Excellence in Playground Design
By Deborah Edsall, managing director, Edsall & Associates LLC
The ‘Climbing Bridge’ by Beckwith Associates, Inc. is challenging fun. The Edsall plant plan consists of Pinus mugo ‘Compacta’ (dwarf mugo pine) in the foreground, Forsythia ‘Courtasol’ (gold tide forsythia in the mid/background) and Juniperus horizontalis ‘Plumos Youngstown’ beyond that.
“Excellence in Playground Design” was a presentation by Deborah Edsall, managing director, Edsall & Associates LLC, Columbus, Ohio, to Marilyn Court, director of parks and recreation for Beavercreek, a suburb of Dayton, Ohio. The landscape architect firm spells out playground design objectives; surfacing considerations; basic recommendations (and not recommendations) for park components and materials for preschoolers and the 5-12 age group; design approaches; and items to be avoided in a playground design.
This swing set (Landscape Structures, Inc.) accommodates toddlers (harness seating) and older children. Swings should be attached to supports separate from other equipment, with a clear zone that is a minimum of two times the mounting height of the swings. A mounting height of nine feet, in this case, needs at least 18 feet of open space in front and back of the swings. Animal figure swings, swinging dual exercise rings/trapeze bars, and multiple occupancy swings (exclusive of tire swings) are not recommended.
Playground Design Objectives
- Allow for expansion.
- Develop muscular skills.
- Incorporate role playing opportunities.
- Encourage creativity, stimulation, challenges.
- Involve community participation, including youth.
- Encourage children to play together, social interaction.
- Create choices, promote discovery, develop confidence.
- Create a community amenity/form of community identity.
- Create continuous experiences through linked activities.
- Create interest and excitement.
Children learn about life through play, including:
- Social skills
- Cognitive learning skills
- Physical and motor skills
- Fantasy and make believe skills
- Selection and decision making skills
Create play experiences with variations in physical challenges:
Kids love to dig in the sand. These two mechanical shovels (‘Backhoe Digger’ by Game Time) add an additional element of fun. The seated backhoe is considered an “accessible” element.
- One size does not fit all.
- Need a variety of social and spatial spaces.
- The minimum diameter of tube slides should be 23".
- The over-12 age group needs places for socialization.
- Trampolines are not recommended for public playgrounds.
- Need defined equipment for different age groups/development.
- Where steps are used in play components, they should all be equal.
- Climbing equipment should allow children to descend as easily as they ascend.
- Do not mix preschool swings and school-age swings on the same support section.
- CPSC recommends no more than two single-axis swings hung per support structure bay.
- Recommended to keep preschool play components separated from school-age play components.
- Metal or wood swing seats are not recommended. Lightweight rubber or plastic swing seats are preferred.
- Play equipment manufactured prior to 1981 (when CPSC Guidelines were produced) may be obsolete.
- What is the value of roof structures in relation to cost?
- Are there arches or other landmarks that might be used?
- Vinyl coated metal platforms and plastic slide beds are recommended.
- Guardrails/protective barriers should completely surround elevated platforms except for entrance/exit points and play components.
- When solid panels are used as infill, there should be some transparent areas to facilitate supervision and permit viewing from the platform.
In the 1930s the National Recreation and Park Association recommended the removal of the Giant Stride Maypole. Perhaps this is the logical extension, ring around the pole (‘Spica’ by Kompan, Inc.). One size does not fit all. The minimum diameter of tube slides should be 23 inches. Vinyl coated metal platforms and plastic slide beds are recommended. Guardrails/protective barriers should completely surround elevated platforms except for entrance/exit points and play components.
Swings not recommended for public playgrounds include:
- Rope swings
- Animal figure swings
- Swinging dual exercise rings and trapeze bars
- Multiple occupancy swings (exclusive of tire swings)
Guardrails, where no play components occur, are recommended for platforms over 20" above ground grade, but not for platforms over 30". Protective barriers are recommended on platforms over 30". The top surface of guardrails should be at least 39" high and the lower edge should be no more than 23" above the platform.
The Newark Park design incorporates poured-in-place surfacing, a sand area for toddlers, and a surrounding lawn area. The play areas integrate equipment geared for the 2-5 year old crowd and more challenging apparatuses for 5-12 year olds.
Wood materials versus metal components versus recycled materials:
- Recycled materials have improved over the years. Recycled materials should be temperature stable (not buckle) and UV resistant.
