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
Children learn about life through play, including:
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.
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:
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:
Pre-School: 2-5 Years
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:
Basic recommended components:
School Age: 5-12 Years/ Elementary School
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:
Types of surfacing
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
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 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:
Such barriers may include:
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 SafetyThe 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.”IPEMA
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.ASTM
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:Access Board
1331 F street, NW
Washington, DC 20004-1111