plain metal  and asphalt to the more colorful, user-friendly options you see on the market  today.  

 “The play equipment we grew up on (50 and older) started to be phased out when ‘Play Structures’ were developed in the mid-1980s,” says George J. Herberger, CPSI, the vice president of Ben Shaffer & Associates, a Lake Hopatcong-based company that represents manufacturers of  park and playground equipment. “Asphalt surfacing was phased out in the early 1990s due to falls on the surface  being the most common cause of injuries on playgrounds, approximately 70  percent.”  

 Industry experts say that the concept of continuous play, plus advances in  materials and technology in the 1980s and 1990s led to a huge expansion in  opportunities for commercial playground equipment. Another major change  occurred in 1981 when, in light of numerous playground injuries such as  children falling off of teeter-totters, slides and monkey bars, led the  Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to publish the first Handbook for Public Playground Safety, which was designed to provide guidelines for making playgrounds safer.  

 The Handbook remained largely the same until 2008, when the CPSC made several  significant revisions. Age ranges were expanded to include children as young as  six months, guidelines for track rides and log rolls were added, the critical  height table revised and suggestions for surfacing over asphalt were added.  

 Another modification in playground construction occurred as a result of changes  to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the ability for children with  special needs to play alongside children without disabilities.  

 “The original ADA standards went into effect in 1992 and were recently revised  after 20 years,” says Kenneth Otten, a nationally recognized accessibility and ADA expert. “There were no specific requirements for playground equipment in the original  version of the ASA Accessibility Guidelines for buildings and facilities. The  only requirement was that an accessible route had to be provided to the  boundary of the play area.”  

 Otten says that after much study, the Access Board incorporated new requirements  for playground surfaces and equipment which became mandatory on March 15, 2012.    

 “Homeowners associations should be able to rely on the manufacturer's statement  that their equipment complies with the new ADA standards,” says Otten. “However, it is best practice to consult with a local design professional and an  ADA compliance specialist before designing a new playground, upgrading an older  one and purchasing equipment.  

 Otten says there are other factors, in addition to the actual equipment, that  must be considered, including the number and types of elevated and ground-level  features, surface material under and on the route to the equipment (because  surface material must meet both safety and accessibility requirements), and  routes of travel to the playground area.  

 “Surfaces under playground equipment must meet safety requirements so that when a  child falls, they fall on soft and safe material,” says Otten. “At the same time, the surface must also meet the requirements of the ADA to  ensure that a wheelchair can successfully navigate to and between equipment.  There are specialized materials that accomplish this; however they tend to be  quite expensive.”  

 Most Popular

 Each year the playground industry rolls out new and updated products to the  marketplace that that allow children to twist and spin through tunnels, race  down hilly slides, or even walk a tightrope. What hasn’t changed is that kids love to climb, swing, slide and bounce.  

 “The most popular playground items are broken down into climbers, overhead events  and panels,” says Richard N. Hagelberg, CEO of the Gary, Indiana-based company Kidstuff  Playsystems, which services numerous playgrounds throughout New Jersey. “It sort of depends on early childhood. Some people are very conservative in  terms of what they’ll let their kids do. For example, there are a lot of climbers and over-headers  but most pre-schools don’t want to have climbers because they are afraid the kids are going to fall and  they are very protective of kids at that age. That’s less the case in elementary schools.”  

 Equipping a playground for the youngest common denominator isn't always the best  route however, Hagelberg continues. “Kids need opportunities to be challenged, and sometimes they're missing out on  the opportunity to do that if the equipment is scaled down to the point where  it’s safe for two-year-olds - then a three-, four- or five-year-old is not going to  be challenged. Parents need to give kids a chance to skin their knees. That’s how they learn things.”  

 “Swing and slides are always popular but climbing is becoming a lot more popular  with kids—  

 climbing in the physical sense, challenge activities and obstacle course style  activities are also extremely popular,” adds Dave Ely, vice president of George Ely Associates Inc., a company with  offices in Swedesboro and Oakland that represents athletic, playground and  skate park equipment. “Rock walls are a part of the whole climbing phenomenon that’s happening. Some of it is cable or wire rope-type of climbing. Some of it is  non-linear type of climbing.”  

 Playing Safe

 Industry experts agree that safety standards for playground equipment have  radically changed over the past two decades.  

 “The Consumer Product Safety Commission’s first guidelines came out in 1981 and have been revised repeatedly over the  years. This publication changed the play industry,” says Herberger. “New Jersey has incorporated this guideline into the NJ Uniform Construction Code  via Public Law 1999 Chapter 50. Also the ASTM Standard #1487 is used by  manufacturers to insure safe equipment is developed and tested. Many standards  apply to playgrounds these days, equipment, surfacing, ADA access and fencing  standards, to name a few.”  

 Several playground manufacturers believe that today’s safety standards have become so rigid that it actually impacts the design. “From a guideline and safety standpoint we’ve swung in such a direction that as manufacturers and designers we are  pigeon-holed into designing certain ways because of the guidelines that there  are no risks and challenges,” says Michael L. Parody, CPSI, who is the president of Massachusetts-based  UltiPlay Parks & Playgrounds. “You want a playground that provides challenges and risks that will stretch your  mental and physical capabilities. People will realize you can’t bubble wrap your kids and that it’s good to skin your knee every once in a while.”  

 Community Through Play

 Playgrounds bring a sense of community to an association or HOA, and are a  popular amenity that will boost property value and attract families. With this  in mind, there are various ways for a community to go about choosing what  equipment and vendors are the right fits for them.  

 “Contacting a playground company and having one of their local representatives  come out and assess their needs is the first step a condo or co-op community  should take if they are thinking about installing playground equipment,” says Ely. “They should also establish a budget and sometimes that can be difficult. Being  aware of how much space they have is key because of the safety guidelines. We  need to know what space they have to allow for the play equipment.”  

 Hagelberg agrees and says getting in touch with a playground distributor is the  first step. “We would need to know what age group they are aiming this toward. Typically,  there are playschool playgrounds for two- to five-year-olds and playgrounds for  five-year-olds to 12-year-olds. We could do a playground for two-year-olds to  12-year-olds but that would take away the challenge for the older kids.”  

 All experts agreed that there are numerous benefits for a community playground.  

 “The HOA market is a competitive market so providing an inviting place to play is  an advantage over other HOAs that don’t have such an area,” says Herberger. “Play is essential in providing well-balanced child development. Children using a  playground have better social skills than children growing up without such  areas to play in. Playgrounds in themselves become a social activity, providing  members with a meeting place to learn about each other and make new friends.”   

 Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The  Cooperator. Staff writer Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this article.  


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