Creating Custom Playground Work In A Manufactured World

The following is intended to open discussion over how to
survive being bullied by the commercial playground industry

Necessity for Playgrounds

Once upon a time, not so long ago, communities were our playgrounds where children could freely explore their environment under the watchful eyes of neighbors and family. The foundations of community are quickly disappearing and children are now presented with contained play areas as their only outdoor play experience.

  • 65% of households with children are working (including both parents and single parent households)
  • 63% of children under the age of five are in a regular daycare arrangement, 56% of them in non-relative care
  • 79% of the US population is living in urban areas

Manufactured Equipment as a Model for Playground Safety

It is a common perception that a playground is composed entirely of commercial equipment intended for physical outdoor recreation. Safety guidelines and industry standards keep the realm of possible play features narrow by placing undue liability on play features that do not succinctly follow them. Furthermore, the interpretation of these guidelines by insurance companies and state licensing agencies often results in a “one size fits-all” strategy which puts impossible limitations on anything that is not found in a playground catalog. The legitimacy of guidelines is also brought into question when:

  • There has been no follow-up study on whether safety guidelines have decreased the occurrences or types of injuries on playground equipment.
  • Strict adherence to safety guidelines often leads to the permanent removal of play equipment or ignoring real safety concerns due to the inability to pay for new equipment or surfacing.
  • Unquestioned legitimacy of guidelines to create “safe playgrounds” overshadows a greater need to concentrate on managed-risk methods to expose kids to their limitations.

    Customization of Playgrounds (discussion)

  • How does one introduce real-world experiences in a controlled play environment?
  • Is it possible to return to custom built playgrounds that predated the commercialization of play?
  • Can there be a symbiotic relationship between commercial equipment and custom play features?

The Thrill is Gone

The Intelligencer

The seesaws are gone from Doylestown's Burpee Park, and they won't be coming back, at least not in the same form.
The aging play equipment recently was removed because the boards were broken, snapped by vandals, borough manager John Davis said. Safety, though, also played a role in their removal.
“The way they were bracketed to the pivot, there was a pinch point,” Davis said. “We are going to replace them with more modern seesaws.”
“Modern” seesaws have springs in the middle to moderate their range of motion. That way, if one child suddenly gets off one end, the child on the other end isn't sent crashing to the ground.
In other words, the new seesaws will be “safe.”
But it is precisely that increased safety that a growing number of critics nationwide say is sucking the “play” out of the nation's playgrounds and forcing school-age children to look to skateboards and video games for excitement.
“There's no question that playground designs are dumbed down because of concerns about liability. They're full of slides that barely have any slide to them and seesaws that barely move,” said Franklin Stone of Common Good. “There is no question kids over age 8 think these playgrounds are dumb and just for little kids, so they either take their skateboard and go down the slide on it, or they sit home in front of the television set or video game. And there is no question that children getting out and using playgrounds is good for them and for society. So we need to find a better balance between safety and risk.”
With offices in New York and Washington, Common Good is a nonprofit group that believes many lawsuits have hurt society by leading people to make choices not out of common sense but out of fear of being sued.
And that's just what they say is happening on playgrounds here and across the country. Once-common equipment such as metal slides, seesaws and merry-go-rounds are vanishing. Oftentimes, they are replaced with smaller, lower, plastic versions, perfect for the 5 and under set.
On a recent day at Burpee Park, for example, 3-year-old Joseph Kearney and his 1-year-old brother Liam were having a ball.
“Slides and stairs for both of them,” said their mom, Dawn of Buckingham. “Anything climbing is big.”
But few older children could be found on that playground, or others in the area. Some critics think that's because the playground equipment is no longer attractive to kids that age.
Several reasons are driving the change, but chief among them is the fear of being sued if a child gets hurt.
Doylestown, for example, has not been sued often over playground injuries, Davis said, but it doesn't want to be. Like most towns, it follows guidelines from the National Playground Safety Institute and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
“Certainly, the underlying issue is the safety of the kids. But the litigation situation has been a powerful incentive,” said Davis.
Marc Leathers, a custom playground designer who helped shape the castle playground in Doylestown's Central Park and a new one in Cheltenham, said he sees that all the time from clients.
“Right now, design takes a back seat to safety,” said Leathers, whose firm has been in the business since 1971. “Most schools and municipalities are making decisions based on liability. Thirty years ago, there weren't any standards. Now there are standards and guidelines, and they're very restrictive.”
The National Program for Playground Safety, a nonprofit interest group based in Iowa, began pushing for more safety standards after being formed in 1995. Today, a mixture of requirements and recommendations outline what playgrounds should look like, Leathers said.
But what everyone should keep in mind, Leathers said, is the difference between hazard and risk.
Hazards — exposed bolts, joints that could crush little fingers — should be eliminated. One positive result of new safety standards, for example, has been switching from building playgrounds over asphalt to a springy surface that reduces injuries from falls.
Risk, though, is different. Risk is vital to the success of playgrounds and to the development of a child, Leathers and Stone said. Playgrounds that offer opportunities for children to evaluate a situation and decide for themselves what to do are healthy, they argue.
“I think we may be going a little too far,” Leathers said. “Obviously, we want our kids to be safe out there. But playgrounds are learning centers, and part of that is for kids to have certain experiences and figure things out for themselves. And if kids don't do it on a playground, they grow up protected and don't know how to handle it later.”
No one wants a child to be seriously injured or even killed on a playground, Stone said. But tragic accidents are few and far between, and designing life to prevent all accidents is impossible.
“It's more than just playground risk,” she said. “It's a symptom of expecting our entire society to be risk-free, especially when it comes to our kids. As we try to make things safer and safer, other problems crop up. Keeping your kids safe at home, on the couch in front of the TV, has a lot of negative consequences.”
Some parents here already believe that.
Doyle Elementary School's Home and School Association began raising money last year to add to the school's playground, motivated mostly by a desire to get the kids interested in it again, said co-president Beth Darcy.
“Kids do play on it, but for some kids, there's just not much excitement out there,” said Darcy, who has a daughter in first grade and a son in second grade. “We felt like we needed to offer them some other activities, to inspire and excite kids to be active.”
Some of the playground's equipment is about 20 years old, said Darcy, who, at 37, said she remembers playing on it as a kid.
Some of the existing equipment will stay, but some of it, including a set of swings, will be removed to make way for the new piece to be installed this summer, Darcy said.
“The stuff we played on is considered unsafe now,” she said, “But I would bet money that the rates of injury for kids on playgrounds today is not much different than it was when I was a kid. If there're places to run and places to climb, kids are going to get hurt. And it's important to let them do that. Recess is so much more than just a break from the classroom. Kids are kids. They need to express themselves physically, challenge themselves.”

