The basics of a functional and safe playground

YIT CORPORATION News, April 6, 2016 at 11:00 a.m.

A carefully designed and built playground brings fun and enjoyment to the outdoor facilities of a housing company. Having the right plans and designs is key to creating an attractive play area that is easy to maintain and lasts a long time.

“Playground equipment provides the setting for a child’s self-directed play,” says Esa Junttila, an expert in playground safety and Managing Director of Safe to Play Oy.

It is very important that the setting for play is functional and safe. The key is careful planning and design. It pays off even if you are only building a swing and a sandbox in a small yard.

“Having a playground designed by a professional is neither expensive nor time-consuming, but it ensures peace of mind for adults and joy for children. Having the exact placement of products defined also makes the job easier for the party responsible for the installation of playground equipment.

The swing is an all time favourite

The first step is to assess the environment both above and below ground. Underground rock, for example, can hinder the installation of the foundations for a swing. Deep collection containers for solid waste and waste collection sheds should not be located near a playground. Rain water gullies and rug beating racks are also significant safety hazards. Having a car park in the vicinity is not a problem in itself, as long as its boundary is clearly defined and visible, and children do not run to the playground through the car park. Junttila also includes fixed ladders in his list of potential hazards. He also points out that the surface of the playground is an important safety consideration.

“The surface of a playground must cushion against impact. Soft grass can be used underneath swings if rubber safety mats are installed where grass would otherwise be worn down. The shock absorption capacity of a lawn can be tested.”

Restraint is key when it comes to choosing playground equipment. A swing purchased without appropriate planning might not fit the intended space, or a playground can end up underused if the equipment is wrong. As children grow, they typically expand the space they use for play. By the time they enter first grade, they no longer spend much time out in the yard of the housing company. For this reason, playgrounds outside apartment buildings should consist of products intended for children under the age of six. Junttila favours products that represent a consistent theme. Sandboxes and playhouses provide endless inspiration for play.

“Swings are also great. Everyone, children and adults alike, enjoys the rocking motion of a swing,” Junttila says.

Durability as the primary criterion

Junttila points out that the equipment for housing company playgrounds must consist of products intended for public spaces. Toys and equipment intended for private use do not offer the required structural durability. All playground equipment must satisfy the EN1176 standard. Even the seat of a swing is subject to several standards. Housing companies are legally required to ensure that playgrounds are safe. The housing company committee can be held liable for injuries. Junttila says playground equipment is similar to cars in a sense. Many manufacturers offer no-frills models as well as top-of-the-line models with special features. Higher-priced products offer greater durability, but even the bare-bones models often meet the needs of both the housing company and the children that use them. However, Junttila says products made from untreated wood should be avoided. Playground equipment is exposed to the elements all year round. Products made from untreated wood will quickly suffer from decay.

“I occasionally see playground swings made from the kind of small-diameter iron pipe sold at the hardware store. They are safety hazards unless they are strictly for light private use,” Junttila explains.

Maintenance is nothing to play with

Some playground equipment looks like it would be easy to make it yourself. However, their simple appearance belies the years of development and testing that have gone into them. Junttila says there are no rules against making playground equipment yourself. However, producing DIY playground equipment means the housing company will be subject to the provisions of the Product Liability Act. As one example, Junttila points out that the corner joints of a sandbox are subject to tremendous pressure from the sand. If the joints are not up to the required standard, sand will get into them and the joint will eventually give way.

“If you decide to build a DIY swing, you must make it ridiculously sturdy. Only then will it stand up to years of heavy use,” Junttila says.

Over the past couple of decades, playgrounds have taken major steps forward not only in terms of safety, but also aesthetics. The galvanised chains previously used in swings have now been replaced by attractive stainless steel. The improved aesthetics sometimes lead to greater wear and tear. This means that maintenance is the most significant aspect of playground safety. In spite of its significance, many housing companies are unaware of who is responsible for it.

“Housing companies typically outsource maintenance to property managers. Property managers tend to be focused on the maintenance of the building itself,” Junttila explains. 

However, this potential problem is easily prevented. It is enough to regularly assess the condition of the playground. This should be done at least once a year to ensure that the playground is maintained appropriately to ensure that it remains an outdoor oasis with a long useful life and is easy on the eye for residents of all ages.

A three-step programme for maintaining a safe playground

Cleanliness: ensure that the playground remains clean and tidy. Replace the sand in the sandbox once every two years.

Repairs: take immediate action to repair broken or decaying structures. Replace worn-out components (such as the bearings of swings).
Painting: maintain the painted surfaces of wood products before the paint begins to flake off. If the structures have become greyed, sand them down to expose healthy wood before repainting.

Esa Junttila
One of Finland’s leading experts on playground product safety.

Managing Director of Safe to Play Oy. Has served as a safety expert for Lappset and participated extensively in the standardisation of playground equipment. Provides training on playground safety and the safety of outdoor facilities for physical exercise, conducts VYL (Finnish Association of Landscape Industries) certification for professionals in fields related to playgrounds and physical exercise facilities.

More information:

Hanna Malmivaara, Vice President, Communications, YIT Corporation, tel. +358 40 561 6568, hanna.malmivaara@yit.fi

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