- Metal is smoother than wood. Finish is longer lasting and more colorful. Untreated/uncoated steel rusts, deteriorates and corrodes. Galvanized steel or aluminum with powder-coated finishes are recommended. Aluminum is highlyresistant to rust. Avoid lead paints.
- Wood was the first play equipment and then reintroduced in the 1960s. Wood can cause splinters, requires more ongoing maintenance, has 10-15 year life span at best. Wood swells and shrinks with changes in moisture content, weather and seasons, requiring attachment hardware to always have to be tightened. When wood members are used for decks and platforms, the surfaces should be smooth. Material left rolled, creates toe trippers and should be avoided. Avoid toxic preservatives, such as chromated copper arsenate (CCA), creosote, pentachlorophenol or tributyl tin oxide. Require ACQ treated material, if pressuretreated wood is used.
Pre-School: 2-5 Years
- Recommended handrail height: 22"-26".
- Horizontal ladder rungs should be no more than 12" center to center.
- Does not need to be a large area or numerous play components.
- The maximum difference in height between stepped platforms should be 12".
- The maximum height for upper body equipment should be 60" above the safety surface.
- Equipment height recommended by the National Program for Playground Safety: no more than 6'-0".
- Incorporate easy access to play components for adults supervision. Are steps included versus just crawl tubes or arch climbers for parent/supervisor access?
As 60 percent of all playground injuries are caused by falls to the ground, a 12" minimum depth of compressed engineered wood or pour-in-place rubber surfacing is desired under all equipment 8' high or less.
Play components not recommended:
- Log rolls
- Track rides
- Parallel bars
- Swinging gates
- Overhead rings
- Fulcrum seesaws
- Vertical sliding poles
- Chain or cable walks
- Free-standing arch climbers
- Long spiral slides (more than 360°)
- Free-standing climbing events with flexible components
Basic recommended components:
- Chair swings
- Crawl tunnels
- Tricycle paths
- Stepped platforms
- Enclosed play spaces
- Creative play with sand and water
- Elements which promote fantasy play
- Horizontal ladders and overhead rings
- Low balance beam (no higher than 12")
- Rocking elements with side containment
- Rung ladders, stepladders, stairways and ramps
- Low climbing structures (48" and under by some sources)
- Horizontal ladder rungs should be no more than 15" center to center
- Activity/learning panels for development of motor skills at ground grade
- Low slides (most often a function of adjoining platform height). Spiral slides, if used, should be 360° or less.
School Age: 5-12 Years/ Elementary School
- Usually more active than preschoolers.
- Recommended handrail height: 22"-38".
- Need to incorporate challenges for sense of accomplishment.
- The maximum difference in height between stepped platforms should be 18".
- Arch climbers should not be used as the sole means of access to all play components.
- Equipment height recommended by the National Program for Playground Safety: no more than 8'.
- Guardrails, where no play components occur, are recommended for platforms over 30" above ground grade, but not for platforms over 48". Protective barriers are recommended on platforms over 48". The top surface of guardrails should be at least 38" high and the lower edge should be no more than 28" above the platform.
Horizontal ladder rungs should be no more than 12" center to center. Guardrails, where no play components occur, are recommended for platforms over 20" above ground grade, but not for platforms over 30." Protective barriers are recommended on platforms over 30.”
Basic recommended components:
- Spinning components
- Physical challenge components
- Semi-enclosed structures such as forts to encourage fantasy play.
- The maximum height for upper body equipment should be 84" above the safety surface
- Develop upper body development/strength components such as horizontal/overhead bars/ladders
- Testing of physical skills such as climbing, swinging, log rolling, balancing challenges. Balance beams should be no higher than 16".
- Sixty percent of all playground injuries are caused by falls to the ground.
- It was not until 1986 that manufactured wood fiber safety surfaces came on the market.
- A 12" minimum depth of compressed engineered wood or poured-in-place rubber surfacing is desired under all equipment 8'-0" high or less.
- Any surface within the playground use zone must meet ASTM F1292-99 “Standard Specification for Impact Attenuation of Surface, Systems Under and Around Playground Equipment.”
- Never permit stone dust, dirt, asphalt, concrete, grass or coarse gravel as a playground safety surface.
