The information stated below should be used as a guideline to minimize injuries associated with playground equipment. However, it is believed that these recommendations, along with the technical information in the ASTM Standards for Public Playgrounds will contribute to greater playground safety.
What is a Public Playground?
A public playground refers to one intended to be used by children ages 6 months through 12 years in commercial child care facilities, institutions, multiple family dwellings, parks, restaurants, resorts and schools.
Information in this Article:
- General playground safety considerations
- Playground materials and surfacing
- Identifying specific playground hazards and how to prevent them
- Proper steps needed to maintain a playground and its’ equipment
- The use of platforms, guardrails and protective barriers to minimize accidental falls
There are 7 key factors you should keep in mind when laying out your playground:
- Accessibility: The surface material needs to allow access to the equipment for children with disabilities.
- Age Separation: Areas for different age groups should be separated by a buffer zone. This zone will reduce the chance of injury by children of varying activity levels running into each other.
- Age Group: Different playgrounds are structured for different age groups. The safety requirements differ with each age group. Be mindful of the age group that will be using the playground and purchase accordingly.
- Conflicting Activities: The playground should be organized into sections to prevent injury from overlapping activities. Be sure to place swings and merry-go-rounds toward a corner, side or edge of a play area. Slides should not be placed in a congested area.
- Sight Lines: Visual barriers should be minimized so that caregivers, parents or supervisors can keep track of children using the playground. Benches placed around the outside of the structure allow onlookers a place to sit while they watch the children.
- Signage and/or Labeling: Signs should be provided to give the users guidance as to the age appropriateness of the equipment, as well as how to properly use the equipment.
- Supervision: Make sure the supervisor is aware of the basic safety guidelines of the equipment.
When choosing a site for a playground, there are a few factors that are important to take into consideration:
- Travel patterns to and from the playground: Are there any hazards in the way? If so, clear the hazards.
- Nearby accessibility hazards (traffic, bodies of water, steep hills, etc.): Could a child inadvertently or intentionally run into a nearby hazard? If so, provide a method to contain children within the playground (fence, hedge). Be aware that the fence or hedge should still allow observation by supervisors.
- Sun exposure: Is the sun’s heat sufficient enough to heat metal parts, slides, platforms, steps or surfacing enough to burn children? Will users be exposed to the sun during the most intense part of the day? If so, consider positioning it so the bare metal is shaded. Provide warnings that the equipment will be hot in the sunlight. Consider shading the playground with a shade structure.
- Slope and drainage: Will loose fill material wash away in the rain? If so, consider proper drainage to prevent wash outs.
When installing a playground, use equipment and hardware approved by the manufacturer. Follow the instructions EXTREMELY carefully or hire a playground installer. Remember to keep all materials from the manufacturer and start a meticulous record of all inspections and maintenance. Thoroughly inspect the equipment before the first use, including the hardware.
- Creosote-treated wood (railroad ties, telephone poles, etc) and coatings that contain pesticides should not be used.
- Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA) was an old chemical that was used to treat wood, including wooden playgrounds. Since 2001, this treatment is no longer safe it is known to corrode certain materials faster than others.
Avoid using bare metal for platforms, slides or steps. In direct sunlight, bare metal can become extremely hot and cause contact burn injuries. Use plastic coated metal, plastic or wood. Covering the playground with a shelter is always the best option. When coating existing bare metal or using plastic coated metal, consider:
- Manufacturer should ensure that users cannot ingest, inhale or absorb potentially hazardous amounts of preservative chemicals as a result of contact.
- All paints should meet the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) regulation for lead paint.
- Painted surfaces should be maintained regularly to prevent rust and corrosion.
Things to check regarding hardware:
- All fasteners, connectors and coverings should not be removable without the use of tools.
- All exposed hardware should be smooth to the user to prevent lacerations, penetrations, or cloth entanglement hazards.
- Hardware in moving joints should be secured against unintentional or unauthorized loosening.
- All hardware should be corrosive resistant.
- Bearings or bushings used in moving joints should be self-lubricating or easy to lubricate.
