One of the most important factors when planning a new playground is safety. Kids will be using the playground equipment almost every day during most of the school year, and making sure the playground is a safe place to play should be a top priority. Some safety issues need to be addressed before the playground is even started, and other safety issues will need to be prevented even after the playground has been there for years.
Understanding how to keep kids safe on the playground is critical when building a playground for your school. Learning the rules of S.A.F.E and teaching kids how to stay safe at the playground is a great way to prioritize safety in your school community.
Start With Careful Planning
Carefully planning your new playground project will help you eliminate potential safety issues before they even become a problem. There are certain hazards you may not consider right away, such as UV exposure, standing water, excess debris and flimsy equipment. All these potential problems can be addressed in the planning stage of your project.
The playground space needs to have an adequate drainage solution. Drainage is critical in maintaining the safety of the playground and ensuring the equipment stays in working order. Standing water will cause surfacing and equipment to deteriorate much faster than normal and promote the growth of mold and mildew. If you haven’t started developing your playground yet, you may be able to completely solve this issue before building even begins!
The location of the playground determines environmental factors such as soil condition and topography. If you have a few different choices for where you can place the playground on the land you have available, consider the drainage of the different areas. For example, a slight slope can help the water flow away from the playground to the lowest point. Certain types of sub-base, such as coarse gravel, can also help with drainage. The surfacing material chosen will also have an additional effect on drainage.
If the playground will need additional help with drainage, you must take a few extra steps. The playground may need a simple sump, a sump pump, or a French drain. Make sure the drainage path does not go near concrete footers. It’s best to hire an expert when it comes to the drainage part of playground construction!
UV exposure can become dangerous for children, especially during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., when the sun is right overhead. These peak sun hours also happen to be around the time children typically visit playgrounds during recess. There are negative short-term effects, such as sunburn and heat illness. Overexposure is also linked to adult skin cancers.
What can you do in the development stage to prevent excessive sun exposure? While you may think there aren’t a lot of solutions to this problem, adequate planning can help reduce this hazard. During peak hours, the playground should be in at least partial shade. This can be achieved with trees or attractive play shade structures. While some sun exposure is important in vitamin D production, children can absorb the right amount with just a little while under the sun. Adding partial shade is a great way to maintain a balance between UV protection and vitamin D production.
Quality shade structures can block up to 96% of the sun’s UV rays and reduce temperatures by up to 20 degrees. This can make your playground much more comfortable on hot days. Shade structures can also help protect people and equipment from inclement weather like rain or snow.
Excess debris on the playground can be dangerous as well as unsightly. Providing enough receptacles for trash, recycling and other waste can help keep your park clean and free of health hazards.
Plan to place multiple trash and recycling containers around the playground. This will help encourage people to dispose of the food and bottles they may bring into the area. Trash can become a tripping hazard or health hazard if it’s left on the playground, so you need to encourage playground-goers to throw away all their trash. Consider banning the use of glass bottles since broken glass can be challenging to remove from outdoor spaces.
Understand the Rules of S.A.F.E.
When it comes to keeping children safe on playgrounds, remember S.A.F.E. It stands for supervision, appropriate environments, fall surfacing and equipment maintenance. These four factors are critical in maintaining a safe place for kids to jump, crawl, and play.
Kids need supervision whenever they play on playground equipment, whether it’s at school, a park, a community center or even their own home. Some children may not be able to recognize unsafe conditions, and they’ll need someone to help them avoid an injury. This could be a small child wandering into the area where people are swinging.
Other children may participate in unsafe behavior and need someone to tell them that what they are doing is too dangerous. This could be a child misusing equipment, such as attempting to stand on horizontal bars. If anyone is injured, someone needs to be there to attend to them immediately. Without supervision, kids won’t be able to play safely. For school playgrounds, there should be someone who supervises the playground and additional supervisors for other areas if needed.
Design your playground in a way that allows parents, caregivers or school supervisors to easily see the kids and sit nearby. Benches or picnic tables should be placed where there is a direct line of sight to the playground. Post signs that indicate that all kids must have adult supervision to play on the playground.
Playgrounds need to be age-appropriate to be safe for the kids to play on. Children develop different physical and cognitive skills as they grow up, and the playground needs to match the skill level of the children using it. For example, a 3-year-old probably would not be able to use monkey bars safely. An appropriate environment is also free of standing water, debris, rust, splinters, pet waste and other safety hazards.
