Playground design: It’s more than child’s play
Play comes easily to children, and it takes only a little thought for them to turn anything into a toy: Slap a board over a barrel, and call it a seesaw; tie a tire to a limb, and the tree becomes a swing set. Unfortunately for cities, designing the perfect playground involves more than balancing a board or tying a knot. In addition to a sense of fun, it requires attention to a variety of adult concerns.
While cities attest to waiting lists for public playgrounds, meager budgets and limited space mean that it often takes years for them to fulfill the demand. For officials in charge of playgrounds, the delay means that the projects that make the cut must be fun, safe and attractive for a very long time. And that starts with design.
How old can you go? Although new park construction almost always includes playgrounds, new parks are few and far between in most cities. Therefore, the majority of playground installations occur at existing parks, where equipment is non-existent or in need of upgrades. Once the decision is made to install playground equipment, cities must sort through a lengthy list of design considerations. For example, budget, space, the ages of the users, safety, accessibility, maintenance and even climate will influence the outcome.
Budget and space availability are likely to be predetermined, making user age the first variable in the design process. “We just put three playground structures in a park, and we asked the neighborhood association what target audience they wanted to serve,” says Michael Moran, superintendent of recreation for the Iowa City (Iowa) Parks and Recreation Department. “The park is adjacent to an elementary school, so they wanted to keep the playground all elementary-appropriate (ages 12 and below).
“They wanted three components,” he adds. “They wanted action and adventure items, like a climbing net, that would be highly functional for fifth and sixth graders; they wanted a smaller component, where everything would pretty much be based on the ground, for the kindergarteners and first and second graders; and they wanted climbers.”
In Tampa, Fla., the city has established standard playground footprints for specific age groups. “We bid out a three-year contract for playground equipment, and, for those three years, we’ll use the same footprint in every park we put that piece of equipment in,” explains Pat Plocek, special services manager for the Tampa Parks Department. “We have a tot playground, which is basically for 2- to 5-year-olds (and may include slides, climbing components and activity panels), and we have two footprints for the 6- to 12-year-olds (the components are higher than the tot equipment, with fewer activity panels and more slides and climbing apparatuses).
“We’ve put very few of the tot playgrounds in because the kids grow out of them very quickly,” he notes. “If we have a daycare facility within one of our parks or something that will constantly have that type of age group, we’ll put that type of equipment in.”
The wish list The sale of playground equipment is a multi-billion dollar industry, and the possibilities for features and combinations of features are almost as endless as a child’s imagination. The good news for cities is that, regardless of the age groups they want to target, several play structures appear to be universally appealing.
“Swings are probably the most popular thing you can put in a playground, but they are separate from the component unit,” Plocek says. (By “component,” he is referring to modular equipment. It begins with a central, box-shaped “module,” to which features such as slides, climbers, tunnels and decks are attached.) “Slides and climbing devices come in after that.”
Moran attests to the popularity of climbers, while Nanette Smejkal, parks and recreation coordinator for Glendale, Ariz., adds that moving pieces (such as zip lines) or bouncing features also are appealing. “Things that you can bounce on, where the piece has springs and actually moves within the structure, are being offered by several of the manufacturers,” she says. “We’ve gone through a few parts on those because they are so popular.”
Given the constraints on budget and space, and the desire to get the most use out of both, designers may feel the urge to weight a playground with a particularly popular feature. However, variety should be the guiding force, Plocek says.
“You really need to look at how many different play opportunities [you can provide],” he notes. “How many slides does the unit have? How many activity panels? How many climbing poles or climbing apparatuses? Sometimes those activity panels are almost as popular as the climbing units, so you’ve got to kind of trade off.” (Examples of activity panels include panels imprinted with a car dashboard or a ship’s deck. Attached steering wheels prompt children’s interaction.)
“We try not to overkill,” Moran adds. “Usually, we’re just going to install one climber, one swing set and one slide. We will not go in there with three climbers; we try to give [the children] variety.”
While much attention is given to the actual play structures within a playground, other components — benches, water fountains and canopies, for instance — require equal consideration, Smejkal says. “A water fountain — especially in Arizona — is a must, and we include seating areas for parents. We’ve also experimented with a couple of varieties of canopies, and, once we’ve got an idea of how easily they’re maintained and what their longevity is, we’ll probably want to retrofit some existing playgrounds.”
