SAFE and Fun Playgrounds: A Handbook

SAFE and Fun Playgrounds: A Handbook

SAFE and Fun Playgrounds: A Handbook was written by Heather M. Olsen, Susan D. Hudson, and Donna Thompson and published by Redleaf Press in 2016. As founders of the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) in 1995, the authors wished to share their expertise in playground safety and give their readers valuable resources to make engaging playgrounds that are free of unsafe risk.

In 1996, NPPS developed a national action plan for the prevention of playground injuries with a panel of experts and analysis by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) based on the acronym SAFE, which stands for Supervision, Age-appropriate design, Fall surfacing, and Equipment maintenance. This book purports to offer a guide to the most up-to-date information on safe playgrounds and play areas.

Chapter 1 – A Brief History of American Playgrounds describes the earliest supervised outdoor playground in the United States in 1825, the sand gardens in 1885, and the ten summer playgrounds overseen by a general superintendent in 1893. By the turn of the century, the playground movement took hold with the formation of the Playground Association of America (PAA).

Early steel playground equipment was designed to build upper body strength with little attention paid to the safety of the equipment or the ground beneath it. By the 1920s, play equipment included swings, slides, merry-go-rounds, jungle gyms, parallel bars and horizontal ladders, and seesaws. These structures were often built over hard-packed earth and designed to be very tall. By 1928, the Playground and Recreation Association of America (PRAA) published guidelines to minimize the injuries on these tall structures, and the National Recreation Association (NRA) issued standards in 1931 to limit slides to 8 feet tall and swings for young children to 6 feet in height. These standards remained unchanged until 1978 when the CPSC asked the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) to assist in the development of safety standards for playground equipment.

The 1970s brought the novelty era in design for climbing and play structures that were sculptures of cement and wood. At the same time plastic components were added to wood play structures that included decks that allowed for continuous play eliminating the need to move between play structures.

In the 1980s the CPSC and the American Association for Leisure and Recreation (AALR) began advocating for better-designed and better-equipped playgrounds. The first guidelines for public playgrounds were published in 1981 by the CPSC in the first edition of its Handbook for Public Playground Safety. Injury statistics that were collected exposed the number of major injuries on the playground.

Advocates in the 1990s and 2000s called for playgrounds that would offer open-ended play in a natural setting with logs, boulders, water features, and other structures to help city children discover nature. Nets and ropes were also introduced to give more dynamic experiences.

Chapter 2 – SAFE Supervision explores the necessity of supervision on the playground to prevent injuries, avoid litigation, and comply with standards of care. The legal dimensions of supervision for programs and individuals serving children are outlined to define negligence, standard of care, and proximate cause of injury. The duties and practices of supervisors include active monitoring, proper positioning in the play area, scanning the area, focusing on the children and not other adults, managing the children’s behavior, and responding to emergencies. Guidelines are given for reporting injuries as well as for adequate staffing levels for supervision.

Chapter 3 – SAFE Age-Appropriate Design describes the need for playground equipment to match the developmental skills and abilities of the children using it. Age-appropriate design minimizes risks while creating developmentally appropriate challenges. Challenges built into play equipment design vary in appropriate heights of the equipment depending on the age of the child and their readiness to meet the challenges. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990 has called for universal design in playgrounds to provide children with disabilities to access the same play areas as typically developing children. National guidelines and standards issued by the CPSC, ASTM International, and the ADA must be followed in playground design.

Chapter 4 – SAFE Fall Surfaces covers the need for appropriate shock-absorbing surfaces under and around play equipment, how to choose effective fall surfacing, and how to maintain it. Guidelines for fall heights vary with equipment, children’s ages, and landing surfaces, and the measurements of the surfacing for safety standards include acceleration from fall height and the impact attenuation of the surfacing. Effective fall surfacing includes loose fill, such as wood chips, engineered wood fiber, sand, pea gravel, and shredded rubber, and unitary surfaces, such as rubber tiles or mats and poured-in-place products. Considerations of the required depths of surfacing, the installation and maintenance of the surfacing, the costs, and the accessibility are outlined.

Chapter 5 – SAFE Equipment Maintenance shows the importance of good maintenance to maintain the usability of the equipment and maintain manufacturers’ warranties, keep children from physical danger, and avoid lawsuits that could occur with injuries. The most common hazards that result from poor maintenance of playgrounds include loose fill depths inadequate to cushion falls from equipment and older play equipment that may not be compliant to newer standards. Materials hazards such as protrusions, entanglement, entrapment, suspended hazards, tripping hazards, and broken or missing parts must be remedied to avoid injuries. Maintenance planning should include a schedule for routine maintenance along with remedial maintenance and preventive maintenance as needed.

Chapter 6 – Planning Your SAFE Playground gives clear guidelines for funding, designing, siting, equipping, providing access, constructing, and maintaining playgrounds. The Predesign phase addresses forming a planning committee and predetermining the needs of the playground. Site analysis requires studying the soil and geology, drainage, slope, vegetation, climate-related factors, existing structures, nearby land use, and any hazardous conditions that may be presented on the proposed site. The Design phase includes deciding on the specific activity centers, selecting the equipment and surfaces for each activity center, and determining the playground budget. The Developmental phase begins with design and construction drawings and ends with the installation of the equipment and surfacing.

A list of Appendixes includes a SAFE Supervisory Checklist, a Sample Injury Report Form for Playground Injuries, ADA Accessibility Checklist, State Regulations, Fall Heights for Equipment, Playground Use Zone Guidelines for Equipment, Routine Safety and Maintenance Inspection Checklist, and Sample Documentation Records. The book concludes with a Glossary, a list of Resources, and References.1

  • 1. Olsen, Heather M., Susan D. Hudson, and Donna Thompson, SAFE and Fun Playgrounds: A Handbook. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press. 2016.