Playground Best Practices

The much-debated (and sometimes maligned) term “best practices” refers, at least in my mind, to those practices that have produced outstanding results for folks I consider to be excellent playground providers. If you’re looking to build, retrofit, or simply improve your current playground experience, I encourage you to consider utilizing these 11 “best practices”–they have proven very successful.

1. Strive To Purchase Equipment With High “Play Value”

Play is not just a way for children to pass the time. Rather, it is how children of all ages grow, develop, improve, challenge, and stimulate their minds and bodies. Of course, it’s also fun, fun, fun!

As you sit down to design a new playground (or retrofit an existing one), work to ensure it provides maximum “play value”–defined as all of those play sensations, opportunities and experiences which consciously and spontaneously encourage child development.

These elements come in the form of the playground’s physical environment (open grassy areas, trees, sidewalks, etc.), the play equipment itself (slides, swings, climbers, jumpers, etc.) and the children (and their playmates). If you’re sitting in a budget meeting and trying to decide where to cut and where to add, this is an area to add.

Research has shown the benefits of upper-body equipment, climbers, swings, slides and rotating, rocking and balancing devices in the development of children. A playground with high play value needs to have a variety of these elements and the more the better. All of these elements work together to provide settings for social exchange, problem-solving scenarios, and physiological growth. And best of all, they’re cleverly disguised as fun.

Julian Richter, founder of the German playground equipment company Richter Spielgerate GmbH, said it best, “We should have as much play value as we can possibly afford, but only as much safety as is necessary.” As we’ve discovered, a playground with high play value is usually a safer playground than one with low play value because children use the equipment spontaneously in naturally safer ways than children who must force amusement from non-stimulating facilities.

2. Make Sure Your Playground Meets Appropriate Safety Requirements

Playground equipment safety criteria in the United States are based upon sound principles including age appropriateness, elimination of known accident causes as reported through the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System and case law, and anthropometrics–the measurement of children’s physical dimensions, skills and abilities. The two equipment safety criteria generally accepted as the industry standards of care in the United States–the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Handbook of Public Playground Safety and the American Society for Testing and Materials’ standard ASTM F1487, Standard Consumer Safety Performance Specification for Playground Equipment for Public Use–are performance criteria, not design restrictions. The comparable standard in Canada is CAN/CSA-Z614, Children’s Playspaces and Equipment. These safety criteria permit manufacturers to demonstrate creativity and innovation as well as safety in their products.

Purchasers of playground equipment in the United States may verify that any equipment they are considering has been checked for compliance with either the U.S. or Canadian standard by searching for that item by manufacturer and model number on the Web site www.ipema.org. The third-party certification validation program is administered by the Detroit Testing Laboratory.

3. Have Your Equipment Installed By A Qualified Installer

Playground equipment arrives from the manufacturer as a set of parts requiring careful assembly and installation. The installers should be trained individuals, able to read and understand assembly directions, plans and other graphics; knowledgeable about soils, drainage, concrete, asphalt and other construction materials; skilled and experienced in the use of construction tools, equipment and machinery; and certified in playground installation from either the manufacturer of the specific equipment being installed, or by the International Playground Contractors Association.

4. Install And Maintain Sufficient Safety Surfacing

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