The Play's the Thing Modern Playground Equipment Adds Value — and Fun

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

 A couple of decades ago, playground equipment all looked pretty much the same  and posed the same safety risks for the kids using it. However, that all began  to change about 25 years ago.  

 “The options for playground equipment have expanded greatly,” Moira Staggs, a sales representative for NuToys Leisure Products in LaGrange,  says. “There are all kinds of different play apparatuses available now and you have a  huge range of things to do on a playground. Whereas 25 years ago you might have  had a bridge or two, now you’ve got 20 to choose from. The range of challenge out there has expanded with the  use of all different kinds of materials—nets, rocks, piping, rotomolded plastic, there’s just an incredible amount of ways to design the systems and also different  kinds of things for kids to do with their bodies, like spinning, bouncing,  there’s rides.”  

 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 Chicagoland. “It sort of depends on early childhood. Some [customers] 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.”  

 Playing Safe

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

 “There are really two guidelines—the CPSC has several versions since 1991, and the American Society for Testing  and Materials (ASTM) is the other stand of care that we use,” Staggs says. “Those guidelines have addressed injuries on playgrounds and how to avoid life  threatening injuries and how to make playgrounds safer all around in terms of  addressing hazards that are out there like head entrapments, entanglements and  protrusions that could stick out and harm a child. All of that has really been  addressed through those standards and guidelines. I think that has come a long  way over the last 20 years.”  

 While added safety measures might make the playground equipment design process  more challenging for builders, they certainly don’t take away from the enjoyment children experience.  

 “[Guidelines are implemented] to keep kids safe,” Staggs says. “Sometimes parents and children don’t realize some of the things that could happen to the kids, and having those  standards in place addresses some of those issues. We all just want to be able  to say, ‘Just let the kids play,’ but at the same time, you have an expectation of playgrounds that they’re going to be built so the kids aren’t going to get hurt on them. I think there can still be a whole lot of fun  offered on a play system that can be safe but still offer the challenge kids  are looking for.”  

 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.  

 “The first step is to contact a vendor and set up an appointment for a site visit  and let them show what some of their options are,” says Hagelberg. “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.”  

 “I think one of the best pieces of advice is to visit some local sites and maybe  ask around and try to go to the parks that are a little bit different and  unique and actually test the products,” Staggs suggests. “Because if people are choosing things they haven’t tried, sometimes it looks a little different in the pictures then how it  actually works out there, so I think the field trip idea is a great way to make  a wish list and form ideas.”  

 Staggs also stresses the importance of finding a qualified installer to ensure  optimum safety and play potential.  

 “Both with the manufacturer and the installer, there’s a thing called IPEMA – the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association – and they do a third-party validation on products,” Staggs says. “Companies that have their products IPEMA ( certified are going  that extra mile to make sure they are meeting standards. In addition, [look  for] qualified companies with insurance and check references.”  

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

 “Two benefits come to mind right away,” says Hagelberg. “One is for the children and one is for the community. If the condo community is  trying to attract buyers with children, they need to have an attractive,  functional playground to help attract those families. And for the kids, of  course, during this modern era where they are glued to various electronic  devices, they need to have the exercise and the challenge to their growing  developing bodies that the playground offers them. The benefits to the kids are  enormous. They are active—not passive, just sitting with video devices. They're developing skills that  will positively impact their way of life.”      

 Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The  Chicagoland Cooperator. Staff Writer Christy Smith-Sloman and Editorial  Assistant Enjolie Esteve contributed to this article.  

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  • Our Association is small but children are not allowed to play outside or make noise. Adults are not allowed to congregate and talk to each other. Parents are not allowed to have a child's birthday party outside. If you are a board member none of the Rules apply.