“We usually try to get at least two benches around a piece of playground equipment, and it’s better to put them in the shade,” Plocek says. “We try to locate them in a way that the parents have a view of the greater part of the activity in the playground.” He adds that a water fountain is located within or near each playground, and some of Tampa’s playgrounds include bike racks.
The ‘mod’ern playground In addition to determining its target audience, and the number and types of playground components to include at a site, a city must choose the materials that best meet its playground needs. There was a time, not too long ago, when the material of choice was wood because of its attractiveness and its natural compatibility with a park setting. Today, however, cities are turning increasingly to modular equipment, cast in plastic and assembled with metal support structures such as posts, bridge decks and rungs.
Part of the interest in modular configurations is that they make for interesting play areas, says Barry Martin, recreation coordinator for the Everett (Wash.) Parks Department. “Before parks could use a lot of plastics, slides were metal, and it was difficult to do a bunch of different configurations,” he notes. “But with advancements in plastics and polymers and their compositions, parks can mold [slides and other features] into a variety of shapes.
“For example, with climbing rocks, manufacturers can mold [the plastic] so it looks like a rock; give it a texture that feels like a rock; and mold in hand-holds so people can climb them safely,” he explains. “They also can make bigger pieces of equipment. You can have three slides, side by side, but [in one unit]. They can have different configurations, with curves, bumps and ridges, but they’re molded from one piece of plastic.”
Plastic provides a special benefit for cities with warm climates, Smejkal says. “Wood just does not maintain very well in the extreme heat and dryness [of Arizona], and anything metal is a real problem for us,” she explains. “A metal slide is just intolerable in the heat and the sun; even the plastic components get extremely hot here.”
Martin notes that, within the last five years especially, modular components have become more commonplace in city playgrounds. During that time, he says, manufacturers have made the products more UV-resistant and colorfast, which is an appealing feature for some parks personnel.
“One of the benefits of modular structures is the colors,” Martin says. “You can get a fantastic array of colors, so it’s real bright, and the playground’s more attractive and fun for the kids.”
For Moran, that aspect has led to a few complaints. “Some people just don’t like the wild colors,” he says. “If you’re into making playgrounds colorful — with reds and yellows and greens and blues — some people just don’t like to look out their kitchen window in the morning and see that. Some people don’t like Yogi Bear painted on the side of [a piece of equipment] either. You have to be careful with what you pick out, so we try to give [residents] all the options, including colors, and let them be a force in choosing.” Color complaints aside, Iowa City uses only plastic components in its playgrounds. “Wood was a real popular playground source, but we found that wood does not last as long as plastic, and it’s a high-maintenance item for us,” Moran says.
The modular quality of the plastic also makes it easy for him to manipulate a design within his budget. “If I’ve only got $10,000 to spend on a playground, and the manufacturer thinks he’s got a piece that’s just perfect for me for $12,000, he can probably find a component that he can take off to get down to $10,000 [without disturbing the overall design],” he says.
That ability to remove or add pieces to the central module is helpful in maintenance, Martin adds. “It’s been easy to change out a component if we’ve had something fail,” he notes. “We had a deck that was starting to fail, so I had it replaced, and I think it took eight bolts. We unscrewed it, put in a new one, screwed it back in, and the kids were playing again. We didn’t have to disrupt the whole playground to do that.”
Cushioning the falls In the same way that playground components include amenities, playground materials include safety surfaces. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), Washington, D.C.; the American Society for Testing of Materials, West Conshohocken, Pa.; and the American National Standards Institute, New York, set the standards affecting equipment use and layout in public playgrounds. The CPSC recommends that playgrounds be covered with an energy-absorbing surface — for example, mulch, wood chips, sand, rubber tiles or pea gravel — to prevent injury from falls. The surface also aids in accessibility and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition to performance, cities choose their surfaces based on availability and maintenance demands. The surfaces fall within two categories — organic and inorganic — and there are pros and cons with each, Moran says.
“The organic materials look nice, are conducive to the outdoor environment and provide a nice cushion,” he explains. “They have a low initial cost, are very easy to install, generally provide pretty good drainage and are usually readily available. You can always get wood chips and bark mulch.
