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Spring Means It's Time for a Playground Tune-Up
By: Eric E. Torrey

As the weather warms up, everybody wants to get outside and play. Unfortunately, while the playground was sitting there under fall leaves and winter snow, it may have suffered a little bit and might not be entirely safe to play on. Before opening the doors and letting children play on the play equipment, it is a good idea to give it a close inspection first.

General Appearance
It is pretty certain that after months of disuse and harsh weather conditions, your playground area is dirty…caused by decayed leaves, mold, weeds, insects, soot and just dirt/mud.

Playground equipment should be cleaned periodically with a good power washer and soft bristle brush to keep it looking attractive, sanitary and mildew-free. Mold eradication may require the use of a mild chemical cleaner. Do not use any chemical cleaner that you would not use in the diaper area of a daycare center. The cleaner should be mild. It is important to remove mold, as it can be harmful to children with asthma or other respiratory ailments.

This is a good time to refresh the sand in any sandboxes. Sift through the existing sand to remove any foreign matter and add new sand as required.

Review all plants growing near the playground. Are there branches growing through the fence that need to be trimmed? Are weeds growing in the playground area that need to be pulled? Is that pretty green vine growing near that tree poison oak or poison ivy?

If your playground area is shaded by trees, look up and check for low-hanging branches that children may be able to reach from the upper decks; these should be trimmed back. Also, any dead/dying branches should be removed. Falling branches can seriously injury children, or, at the very least, cause considerable costly damage to your playground equipment.

Items Requiring Repair
Just as one sock disappears in the dryer for no explainable reason, nuts and bolts on playground equipment loosen up even though the equipment has not been in use. Therefore, it is important to regularly check all connections for loose hardware and tighten as needed.

If a bolt needs replacing, be sure to replace it with appropriate hardware; don't just use some old bolt that was in the bottom of the toolbox. The head of the bolt should be tamper-proof. As part of your maintenance kit, you should have received a bit that fits the particular bolt head used by the manufacturer, if it has been lost, contact your playground provider for replacement information.

Be sure to check the S-hooks on swing sets. The opening on any S-hook should be no more than 1mm or .04" (about the thickness of a credit card).

Rope climbers should also be carefully checked to make sure that none of the connections have loosened or slipped. Look for worn areas that need replacing. Although advances in materials have been made, rope still has a tendency to stretch and wear more quickly than other materials.

Once all connections have been checked, go over all metal parts (rails, decks, ramps, stairs) and look for rust. While the coating used on metal parts is very durable, it may chip with use, leaving the underlying metal exposed. To prolong the life of your playground equipment investment, touch-up any exposed metal with a rust inhibitive paint. If the metal already shows signs of rust, you may need to use a rust remover, wire brush, and some elbow grease to prepare the spot for painting. Once the rust is removed, prime and paint the area. Most playground manufacturers can provide matching touch-up paint for your play structure. If left unattended, rust can be dangerous (creating rough edges that can scrape/cut and cause infections), and it can be costly (requiring replacement of parts rather than simply repair of parts).

Review all plastic parts, too – looking for cracks, punctures, or fracturing. Broken plastic parts should be replaced. While the plastics industry does use UV blockers to keep plastic parts from fading as much as possible, some fading will occur over time. This is a cosmetic issue and will not affect the performance of the item.

Safety Surfacing
Just as important as inspecting the actual play equipment is taking the time to review the safety surfacing material. It is estimated that approximately 70 percent of all playground injuries are the result of falls, not equipment failure.

Is the playground surfacing clean and debris-free? Depending upon how much public access there is to your playground, you can easily find cigarette butts, bottle caps, broken glass and other less-savory litter mixed in with loose surfacing materials.

If your playground safety surfacing is a loose material – such as engineered wood mulch or rubber mulch – it is important that proper depth of mulch be maintained for it to retain its cushioning properties, or impact attenuation, and that trip points are eliminated.

Loose mulch can settle, wash away, and wear away in high-traffic areas (such as under swings and at the end of slides). Problem areas can be eliminated by raking the mulch from where it may have piled-up into any vulnerable areas. However, it may be necessary to purchase additional mulch on a regular basis to keep your playground area safe.

To clean poured-in-place rubber safety surfacing, use a broom, vacuum, blower or hose to remove loose debris such as sand, dirt, leaves, tree sap, chewing gum, bird droppings, etc. A pressure washer can be used, but carefully; it should not exceed 1500 PSI and you should keep the spray nozzle at least 12 inches from the surface. To clean harder stains on poured-in-place surface, refer to your maintenance manual or contact the manufacturer for recommendations.

Professional Inspections
For this article, it is assumed the initial equipment installation was done by professionals, who certified that equipment was installed properly. If in doubt, it is suggested you have the playground fully inspected by a Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI). CPSI testing is a program of the National Recreation and Parks Association.

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

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