The initial decision to invest in a playground for your camp can be an easy one. Just the thought of campers swinging, climbing, dangling, spinning and challenging friends to match their acrobatic feats can bring back childhood memories of hours of carefree play.
There are also many health and developmental benefits children gain from playground activities. While they are enjoying free play, they can improve flexibility, muscular endurance and strength, and even challenge their aerobic capacity during extended bouts of continuous effort. Playground activities can raise children’s metabolic rate, and develop a healthy level of body fat. In fact, one hour of vigorous activity on playground equipment can burn an average of 400 calories. There is also strong evidence that participating in these activities helps children develop perceptual motor and critical-thinking skills, as well as intellectual abilities, particularly in mathematics.
So how can there be a downside to invest in a new playground? If you are not focused on making it a safe environment, injuries and the lawsuits that can follow may be an expensive lesson for a camp business owner.
Playgrounds can be the center of attention for campers, especially if the areas are well-designed and constructed. Paying attention–both before the purchase and during installation–can make a playground a star attraction of the camp’s facilities. For instance, many states have strict regulations and requirements to optimize a playground’s safety. The most common hazard that leads to injuries has nothing to do with the equipment–it’s the surface under it. Grass, asphalt, concrete and dirt are not safe surfaces. Loose synthetic materials like artificial turf are shock-absorbing, and can significantly reduce falling injuries.
Research What Works
It is ideal to have as many opinions as possible in making the final decision. Consider having a small group of stakeholders (staff, parents, even campers) be part of a playground “research team.” Visit several playgrounds and talk to camp directors, maintenance staff and camp counselors who plan and supervise the camp activities. Be sure to ask:
· What is the incidence of injuries, and how do they occur?
· Are there required maintenance and inspection schedules?
· Are the playgrounds accessible for all children’s capabilities, and do they address the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) guidelines, including accessibility to ramps, a proper reach for overhead components, swings with special straps, etc.?
· How did the owners decide on signage for safety regulations and assumption of risk?
· What is the experience when contacting the manufacturer with questions and concerns?
· What are the costs above and beyond the purchase price (site preparation, signage, security, required supervision, inspection and replacement costs)?
· Which pieces of equipment get the most use and the least use?
· What pieces of equipment do they wish they had bought?
· Is it possible to add more apparatuses within the existing playground’s framework?
· What supervision and security are required?
· What problems have you had?
· How did the playground affect the cost of liability insurance?
· Was consideration given to the materials and the location being environmentally friendly?
· If you had a chance to go back to the day you purchased the playground, what would you do differently?
Next, watch the playground in action, and answer these questions on your own:
· Are the campers enjoying the equipment and each other?
· How long are they engaged in one piece of equipment?
· Are there lines of campers waiting to use equipment?
· Is it developmentally appropriate (e.g., a slide’s first step low enough for the smallest campers)?
· Can everyone participate (e.g., children with disabilities or high body-fat composition)
Also, if the owners give permission, take photos of the playgrounds, and obtain a contact number for the key person responsible for the playground facility.
Before making a decision on a piece of equipment, be sure to do your own research on the various manufacturers/vendors before you do business. Use the following guidelines:
· Make a list of the recommended companies.
· Do a Web search to locate and review each manufacturer.
· Make a request for proposal (RFP) and interview manufacturers.
· Ask for references and contact information of camps that already own the playground equipment.
· Consider the types of safety standards to be met. A valuable Web site for more information is The National Program for Playground Safety (www.playgroundsafety.org).
· Determine whether the manufacturer is willing to make a presentation to your research team.
· Examine whether the company sends its own employees to construct the playground or if a local contractor is hired for installation. If a local contractor is sent, find out how quality assurance is monitored.
Following these guidelines takes time, but it is time well-spent when you consider that the average playground costs range from $20,000 to $80,000 (and could be even higher depending on the size and type of site preparation required).
Two additional considerations can give you even more reason to make the purchase of a playground the center of attention. The first is that you can make a portfolio of all the documentation you gather, including photos, RFPs, notes from playground visits and phone interviews with manufacturers. Take that information, as well as printouts from Web sites, applicable regulations for safety requirements and the credentials of your research team, to help make the best decision when purchasing the equipment. Also, if an injury does occur and there are legal proceedings, you have a great case by sharing your research portfolio and adding to it with your schedule of safety inspections, maintenance and repairs.
And be sure to celebrate. Have a grand opening, and invite the public, including the media. Thank your research team, talk about how the playground benefits campers’ development, and show how much care went into the playground’s design and development by sharing what you have documented in your portfolio. Invite questions about what you learned. It is a great opportunity to showcase the addition to the facility and send a message to the public that you are a camp business owner who makes thoughtful decisions because you care about your campers’ development and safety.
Susan Langlois has over 25 years experience as a college professor, athletic administrator, camp director and sports facilities consultant. She is currently the campus director at Springfield College School of Human Services in Manchester and St. Johnsbury, N.H. She can be reached at email@example.com
Jennifer Dunnells is a business professional and community organizer. She has been an active parent in many community educational and recreational groups. She was chair of the Garrison School Playground Development Task Force in Dover, N.H. She has also been an advocate for children with disabilities and home schools her son, who has autism.