- All S-hooks and C-hooks should be closed (no gap or space greater than 0.04″).
A proper playground surface is one of the most important factors in reducing injuries that occur when kids fall from equipment. The surface under the playground equipment should be soft enough and thick enough to soften the impact of a child’s fall. Grass and dirt are not recommended for surfacing material because of water and natural weathering which can occur at a drastic rate. There are two kinds of surfacing material: unitary and loose-fill.
Unitary materials are generally ASTM tested rubber mats or a pour-in-place energy absorbing material. These kinds of surfacing options are great for toddlers and handicap accessible playgrounds and are usually more expensive than loose-fill materials.
CCA treated wood mulch, gravel or dirt are not acceptable forms of loose-fill material.
Loose fill materials will compress at least 25% over time due to use and weathering so it is a good idea to fill the use zone with more than the recommended fill level. For example, if the playground will require 9 inches of wood chips then the initial fill level should be 12 inches.
- Any material tested to ASTM F1292, including unitary surfaces, engineered wood fiber, etc.
- Pea gravel
- Shredded/recycled rubber mulch
- Wood mulch (not CCA-treated)
- Wood chips
- CCA-treated wood
When choosing playground equipment, it is important that you keep in mind what the intended age group will be. Children of different ages and stages of development have different needs and abilities. Playgrounds are designed to encourage a child’s imagination while developing new skills. If you are selecting a playground for a school or public park, you should check your state’s guidelines on integrating handicap accessible play structures in the playground.
Some equipment is not recommended for public playgrounds including: trampolines, swinging gates, giant strides, climbing ropes that are not secured at both ends, rope swings or heavy metal swings. Equipment such as platforms, stepped platforms, guardrails and barriers, handrails, and means to access and egress from play equipment have different guidelines for the different age groups (toddlers, preschool, and school age). It is important to understand that guardrails are not intended for toddlers as it is easy for them to crawl through.
It is easier for a child to climb up than it is for them to climb down. Remember to provide various methods to access and egress from the play structure so different skill levels will feel comfortable using the equipment.
There are 6 main categories of playground hazards:
- Crush and Shear Points: Crush and shear points can be caused by parts moving relative to each other, or to a fixed part, during a normal use cycle, such as with a seesaw. To determine if there is a crush or shear point, consider: the likelihood a child could get a body part inside the point and the closing force around the point.
- Entanglement and Impalement: Drawstrings on hoods of jackets, sweatshirts, and other upper body clothing can become entangled in playground equipment, and can cause death by strangulation. To avoid this, remove any ropes, dog leashes, or similar objects attached to playground equipment and avoid equipment with ropes that are not secured at both ends. Projections on playground equipment should not be able to entangle children’s clothing nor should they be large enough to impale.
- Entrapment: Head entrapment can occur feet first or head first. Openings can present an entrapment hazard if the distance between any interior opposing surfaces is greater than 3.5 inches and less than 9 inches. Children can become entrapped by partially bound openings, such as those formed by two or more playground parts. To minimize entrapment hazards of stepped platforms, infill should be used to reduce the space between stepped platforms.
- Sharp Points, Corners and Edges: Any sharp edge or point can cause serious lacerations. To avoid the risk of injury make sure that wood parts are smooth and not splintering, all corners are rounded and all metal edges are rolled or have rounded capping.
- Suspended Hazards: Suspended components should be placed away from high traffic areas, brightly colored and should not loop back on themselves.
- Tripping: Playgrounds should be free from any tripping hazards such as rapid changes in elevation, anchoring devices and containment walls for loose-fill surfacing.
All playground areas should be inspected for excessive wear, deterioration and any potential hazards. For each piece of equipment, the frequency of thorough inspections will depend on the type and age of the equipment, the amount of use and the local climate. To help ensure your loose-fill surfacing level stays sufficient and is not displaced, it should be checked frequently and raked back into its proper place if necessary. When inspecting loose-fill surfacing materials, pay particular attention to areas under swings and at slide exits, pooled water on mulch surfacing and areas of frozen surfacing.