“Sand and gravel are pretty good because they have a low initial cost as well, and they’re pretty easy to install,” he continues. “They’re non-flammable and readily available, and, in some cases, you don’t get any bio-growth, whereas with wood chips, you might get a mold or a fungus that starts in there. On the other hand, with sand, animals are attracted to it, so you get animal excrement in it, too.” Moran adds that some cities in Illinois are experimenting with shredded tires as a safety surface, but it is too soon to tell whether that will become a viable option for future playgrounds.
Parks departments must be sure that, in addition to cushioning falls, their safety surfaces encourage handicapped access to play structures. “You’ve got to make the playground itself accessible, and then you need to provide access to the play structures themselves,” Martin says. “You can use rubberized paths or wood surfacing (which Everett uses), and, within the play structure, you need to have transfer stations, where a person, say, in a wheelchair, can transfer from the chair to the structure.
“Modulars work well for that because, once the person transfers to the structure, he can go a lot of different places and use a lot of features without having to get off,” Martin adds. “He doesn’t have to get back in the chair and wheel around to another side because [the modular equipment] is joined by ramps, bridges, decks, things like that. He can move within the structure.”
Finalizing a safe footprint Once all the variables are defined, the last step in the design phase is to draw the playground footprint. Except in cases of new park construction, a landscape architect rarely is involved. Instead, cities often are relying on their own staffs as well as the guidance of equipment manufacturers.
“If we’re using the existing safety surface but we’re going to buy new modular equipment to fit, then staff is meeting directly with manufacturers,” Smejkal says. “Their staff helps us design [the site] within the space constraint.” Moran oversees a similar process in Iowa City. “We rely on our park superintendent and other staff members to give input on design,” he explains. “And, a lot of times, manufacturers are huge helps.”
In fact, Moran estimates that, when his department begins a playground installation, it turns to manufacturers 90 percent of the time. “It’s a lot easier for them to come in and install it and offer supervision, and then the liability falls directly on them,” he notes.
In Tampa, Plocek says he relies on his staff because of its knowledge of CPCS safety standards. “In some cases, an architect is not familiar with all the safety guidelines that playground equipment requires,” he says. “Cities should strive to get at least one or two of their people certified as playground safety inspectors so they can review their existing units and, when they do get a design from an architect, really take a good look and see that it meets safety standards.”
(The National Playground Safety Institute, which is sponsored by the National Recreation and Park Association, Ashburn, Va., provides training in CPSC playground safety standards. For more information about playground safety, see page 32.)
The pluses of play Part of the appeal of public playgrounds is that they provide activities for children who are too young to participate in organized recreation programs. “A playground will always follow, in our case, a softball field or soccer field development because we feel that we need to give some alternative play options to kids who don’t always participate in some of our higher functioning activities,” Moran explains.
But their value exceeds mere entertainment, Smejkal says. “As parks and recreation professionals, we have to be the stewards and the proponents of play a s something that is not only fun but is absolutely necessary when it comes to the growth and development of children,” she notes. Designed properly, playgrounds provide a safe, sociable environment for children to play in — to exercise their imaginations as well as their muscles.
As Ottumwa, Iowa, prepared to celebrate its sesquicentennial in 1994, officials began considering possibilities for renovating the city’s Central Park. Five years later, the park boasts new landscaping, lighting and benches, as well as a stage for music, drama and other events.
The park site originally served as a “parking space” for customers and merchants who drove their horses and carts downtown. Since its designation as a park in the early 1880s, however, it has been a social gathering spot and has been the primary performance site for the Ottumwa Municipal Band (according to the city, the oldest active city band west of the Mississippi).
The sesquicentennial committee considered numerous options for updating Central Park, and the resulting plan called for a total park renovation and a new band shell. In fact, providing a stage for the city band was uppermost in the minds of project designers. The park had been without a stage for more than 20 years, and the public was anxious to restore that piece of the city’s heritage. (The first Central Park bandstand was built in 1886 and replaced in 1920. The latter stage was removed in the 1970s, during the park’s last renovation.)