- A subgrade drainage system, perforated pipe in a sock connected to a storm drainage system, is highly recommended under a loose or unitary playground safety surface. The system reduces mosquitoes and the degradation of loose surfacing materials.
Types of surfacing
- Unitary materials are rubber mats or a combination of rubber-like materials held in place by a binder, poured in place.
- Sand is an acceptable safety surface, but does migrate through with use.
- Rubberized mats, more expensive than engineered wood fiber, if not anchored permanently, often separate over time and become a hazard by tripping users.
- A loose safety surface is one consisting of small independent, movable components. Never install over any hard surface, including asphalt or concrete.
- In addition to recommended loose safety surface material, rubberized mats installed 3" inches below loose surfacing is often recommended under areas such as swings, bases of slides and heavy use areas.
On playgrounds using loose safety surface material it’s recommended that rubberized mats be installed 3" below the surface material, particularly under swings and slide bases. Handrails for children 5-12 years old should be at least 38" high, with the lower edge no more than 28" above the platform.
Factors in Design
Design approach options:
The design process is a team effort involving yourself, your citizens, the landscape architect and manufacturers and their representatives. Get the best play structures and be prepared to look at numerous alternatives. One approach is to evaluate the play components and activities desired by reviewing equipment in numerous catalogs, then let the landscape architect and/or manufacturer representatives see how they can maximize the play value that can be incorporated into the design.
Clear Zones/Safety Surfacing
- Safety surfacing is recommended within all clear zones.
- Clear zones are measured from the perimeter of equipment.
- Generally, unless otherwise noted, clear zones should not overlap and are typically 6'.
- The clear zones for two or more stationary play components that are not physically attached, but are play-functionally linked, shall be determined as if the separate components were part of a composite play structure.
- Ground equipment: Any play component that requires a user to maintain constant contact with the ground during play does not require a clear zone, i.e., talk tubes, free standing activity panels, play houses or ground level sand boxes. Accessibility routes do apply.
- Overlap requirements: The clear zone of stationary play components may overlap if the surface of adjacent play components is no more than 30" above the safety surface, but should be separated a minimum distance of 6'. If the play surface of either adjoining play surface of either adjoining play component exceeds 30" above ground grade, the minimum distance between play components should be 9'.
- A good playground design should reflect the following:
- Linkages: Connected play events which create a flow of play activity.
- Complexity: Maximize the number of different play experiences.
- Safe: Comply with ADA, ASTM International and CPSC Standards and Guidelines.
- Developmental: Include play components which challenge a wide range of skills and ages.
- Durability: As indestructible as possible. Include vandal-resistant fasteners and surfaces.
- Challenging: Include play elements which require motor coordination, balance ability and strength.
- Aesthetically Pleasing: Should be attractive to children and adults. Want people to come and use facility.
- Social: Create an environment for social interaction between children. Need to incorporate play components designed for group use.
- Safety surfacing is recommended within all clear zones.
Clear zones for swings:
It is recommended swings be attached to supports separate from other equipment. This reduces potential injury of children who might run into the path of a swing. A minimum of two times the mounting height is required. If the mounting height is 10' the front and back clearance required would be 20' in the front and back of the swing. A 6' clear zone is required at the end of the swing support zone. The 6' clear zone at the end of swing structures may overlap.
- The clear zone for rotating swings equals the mounting height plus 6'.
- Can no longer be attached to a main structure. This is true for any rotating structure.
- • The end clear zone of a rotating swing can overlap with the end clear zone of a separate swing.
The main play structure at Newark Park, Ohio is 100% accessible from any of the three entrance points to the 72” deck through a series of ramps. This well-designed playground incorporates a sand play area for toddlers (super scoop, sand table turtle, elevated sand table); equipment for 2-5 year olds: ‘Clifford’ and ‘GT Stock Car’ (spring riders, Game Time); dance chimes (Goric), a unique piece to central Ohio; preschool picnic table, spring platform, stationary cycle, arch swing, loop ladder, 30” crawl tunnel, corkscrew climber, s-curve bridge, ring pull; and equipment for ages 5-12: disc challenge; climbers (conical, wavy web, chimney, snake) loop arch; firepole; log roll; and tire swing. The site amenities include a 6’ bench; bike rack; waste receptacle; and a donor paver plaza. (Note: The main structure and majority of the free standing equipment is by Landscape Structure, Inc.)The planting plan calls for shade and ornamental trees at the main entrance and Evergreen and ornamental shrub planting beds (not shown).