Sarah Larson can be reached at (215) 345-3187 or

Quick Guide to a Great Playground

  • Watch how children play and imitate their play habits through landscape, play features and activities.
  • Identify natural features in your existing play area and enhance them. Include a variety of natural textures, colors, and terrains.
  • Establish spaces where kids can be alone (reading area) or with friends (playhouse).
  • Realize that the outdoors is not simply for gross motor skill development or “burning energy”. The playground is an independent classroom where children apply what they know.
  • Include different ages in the same play group. Believe it or not, kids learn from kids!
  • Arm yourself with a copy of the US CPSC’s Handbook for Public Playground Safety ( to ward off unknowledgeable inspectors who invent safety guidelines on the spot.
  • Understand that safety has more do with protecting kids than avoiding law suits. Comply to safety guidelines, but where appropriate, use your best judgment (based on experience and common sense)
  • Read what child development research and experts have to say about outdoor play before listening to the advice of a local sales rep for a mainland manufacturer.
  • Conform to Change. Keep your outdoor space flexible and adjust to the growing needs of kids. An all encompassing quick fix out of a glossy playground catalog is expensive, permanent, and narrow minded.

Unsafe for Play?

Unsafe for Play?
Washington Post Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Banning Swings Child safety is one thing, but Americans have become so intent on eliminating every possible danger for their kids that they are stripping playgrounds of fun and encouraging inactivity and obesity. So claims Susan Solomon, author of "American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space," who addressed a gathering of children's advocates, park planners, safety experts, playground manufacturers, psychologists and educators in Washington last week.
To avoid lawsuits, she said, public schools from Portland, Ore., to Broward County, Fla., are ridding playgrounds of swings, monkey bars, tube slides and seesaws. Some have even banned the game of tag and posted "no running" signs on playgrounds. Solomon spoke at a "Value of Play" conference sponsored by Common Good and the American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies.

Is there science linking outdoor play and prevention of child obesity? Nazrat Mirza, attending pediatrician at Children's National Medical Center, said findings are mixed, but children who are always indoors tend to be more sedentary and are more likely to be overweight. She knew of no studies suggesting that playground design or equipment affects kids' weight.

"As long as the kids are moving . . . they are less likely to be overweight," Mirza said.

Some early childhood development research has found that unstructured play is especially good for emotional and cognitive development in children, she added, but none of those studies evaluated various types of playground design.

What Can Parents Do? Child experts at the forum urged parents to:
· Be willing to accept some degree of risk for their children.
· Fight efforts to remove swings, slides and climbing equipment from playgrounds.
· Work with school districts, nursery schools and parks to increase the number of play areas with natural materials and unfenced areas that allow children to use their imaginations when they play. "Parents should demand accountability from schools," said Anthony Pellegrini, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota.

-- Elizabeth Agnvall