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.
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.”
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.”
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 (www.ipema.org) 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.