Next Generation Playgrounds New Equipment is Safer, More Interactive

Unfortunately, what was fun for us at the time was also pretty dangerous. Children often fell off the teeter-totters, slides and monkey bars onto rock-hard asphalt or concrete surfaces, jacket strings got entangled on slides and merry-go-rounds causing serious injuries (and worse), children regularly got their heads stuck between poles and bars, and rough metal edges and surfaces led to many scrapes and burns.

New Rules Prompt New Designs

As a result of all this carnage and mayhem, in 1981 the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) published its Handbook for Public Playground Safety, which was designed to provide guidelines for efforts aimed at making playgrounds safer. The handbook was definitely a step in the right direction, according to Tom Norquist of ASTM International, a voluntary standards development organization for technical standards. But, “the guidelines failed to include adequate technical requirements neededfor a testable standard; subsequently, inconsistent interpretations of the guidelines occurred,” he says.

According to Norquist, a new approach to playground safety was put into place in order to avoid further misinterpretations and to include requirements set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As a result, the ASTM and the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association(IPEMA) have worked together over the years to constantly improve and monitor these standards.

Since then, the new standards—coupled with stiff competition among playground manufacturers—have led to the creation of colorful, interactive, and even themed play structures that are not just safer than previous equipment, but provide a ton of fun for parents and children alike.

If your condominium is lacking a great playground, or if the equipment you have is outdated or beginning to show its age, investing in a new play area is not only good for the kids, it may be a boon for the community and the association’s bottom line.

Surface Must be Safe

Each year in the United States, emergency care departments treat more than 200,000 children ages 14 and younger for playground-related injuries—most of which occur from falls and jumps—so what children land on is extremely important when building a play area.

For this reason, playground surfaces and requirements for playground coverings have changed a lot in recent years, says Meghan O’Brien, president of site furnishing company M.E. O’Brien& Sons in Medfield, Massachusetts.

“You have to provide something thatis going to absorb the shock, should a child fall from a piece of playground equipment,” says O’Brien. While materials like peastone and sand have been acceptable in the past, they are not ADA-compliant because a child in a wheelchair cannot negotiate through them, she says.

Materials that are ADA-compliant and safe, O’Brien says, include engineered wood fiber (wood chips), loose-fill shredded rubber, rubber tiles, or rubber poured-in-place. Cost of acceptable and safe surface materials can run from $5 to $14 a foot, she says.

Building Community Through Play

Play areas bring a sense of communityto an association, and are recognized as an amenity that will boost property values. Not only do children bond while playing, but their parents also can make lasting connections while watching their children play.

Every year, the playground industry introduces new and updated products to the market that allow children to twist and turn through tunnels, climb rock walls, make their way over shaky bridges, race down hilly slides, walk a tightrope over an imaginary ocean, push buttons, pull levers, and much more. What hasn’t changed over the years is that kids still like to climb, slide, swing and bounce, but on today’s equipment they typically will do that on one giant playground unit instead of several small structures scattered throughout the playground.

Determining Needs

To determine what your association needs and wants, it’s good to take a brief survey of where playground equip-menthas been and where it’s going.

According to Joanne Hiromura, president of Play Site Architects in Acton, Massachusetts, much of the equipment from baby boomers’ childhoods is still around, although it has been re-designed to prevent entrapment, cuts and burns.

“Swings are still popular, a favorite standby. Slides are also popular,” she says, noting the old-style monkey bars can still be found on most playgrounds.

Newer items that can be found on playgrounds include those with a connection to nature, like large rocks made from glass fiber reinforced concrete, says O’Brien. Along with being very safe and durable, the new manufactured rocks have molded hand grips that allow kids of all ages and abilities to climb them. Siting playgrounds next to hills and open fields also fits in with the renewed emphasis on nature and play, says O’Brien.

Other equipment that has become popular, says O’Brien, are installations that teach fine motor control, like a “Gyro twister” and “Saddle spinner” —both of which rotate or spin based on how the child moves his or her body.

Evos brand climbers with much open space—like the RingTangle, O-Zone and Helix Net—allow kids tosocialize while climbing, promoting upper body strength without entanglement dangers, says O’Brien.

Also popular are rope climbers with galvanized inner cores that prevent them from being cut or vandalized, says O’Brien.

New Developments

Play equipment has come a very long way since the dark days of white-hot metal slides and rusty swing sets. Today’s equipment can be customized to reflect just about any theme or fantasy an association can dream up, Hiromura says.

Many communities in New England are adjacent to water, so Hiromura, a landscape architect, designs customizedplayground equipment with water, boat or dolphin themes. She also designs play structures around special local or historical themes. A playground in Brookline, Massachusetts, that is next to a historic firehouse features actual fire hoses and a fire engine dashboard and steering wheel apparatus that kids can “drive.”

At the higher end of the playground spectrum, condominiums can create full parks, including skate parks, rock climbing areas, climbing boulders, andlife trails that augment the walking experience.

For smaller kids, there are sprawling playsets cast in brightly-colored, heavy-duty, reinforced plastics that allow for gently curved edges that take some of the “ouch” out of playtime.

To help reduce exposure to harmful ultraviolet sunlight, shade canopies canbe set up above all play equipment. Putting a cover on the top of a small climbing structure helps a lot—or better yet, a whole playground can be designed to include shade structures throughout.

The Cost of Fun

Several factors go into determining the cost of a new playground: whetherthe playground is new or is a replacement for an older unit, the size of the site, how many children the structure must hold, the association’s budget, the surfacing material and whether or not the manufacturer also installs the equipment. In some communities, a landscape architect may be called in, at a fee, to design the play structure and make recommendations to the homeowner association.

O’Brien says the playgrounds her firm installs in New England can run from $10,000 to $25,000, depending on the number of children using it and their age ranges.

A typical playground, one that will hold 50 to 60 kids playing at once, will cost about $18,000 and cover 2,000 square feet, she says.

Newer materials and less surface area on new play equipment make new playgrounds far more graffiti-resistant than older areas, which helps to keep down maintenance costs, says O’Brien.

Also proving cost-effective for condominiums are “spraygrounds,” or water park areas in playgrounds where kids can cool off in summer, says O’Brien. Condominiums with spraygrounds get many of the benefits of swimming pools without their costs, like lifeguards and expensive water treatments, she notes.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about purchasing new playground equipment is that it can get kids away from computers, video games and texting—all implicated in poor grades and the growing epidemicof childhood obesity.

“We have a motto, ‘No child left inside,’” says O’Brien. And the best playgrounds, she agrees, draw kids outside into the fresh air.

Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium magazine.

Jim Douglass contributed to this report.

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