If you are creating a playground for children under the age of 5, you will need equipment that is designed for early childhood. These playgrounds won’t include high towers, monkey bars or long slides. Early childhood playgrounds are smaller, closer to the ground and include elements that are matched to a toddler’s skill level. Playgrounds for children under 5 can include low slides, tunnels, ramps, stairs and sensory activity panels.
Children between the ages of 5 and 12 are developing new skills and learning to test their limits. These playgrounds can contain more elements, like horizontal bars, balancing areas, ladders, rock walls, sliding poles and more advanced equipment. An appropriate environment for this age group should still be safe while also offering a challenging and exciting experience. Most elementary schools will likely invest in a school-aged playground appropriate for ages 5 through 12.
The next step to keeping kids S.A.F.E. is fall surfacing. An appropriate cushioning material is crucial because 75% of playground injuries are caused by a fall on improper playground surfacing! The different types and depths of surfacing material will greatly affect the cushioning that children experience when they fall. In general, you want a softer material with a greater depth to maximize the benefit of the surfacing. You may also have a budget to adhere to. You can expect surfacing material to take up about 11% of your budget.
Playground surfacing is often tested to ASTM F1292, which is the Standard Specification for Impact Attenuation of Surface Systems Under and Around Playground Equipment. Basically, surfacing tested using these methods will have a “critical height” rating. Any of the equipment for the playground will have a fall height, which is the maximum height a fall could occur from. The critical height of the surfacing must be higher than the fall height of the tallest piece of equipment.
You have a few different options for the type of surfacing. The surfacing can be mats, tiles or pour-in-place, shock-absorbing materials that create a smooth surface around the playground. While this type of surfacing is generally more expensive, it is easier to maintain and appropriate for playgrounds for children under 5 years old.
Loose-fill surfacing is a popular choice and has many variations to choose from. There are engineered wood fiber, rubber mulch and wood chips. Whatever type of material you choose, ensure it is tested to ASTM F1292 and adheres to all minimum fill guidelines. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), loose-fill materials should always be at least 9 inches deep unless you select shredded rubber. Shredded rubber does not compress as much, so it can have a 6-inch depth as long it is maintained.
Other loose-fill materials will compress at least 25% over time and therefore require extra depth to compensate. Loose-fill surfacing needs frequent maintenance because it must never drop below the recommended fill height. Design the perimeter of the playground in a way that contains loose-fill material and discourages displacement.
The last letter of S.A.F.E. stands for equipment maintenance. Keeping all the equipment in good shape is important since damaged equipment can cause injuries. Any broken parts must be taken care of immediately, and the piece of equipment or entire playground should be off-limits until a professional completes the repair. Routine tasks include checking for damage, testing railings and disinfecting high-touch surfaces.
If the playground is relatively new, a warranty might cover any new-found damage. Remember to keep this information available to whoever will be maintaining the playground. If you have an older playground, you may eventually need to begin replacing equipment or updating the entire playground. Old, worn and damaged equipment can pose serious safety hazards as there could be rot, rust, sharp edges, loose bolts or missing components.
Teach Kids About Playground Safety
Part of keeping kids safe on the playground is teaching kids about playground safety and what they need to do when they’re on the playground. While proper supervision is always needed, kids also need to learn how to use the equipment the right way and keep themselves and others out of harm’s way. Here are some tips on playground safety for kids.
Encourage Use of Age-Appropriate Equipment
One of the best ways to keep kids safe is to guide them to use appropriate equipment for their age and skill level. Many school-age playgrounds will be appropriate for kids aged 5 to 12, but a 5-year-old will not do everything a 12-year-old can.
Part of teaching kids about staying safe on the playground is to help them use the safe equipment for them. If a younger kid sees an older kid do something fun on the playground, they may copy them. But it’s up to the supervisor to ensure they don’t push their limits too far and increase their chance of injury. This may mean steering them away from a piece of equipment or helping them use it in a safe way that is appropriate for their skill level.
If your playground is at a school, make sure recess supervisors keep a watchful eye on kids in different age groups to ensure every kid is engaged in age-appropriate play. You might also consider holding recess for younger and older kids on different playground areas or at staggered times to prevent younger kids from attempting to do things they see older kids doing.
