Safe Play

It’s a tough balance to strike: kids want to have fun at the playground, but they must be safe. It takes a lot of planning and care to pass playground safety standards. For a while, playgrounds were fairly basic and lackluster because the American Society for Testing and Materials and Canadian Standard Association standards became more difficult to meet.

But now the face of park playgrounds is evolving as designers are developing innovative ways of meeting safety standards and maintaining play-value.

The Safety Obsession

Initially, a growing focus on safety risked compromising the very purpose of playgrounds. Teresa Hendy, a board member with the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association and president of Site Masters Inc., noted that “every play area has risk, and in an all-out-effort to eradicate it, play equipment and designs had become dumbed-down and boring.”

It’s true that playground safety has come a long way. Once upon a time, low-equipment transparency and shallow levels of loose-fill surfacing were the norm. Still, the growing concern with playground safety risked taking the spirit out of playgrounds. Some parents still outfit their children in helmets, and, of course, recreation directors want to keep their grounds as child-safe and secure as possible. Better safe than sorry, right?

The irony is that the obsession with safety has in some cases been a liability. On at least two occasions, the helmets parents used to protect their children on the playground ended up strangling them (please note that the Consumer Product Safety Commission has since formally advised that helmets should never be worn on playgrounds).

No wonder playground-safety regulations have grown more stringent over time. But while designers were scrambling to meet strict CPSC regulations–decreasing fall height, increasing accessibility, eliminating the potential for clothing entrapment, and removing the potential for limb entrapment–play-value was taking a nosedive.

Making Playgrounds Fun Again

Designers go about it in different ways, but one thing is for sure–play-value no longer needs to be sacrificed for safety.

There are several particular methods that are injecting fun back into playgrounds:


Playground equipment designers have picked up on a new trend–movement. The industry has developed movement-based designs that protect against falls and accidents. Internal rotating mechanisms and controlled fall, as well as the creation of stable and predictable movement patterns, make it possible for kids to interact with equipment safely. Now, not only do you see the usual movement of a swing set in a playground, but creative new ideas are integrating movement into traditionally static designs–climbing nets are mounted on rotating platforms, bouncing mats are integrated into surfacing, and generally dynamic concepts are incorporated into play structures wherever possible.

The engineering principles behind safe movement-based play structures have been groundbreaking. Given that swing sets were one of the primary causes of playground injury, according to 2001 CPSC statistics, the ability to create secure movement engineering is working wonders to reaffirm safety. Swing sets are now designed to limit lateral movement and have proven far more secure.

Multi-user equipment

Multi-user play structures are popping up everywhere in playgrounds, and the concept can be incorporated into almost any play structure. Multi-user swings, slides, nets and climbing structures tend to be more spacious and stable for kids. Plus, kids absolutely love them! The advantage is two-fold, as the extra room afforded by multi-user equipment also accommodates the increasing population of obese children. Also, the premise is simple, and it encourages kids to interact and develop their social skills and teamwork.


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