PLANNING KEY TO A SAFE BACKYARD PLAYGROUND
Courtesy Donna Thompson, Ph.D., Director,
Heather Olden, MA, Program Coordinator
Elaborate play structures are popping up in backyards across America. Simple swingsets have been replaced with a myriad of options for climbing, swinging and sliding. But as a family starts dreaming of creating the ultimate playground in their own backyard, safety must remain a top consideration.
Making your backyard playground safe and fun requires planning, according to Donna Thompson of the National Program for Playground Safety. “A well-designed play area can greatly reduce the likelihood of injury along with providing hours of fun,” she says.
Start the planning process by choosing the location, one with proper drainage and preferably some shade. Measure the area since the amount of space will affect which components you choose. Then figure out what your kids like to do. Are they climbers? Do they enjoy pretend play? Is sand the ultimate play experience? Not every play structure has to have swings or a slide so make your wish list reflect what your kids will enjoy most.
With this information in hand, visit your local outlet for playground equipment. Ask if equipment meets the Home Playground Standard ASTM-1148. If it doesn't, don't buy it, Thompson says, because it may not meet today's safety standards. If it meets the standards, you are ready to design your playground.
"When looking at equipment, adults tend to think bigger is better," says Thompson. "But the higher the equipment, the harder the fall, especially for young children." Research shows equipment taller than 6 feet doubles the possibility of injury. Choose age-appropriate equipment, especially if your children are young. Preschoolers are often injured when they play on equipment designed for older kids. A good rule of thumb is if you have to lift your child up to use the equipment, it isn't safe for him or her to use.
After choosing the components, lay out your playground allowing at least 6 feet of open space around the equipment. This space allows children to use the equipment without swinging, jumping or falling onto other equipment. Whether you're installing the equipment or calling in a professional, be sure the structure is firmly anchored in the ground to avoid injuries from tip-overs. Inspect the structure for sharp edges and rough wood and be sure all S-hooks are closed. Most importantly, install appropriate surfacing materials under the structure since falls account for more than 70% of playground injuries.
According to Thompson, pea gravel, sand, ground rubber and woodchips are good surfacing materials but need to be 9 - 12 inches deep to be effective. "Many people use the right materials, but not enough to truly cushion a fall," she says.
But concern for safety shouldn't end when the structure is finished. Though kids are in their own backyard, they still need adult supervision. Children 6 years and under should have constant supervision and older kids should be checked on frequently. Thompson urges parents to think about play equipment like they would a backyard pool. Both are great fun, but the potential for injury requires vigilance.