Ottumwa began renovating the park in 1995. City staff removed existing sidewalks and roadways and installed a new sidewalk configuration. Employees also removed an ornamental fountain; laid new sod; installed automated sprinklers; planted trees; and placed new benches and trash containers. Finally, the landscape was changed completely to create a uniform slope to the south, where the new performance stage was added last year.
The Central Park renovation and stage construction cost $327,000 dollars, nearly half of which was provided by three contributors: the Ottumwa City Council, the Fahrney Foundation (a locally based trust that grants funds for city projects) and The Ottumwa Courier, the local newspaper. In addition to making cash contributions, the newspaper raised $40,000 by spearheading the sale of commemorative tiles for placement in front of the new stage.
Community and service groups also pitched in. For example, during the summer months, 10 area restaurants provided Friday lunches in Central Park. And, during July and August, the local Firstar Bank invited the public to “Fridays After Five,” a five-week concert series that featured public performances by local bands.
Opened last June, the stage is the site of musical and dramatic performances, as well as civic events, and it serves as the focal point for Downtown Ottumwa. Central Park, meanwhile, has a renewed identity as a gathering spot for the city’s 24,500 residents.
As American interest in hockey and figure skating has grown in the last few years, so has the demand for recreational ice rinks and skating time. For cities that already own ice rinks, the increased demand means longer operating seasons and potentially staggering utility bills.
In fact, the cost of keeping ice frozen indoors while keeping spectators comfortable represents the majority of a rink’s operating budget. However, recent engineering advances have produced several ways for cities to lower their ice rink energy bills.
* Installing low-emissivity ceilings is an automatic first choice for energy savings in almost any ice skating rink. The suspended, foil-faced ceilings can reduce radiant heat load by up to 95 percent and reduce refrigeration energy costs by 20 to 30 percent. Installation costs average $25,000, but savings often make it possible for cities to recoup those costs in fewer than three years.
* Some rink operators simply keep the ice too cold. (The ideal ice surface temperature is 22 degrees F for hockey and 25 degrees F for skating.) Additionally, they keep things cold during off hours, using much more energy than is necessary.
Increasing ice temperature by a single degree (1 degrees F) during operating hours will save approximately 6 percent annually in refrigeration energy costs. To accomplish that, operators must first be sure that their temperature readings are accurate.
For example, rather than measuring actual ice temperature, most ice rink refrigeration control systems measure the temperature of the slab beneath the ice or the refrigerant within the slab. By using an infrared ice temperature sensor, operators can make precise surface readings and set the ice temperature accurately.
Additional savings are possible by raising the temperature when the rink is unoccupied. Automated temperature controls can be programmed to raise the ice temperature during unoccupied periods, yielding a typical savings of 5 to 15 percent of annual refrigeration costs.
* When it comes to ice thickness, less is better. For example, 2 inches of ice will cost approximately 10 to 15 percent more in refrigeration costs than 1 inch of ice. Preventing ice buildup (via a regular ice maintenance program) costs very little compared to the extreme energy costs that occur when ice is too thick.
* The refrigeration circulation pump can cost thousands of dollars per year when it is run constantly. Therefore, incorporating a pump control system that reduces or stops the pump under part load or non-refrigerating conditions can save rink owners substantial amounts in electrical costs.
* If the local electricity rates incorporate a high electrical kilowatt demand charge, rink operators can save money by limiting the number of compressors that operate at one time. In winter months, it may be possible to operate the ice with one less compressor than is used in summer, saving up to $1,000 per month in some cases.
* Although much of the energy expended at ice rinks is applied to refrigerating and freezing, another portion is used to generate warmth. Trying to heat the entire volume of air in an ice rink requires considerable energy and increases the convective heat load on the ice. However, by installing infrared radiant heaters (reflective heaters installed above the stands), rink owners can heat the people in the stands without heating the entire rink. Depending on usage, the heaters reduce annual energy costs by 3 to 12 percent.
* Air movement over the ice surface can increase the convective heat load on the ice. In fact, refrigeration costs can increase by as much as 25 percent with excessive air movement. Therefore, when a mechanical air handling system is used, operators can save energy costs by ensuring that air flows uniformly above the ice and not directly at the ice. * Incorporating a flood water purification system for ice making can save up to 10 percent in annual refrigeration costs. Facilities with high mineral content in their source water can benefit the most both in terms of energy savings and ice quality.
