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Important Playground Design Considerations
By: Eric Torrey

Basic playground design information – types of equipment available, age-appropriate elements, use zones, safety surfacing options, shade structures, etc. – is easy to find online and it is relatively easy to understand. The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) offers a free, downloadable Public Playground Safety Handbook on its Website, www.cpsc.gov. Members of a church playground planning committee should definitely download this handbook and review it while researching playground options.

If the planned playground area is part of a larger construction project, consult with the project architect and/or landscape architect, who may be able to provide playground design services/advice. If not, perhaps they will assist with reviewing equipment manufacturers and make suggestions during the design phase of the play area. If there isn’t an existing designer, most play equipment manufacturers offer design service at no additional charge.

The CPSC Handbook is a great reference, but final playground design decisions rest with the playground committee, which should be very familiar with the church’s playground requirements. Only the committee members know the topic well enough to review options and understand how those options meet budgetary, operational and aesthetic requirements.

When working with a playground designer, it is important for the committee to clearly communicate all requirements and expectations relating to the playground project. Honest, open communication eliminates wasted effort – such as designing a $100,000 playground when the committee has a $20,000 budget. Finally, review every decision before signing off on it. Often, it’s little things that cause big headaches later on.

Sandbox
The sandbox is a fun, traditional play item found on many playgrounds, but it can also serve as a litter box for neighborhood cats. Be sure to order a cover for when the sandbox is not in use.

Fabric covers are very light and easy to remove, fold, and store. It is important that they be weighted along the edges to keep them from blowing away. If vandalism/security may be an issue on the playground, consider a plastic cover that padlocks onto the sandbox directly. A hard plastic sandbox cover may require two people to remove due to its awkward size, and daytime storage for the cumbersome cover will need to be addressed.

Sun & Shade
While plastics manufacturers do what they can to keep colors from fading, any colorful item that is installed outdoors will eventually fade. While it should take many years for fading to become noticeable, certain colors do fade more quickly than others – lighter reds and yellows tend to fade more quickly than darker blues and greens.

Current industry standards require that shade be provided over play equipment. Shade is provided by installing manufactured shade structures over the play equipment, or by installing play equipment beneath existing nature-designed shade structures – trees. Playground equipment in total shade all day may not stay as dry and should be inspected regularly for mold/mildew growth. If discovered, mold/mildew is easy to remove when caught early, but it can become a health hazard if it is allowed to spread.

Natural Playgrounds
Most new playgrounds are a hybrid of “traditional” and “natural” – combining playground equipment with nature. The two approaches to playground design do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Add texture to a new concrete tricycle path or sidewalk by letting children stamp the hardening concrete with seed pods, pinecones, acorns, tree branches, shells, stones and any other interesting natural items to provide texture. Rows of stones can even be embedded in the concrete, creating a “rumble strip” that tricycles ride over.

When installing playground equipment close to existing trees, it may be beneficial to consult an arborist as to the health of those trees and to learn how installation of the planned playground equipment may affect the trees. The playground installer must dig holes to accommodate the structure’s support posts. Once properly placed, support posts are anchored in concrete. Cutting too many roots while digging can seriously damage a tree. Digging support holes in an area where there are numerous roots makes the installer’s job more difficult, too. Additionally, ask the arborist to identify any unhealthy trees that should be removed completely, or point out dead branches overhead that need to be removed. The arborist might also indicate areas where delivery trucks should not be allowed to drive and unload equipment (the weight of a truck can damage underground roots).

The CPSC Handbook indicates Use Zones should extend a minimum of 6 feet from the play structure. Other items – such as fences, trees, rocks, and additional play equipment – must be outside the Use Zone. This includes 6 feet of space between the highest deck of the structure and the lowest branch of a tree to deter efforts to climb from one to the other.

Miscellaneous Tidbits
Unless it is on private, fenced property or in a well-lit area, a play structure can go through a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde type of transformation during the night. Play structures can become a hangout for young people to gather. Security and morning cleanup can become serious issues. During the design stage, problems can often be eliminated before they begin – perhaps by simply locating the structure in a well-lit or frequently traveled area, or by using roofs and sun shades made out of porous materials that block sunlight but not rain.

Crawl tubes are not recommended for public playgrounds, since they make ideal places for sleeping and getting out of the rain. If a crawl tube is a “must-have” item on the playground committee’s list, keep it less than 4 feet in length and purchase one with portholes.

Finally, the current state of the economy has led many manufacturers to offer incredible sales. Before buying a structure from a “sale” brochure, take a moment to review the budgetary, operational, and aesthetic requirements the committee created when it was first formed. Does the play structure on sale meet those requirements? If not, then the committee must decide if they are willing to forego their dream playground and instead settle for one that is just satisfactory.

Eric Torrey is director of marketing for Safeplay Systems, www.safeplaysystems.com.









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