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When It Comes to Playgrounds, the End Depends on the Beginning
By: Tom Mertl

In the beginning…someone says, "Let's build a playground! It will support our children's ministry and it will help our outreach efforts. The kids will love it!" There is discussion and the decision is made. "Build it and they will come!"  Now what?
 
This is the critical time in the process. There are many decisions to be made and these decisions will determine the design parameters and, ultimately, the overall success of a safe and exciting play area.

1. Where do we put it?
The site needs to work with the rest of your church campus. It should be safely accessible for the children, and it should not interfere with other church activities. A level site is the easiest and most economical to develop. The site also must be accessible for those with disabilities.

Once you have determined the site, you must determine the size of the playground. How much room do you have on the site?  Remember, great playgrounds can be designed for small spaces!

2. Who is going to use it?
Most play areas will want to serve children of all ages. There are usually two designated target groups: 2-5 year olds and 5-12 year olds. It is better to separate the two groups if your campus space allows. This creates a safer play environment, and it can be done a few different ways.

For example: 1) Totally separate sites; 2) Separate areas in the same site; 3) Separate play times in one area.

The equipment selection and design will be impacted by these decisions.

3. How many children will be using it?
Exact numbers aren't necessary, but an approximate number is very helpful. A play area for 10 children is much different than an area for 75 children. Remember, they won't all be on the equipment at once, but creating a playground may very well grow your children's ministry.

4. How much will we spend?
The budget is a critical design parameter. You may not have an exact amount, but you will need a preliminary budget figure to help shape the design. This can be handled in several ways. Easiest, but not always possible, is initially building everything you want.

If that is not feasible, building in phases is a very workable option. The important thing is to design the entire project and then break it down into affordable phases. Know at the beginning what you will have at the end.

Once you make these decisions, it is time to find someone who knows what to do with the information. Some suppliers of commercial play equipment offer complete design services. They can take your ideas and parameters and develop a design solution to make your playground dreams a reality.

The advantages of working with an experienced supplier are numerous.

First, play area design is their specialty. Second, they are aware of the latest and best equipment to meet your needs. Third, they know the current safety guidelines and special needs requirements necessary for a safe play environment. Finally, they can advise and assist you in all aspects, from conception through completion.

Best of all, there is usually no cost for this design service.

The relationship and communication between your church and the design team is critical. Everyone involved has a vision of what the play environment should be and how it should serve the needs of the church. This vision will vary depending on perspective.

What is important to the children's minister or the Mother's Day Out director may be quite different from the concerns of the business manager or maintenance staff. These are all important views and should be addressed in the design phase.

A Word About Safety
Safety is by far the most important design component. Choice of appropriate equipment, traffic patterns, ease of supervision and maintenance, surfacing choices, and durability all contribute to a safe play environment.

Playground accidents can never be totally eliminated, but the possibility and severity of these accidents can be greatly reduced by proper initial design.

The play equipment industry is directed by guidelines developed by the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), the standards established by the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA), and the laws of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The entire play environment must be safe for our most precious responsibility, our children.

Taking on a playground project can be a little intimidating. The majority of these projects are carried out by someone, or a group, with little or no previous experience in playground design. It's just not something most people do very often.

But then, neither is building a house. We get the right designer, use the appropriate materials, choose the most qualified builders, and get it done!

Playgrounds are the same way. Assemble the right team and you will be successful. You will create a safe and exciting play experience that will serve your church for years to come.

Remember…the end depends on the beginning. 

Tom Mertl is vice president and senior designer of Leisure Lines Playground and Recreation Equipment Co., www.leisurelines.com.









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