* Because of unique design characteristics, the best energy-saving solution for one facility may not be the best for another. Commissioning an energy audit by a professional engineer with ice rink experience can provide operators with the information necessary to make the most cost-effective tweaks in their energy usage.
This article was written by Brendan Lenko, vice president of engineering and technical services for IcePro, based in Syracuse, N.Y.
Last July, North Hempstead, N.Y., opened the first phase of Harbor Links, a master-planned community that promises to transform an environmentally degraded parcel into a vital public space. At the heart of the plan is the recently completed recreational phase comprising an 18-hole championship golf course, a nine-hole executive course, four athletic fields, a 7-acre nature study area and more than 50 acres of open space.
The $25 million Harbor Links project affects 450 acres that once served as a sand mine. Purchased by the town in the late 1980s, the site represented one of the largest tracts of undeveloped land in North Hempstead and Nassau County. In 1994, the town began looking for ways to generate revenue with it.
“Ownership of the land was becoming a financial burden, so the town looked for a way to recoup that money in an environmentally friendly way,” says Paul Roth, commissioner of public works for North Hempstead. “We were confident that, if we went about this correctly, it could be an economic resource.”
With the help of Greenman-Pedersen, a design firm based in Babylon, N.Y., the town planned Harbor Links. In addition to recreational facilities and open space, the community would include seniors housing, commercial recreational development and retail space. The golf course, however, would seal public support.
Harbor Links provides Nassau County with its first public golf facility, giving the project broad appeal. The 18-hole course is designed as an authentic links-style course, a rarity in the county; and the nine-hole executive accommodates players of all levels. Both courses are accessible to the physically disabled.
As a novice course owner, North Hempstead retained Arnold Palmer Management, Bay Hill, Fla., to operate the Harbor Link courses. “We felt there was a degree of expertise needed in management of a golf course,” says Jerry Olsen, the town’s commissioner of parks and recreation.
Open for less than a year, the facility has proven popular. Although non-residents use it, preference is given to township residents, who receive 92 percent of the tee times.
Olsen says the courses have fulfilled a local recreational need. “It was a real labor of love for a parks commissioner to be involved in a project like this, especially in a community in which golf is so popular that there can be a wait of several hours to play at any local course,” he says. “I think it was the ideal thing for us to put on the site.” Already, the golf courses have exceeded officials’ financial expectations. During the first six months of operation, they generated $1.7 million in gross revenue.
North Hempstead’s development of Harbor Links will continue for years. This summer, the town will open an activity center (to include a snack bar, restrooms and an operations center for the executive golf course), athletic fields and a miniature-golf course. Additionally, the town has sold a 40-acre parcel within Harbor Links, and a private developer is building seniors housing on that site. Officials plan to sell another parcel (estimated at fewer than 10 acres) for private development of commercial recreation and retail space.
The following is reprinted with permission of the National Playground Safety Institute, a program of the National Recreation & Park Association.
1. Improper protective surfacing The surface or ground under and around the playground equipment should be soft enough to cushion a fall. Improper surfacing material under playground equipment is the leading cause of playground-related injuries. More than 70 percent of all accidents on playgrounds are attributable to children falling. Hard surfaces such as concrete, blacktop, packed earth or grass are not acceptable under play equipment. A fall onto one of these hard surfaces could be life-threatening. There are many surfaces that offer protection from falls. Acceptable surfaces are hardwood fiber/mulch, sand and pea gravel. These surfaces must be maintained at a depth of 12 inches, be free of standing water and debris, and not be allowed to become compacted. Synthetic or rubber tiles and mats also are appropriate for use under play equipment.
2. Inadequate fall zone A fall zone or use zone is beneath and near the playground equipment where a child might fall. A fall zone should be covered with protective surfacing material and extend a minimum of 6 feet in all directions from the edge of stationary play equipment such as climbers and chin-up bars. The fall zoneat the bottom or exit area of a slide should extend a minimum of 6 feet from the end of the slide for slides 4 feet or less in height. For slides higher than 4 feet, take the entrance height of the slide and add 4 feet to determine how far the surfacing should extend from the end of the slide. Swings require a much greater area for the fall zone. The fall zone should extend two times the height of the pivot or swing hanger in front of and behind the swings’ seats. The fall zone should also extend 6 feet to the side of the support structure.