If a child needs help with a piece of equipment or is misusing it, the best way to teach them is to just help them use it properly. Many playground injuries come from using equipment incorrectly, and it’s often because the kids don’t know the right way. Remember that kids may need reminders on how to use the equipment as they may forget or think they don’t need to use it the right way all the time.
Teach Playground Etiquette
Most times, children will not be playing on the playground by themselves. They will need to learn how to share the space with others to prevent injuries and help other kids stay safe. Remind them to pay attention to the actions of others, allow other kids to use the equipment and not push, shove or roughhouse. School-age kids are still learning how to interact with others, and playground time is a great place to remind them to be nice to each other and share the equipment.
Safety Guidelines for Equipment
Some equipment may require extra safety considerations. Consider setting rules for your playground with provisions for equipment such as:
- Swings: Swings are the cause of many playground injuries. Only one child can sit on the swing at a time. They also need to stop the swing completely before getting off. Children should be discouraged from jumping off a moving swing.
- Seesaws: Only kids who are of similar size should use the seesaw together. They need to stay facing forward, hang on tight and keep their feet to the sides.
- Climbers: Climbers can be very challenging pieces of equipment for young children and children who don’t have the strength or coordination needed. Kids should not be allowed to race each other on climbers, and climbers should never exceed their capacity limits. Ensure kids are climbing in different areas of a large climber to avoid kids stepping on one another.
- Slides: Discourage kids from attempting to climb up the slide itself. Make sure they climb up the ladder as intended instead. Kids need to slide feet first and only slide one kid at a time.
Playground Safety Tips for Kids
Regularly sharing safety tips with kids will help them remember what they need to do each time they visit a playground. These tips could even be posted on an informational sign by the playground at a height that is easy for kids to read.
- Take turns: Before kids develop social skills, they may be unaware of taking turns and letting the other kids use the same equipment they want to use. Kids shouldn’t push or shove to get on equipment, and they need to wait their turn. Kids also shouldn’t try to use equipment together, like two kids sliding down a slide together. More kids than a piece of equipment is designed for can create new safety hazards and should be avoided.
- No roughhousing: When kids push, shove or play fight, it can make a playground a lot more dangerous. Other than the intrinsic dangers of roughhousing, someone could also fall off a piece of equipment or hit their head on the equipment. Remind kids to play carefully.
- Be aware of your surroundings: Many kids may be so distracted by the thrill of the playground that they won’t be paying attention to surrounding dangers, such as another kid they’re going to collide with. Kids also may use dangerous paths, such as through the swinging area. If they’re not aware of their surroundings, it could cause an injury to themselves or others.
- No running: An important part of playground safety is making sure kids don’t run through the playground. There may be tripping hazards, other kids or they may simply run into something. Remind kids to walk to equipment.
- Ask for help: Remind kids that it’s okay to ask for help. Equipment can be dangerous when misused, so kids should be comfortable asking for help. If they want to use the monkey bars and can’t reach them, asking an adult to help them across is safer than trying to jump.
Perform Regular Playground Inspections and Maintenance
Regular inspections are critical for maintaining a safe playground. While quality equipment will start safe, wear and tear can cause pieces to come loose or degrade. Plan to have regular safety audits that check for any signs of damage and other safety hazards. You may be able to hire a Certified Playground Safety Inspector to inspect your playground regularly, after natural disasters and if safety standards are updated. School staff or community members should perform inspections more often to catch damage before it gets worse.
A safety audit kit is a valuable tool that staff can use to perform a more thorough inspection. Staff can also use our playground maintenance guide and review safety tips from the CPSC. Playground equipment should be always be checked for sharp edges, loose pieces and rust.
Many regular maintenance tasks can be performed easily and without a professional. For example, you can rake and even out loose-fill surfacing to maintain a proper depth across the whole playground. Pay extra attention to high-use areas like under swing sets and at the bottom of slides. Tighten loose bolts with a wrench and disinfect high-touch surfaces. However, any more serious damage should be repaired by a maintenance professional.
Prioritize Playground Safety for All
New playground equipment that meets or exceeds all safety standards is a great way to prioritize safety for your students or community. Old and worn-down equipment may pose safety hazards. Playworld offers quality playground equipment that is designed to adhere to the highest standards of safety and craftsmanship. We are a leader in school playgrounds, sustainability and inclusive play.
When it’s time to update your school, park, or other community areas, contact us for expert help planning, staying within your budget and developing a safe, exciting playground. Browse our playground equipment for inspiration for your new project.