Items to be avoided in a playground design shall include:
- Numerous roofs and perhaps ramps and/or decks only or with a limited number of play components.
- All platforms with a limited number of play components related to the decks. A boring experience
- Large ground area/areas for play structure with under 10 play components and no linkages/connectivity.
- All elements 30" above ground grade where no play components occur (such as decks, landings, platforms, walkways) require a vertical barrier 38" in height, exclusive of the entrance/exit points.
Such barriers may include:
- Solid/activity panels
- Vertical versus horizontal pipe rails
Custom design (starting with no manufacturer’s standard pieces) increases liability issues. Customization/modification can come with alternative arrangements of manufacturer’s equipment with manufacturer’s sign off and can create interesting and unique playgrounds that meet ASTM, CPSC and ADA standards.
The higher the playground components, the greater the chances of injury. A Canadian study found children playing on equipment higher than 8', injuries increased three times. As play component heights are increased, you may also be increasing your risk/liability.
Slides: A safety clear zone of 6' is recommended in all directions, including the end of slides, exclusive of embankment slides where a clear zone other than at the end is not required. Locate exits away from activity areas.
Need to have play components for group playing and playing alone. Must accommodate wide range of ages.
Check yearly with manufacturers for yearly updates of design and safety features.
Moving play components are best located on the periphery.
Metal slides, if used, should face north and/or be shaded.
An accessible playground (this one is a Boundless Playground with Park Structures equipment) offers a range of similar experiences. Each component is not necessarily usable by every child. The ramp requirements in the Guide to ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Play Areas requires a minimum 3' clear width; handrails and curbs; no more than 1:12 slope or 8.3%; no longer than 12' between level landings; landings must be 5' in diameter to permit two wheelchairs to pass or a child in a wheelchair to turn around.
Editor’s note: The Americans with Disability Act became law in 1992. One eventuality was the Guide to ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Play Areas, which applies to existing and new playgrounds. Compliance to these guidelines is a requirement associated with most federal and state grants. The summary of these guidelines were part of the Edsall presentation, but space considerations do not allow us to print that material.
Please consult the Guide for specifications, available at www.access-board.gov/play/guide/intro.htm
Groups Involved in Playground Safety
The International Play Equipment Manufacturer’s Association
has third-party certification (Detroit Testing Laboratory, Inc.) to validate a manufacturer's conformance to the ASTM F1487-01 (excluding section 10 and 12.6.1) “Standard Consumer Safety Performance Specification for Playground Equipment for Public Use.”
1924 N. Second Street
Harrisburg, PA 17102
American Society for Testing and Materials
The American Society for Testing and Materials is an independent and world renowned developer of technical standards utilized in testing a multitude of products. ASTM’s F15.29 committee, chaired by Dr. Francis Wallach, met consistently for over a decade in the continual development of the F1487 Standard Consumer Safety Performance Specifications for Playground Equipment for Public Use. The original standard, F1487-93 was published in 1993 and subsequently replaced by the current version F1487-01, published in 2001.
100 Barr Harbor Drive
West Conshohocken, PA 19428-2959
The Consumer Product Safety Commission
is an independent agency within the United States Federal Government with the authority to inform the public of current product safety performance information and recommended practices. The CPSC first published their guidelines for public playgrounds in 1981 and have updated their publication several times since then. The current CPSC Handbook for Public Playground Safety, publication #325, is an excellent guide for owners and operators of public play environments.
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
Washington, DC 20207
Product Service, an international testing and certification organization is a European Union Notified and Competent Body providing services which include product testing and certification. The highly visible TÜV-Mark demonstrates to customers that safety testing and certification has been completed by an independent third-party organization. The “S” pictogram combined with the statements “Safety tested”, “EN 1176” and “Production monitored” indicate that these products have passed a comprehensive testing procedure based upon the European Harmonized Standard for Commercial Playground Equipment, EN 1176 and that the GameTime production plant is regularly monitored by TÜV. Contact your international GameTime distributor for complete EN 1176 compliance details.
TUV America, Inc.
5 Cherry Hill Drive
Danvers, MA 01923
United States Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board
Access Board (The United States Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board) has completed Accessibility Guidelines for Play Facilities as set forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The Final Report of the Regulatory Negotiation Committee is available via the internet:
1331 F street, NW
Washington, DC 20004-1111
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