3. Protrusion and entanglement hazards A protrusion hazard is a component or piece of hardware that might be capable of impaling or cutting a child if a child should fall against it. Some protrusions also are capable of catching strings or items of clothing, causing entanglement that could result in strangulation. Examples of protrusion and entanglement hazards include bolt ends that extend more than two threads beyond the face of the nut, hardware configurations that form a hook or leave a gap or space between components and open “S” type hooks. Rungs or hand holds that protrude outward from a support structure may be capable of causing eye injury. Special attention should be paid to the area at the top of slides and sliding devices. Ropes should be anchored securely at both ends and not be capable of forming a loop or a noose.
4. Entrapment in openings Enclosed openings on playground equipment must be checked for head entrapment hazards. Children often enter openings feet first and attempt to slide through the opening. If the opening is not large enough it may allow the body to pass through the opening and trap the head. Generally, no openings on playground equipment should measure between 3 1/2 inches and 9 inches. However, an opening in which the ground forms the lower boundary is not considered hazardous. Openings at the top of a slide, openings between platforms and openings on climbers where the distance between the rungs might be less than 9 inches merit special attention.
5. Insufficient equipment spacing Improper spacing between pieces of play equipment can cause overcrowding of a play area, which may create several hazards. Fall zones for equipment that is higher than 24 inches above the ground cannot overlap. Therefore, there should be a minimum of 12 feet in between two play structures to provide room for children to circulate and prevent the possibility of a child falling off one structure and striking another structure. Swings and other pieces of moving equipment should be located in an area away from other structures.
6. Trip hazards Trip hazards are created by play structure components or items on the playground. Exposed concrete footings, abrupt changes in surface elevations, containment borders, tree roots, tree stumps and rocks are all common trip hazards that are often found in or near play equipment.
7. Lack of supervision The supervision of a playground environment directly relates to the overall safety of the environment. A play area should be designed so that it is easy for a parent or caregiver to observe children at play. Young children are constantly challenging their own abilities and often are not able to recognize potential hazards. It is estimated that more than 40 percent of all playground injuries are directly related to lack of supervision in some way. Parents must supervise their children on the playground.
8. Age-inappropriate activities Children’s developmental needs vary greatly from age 2 to age 12. In an effort to provide a challenging and safe play environment for all ages, it is important to make sure that the equipment in the playground setting is appropriate for the age of the intended user. Areas for pre-school age children should be separate from areas intended for school age children.
9. Lack of maintenance In order for playgrounds to remain in “safe” condition, a program of systematic, preventive maintenance must be present. There should be no missing, broken or worn-out components, and all hardware should be secure. The wood, metal or plastic should not show signs of fatigue or deterioration. All parts should be stable with no apparent signs of loosening. The surfacing material also must be maintained, and signs of vandalism should be noted.
10. Pinch, crush, shearing and sharp-edge hazards Components in the play equipment should be inspected to make sure that there are no sharp edges or points that could cut skin. Moving components such as suspension bridges, track rides, merry-go-rounds, seesaws and some swings should be checked to make sure that there are no moving parts or mechanisms that might crush or pinch a child’s finger.
11. Platforms with no guardrails Elevated surfaces such as platforms, ramps and bridgeways should have guardrails that would prevent accidental falls. Preschool age children are more at risk from falls, and equipment intended for this age group should have guardrails on elevated surfaces higher than 20 inches. Equipment intended for school-age children should have guardrails on elevated surfaces higher than 30 inches.
12. Equipment not recommended for public playgrounds Accidents associated with the following types of equipment have resulted in the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommending that they not be used on public playgrounds: * heavy swings such as animal figure swings and multiple-occupancy/glider type swings; * free swinging ropes that may fray or form a loop; * swinging exercise rings and trapeze bars are considered athletic equipment and are not recommended for public playgrounds. Overhead hanging rings that have a short amount of chain and are intended for use as a ring trek (generally four to eight rings) are acceptable on public playground equipment.
To receive a copy of “The Dirty Dozen” brochure, send a request, along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope, to the National Playground Safety Institute, 22377 Belmont Ridge Road, Ashburn VA 20148.