Designing and Maintaining Safe Playgrounds

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Business and Operations

When considering playground equipment and layout, you should keep in mind three different age groups—infants and toddlers under two, two- to five-year-olds (preschoolers), and five- to 12-year-olds (school-age kids). Different-age children will use different playground equipment, and you will need to design your outdoor play area with all of their developmental needs in mind.

If your school has students in these age groups using the same outdoor space, you’ll need to separate play areas (both physically and with proper signage). Here are some things to check for to ensure the equipment is designed and spaced to be safe:

  • Guard rails and protective barriers should be in place for elevated surfaces, including platforms and ramps.
  • Play structures more than 30 inches high should be spaced at least 9 feet apart.
  • Swings, seesaws, and other equipment with moving parts should be located in an area separate from the rest of the playground.
  • Swings should be limited to two per bay.
  • Tot swings with full bucket seats should have their own bay.
  • Swings should be spaced at least 24 inches apart with 30 inches between a swing and the support frame.
  • Be sure there are no spaces that could trap a child's head, arm, or other body part. All openings on equipment (for example, rungs on a ladder) should measure less than 3½ inches or be wider than nine inches.
  • Playground equipment with moving parts—like seesaws and merry-go-rounds—should be checked for pinch points that could pinch or crush a child's finger or hand.
  • There should be no broken equipment.
  • Wooden equipment should not be cracking or splintering.
  • Metal equipment should not be rusted.
  • The fence surrounding a public playground should be in good condition to prevent kids from leaving the supervised play area.
  • Surface materials on the playground should be maintained regularly so that the surfacing is loosely packed and covers all appropriate areas—especially the fall zones surrounding playground equipment.
  • Playground equipment should be made of durable materials that won't fall apart or be worn down too much by the weather.

Check for objects (like hardware, S-shaped hooks, bolts, and sharp or unfinished edges) that stick out on equipment; these could cut a child or cause clothing to become entangled.

All hardware on equipment should be secure, with no loose or broken parts. Plastic and wood should show no signs of weakening, and there should not be any splintered or rusted surfaces.

Additional ISM resources:
The Source for Business and Operations Vol. 6 No. 8 Playground Safety Tips
The Source for School Heads Vol. 13 No. 9 The Professorship of Play

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 34 No. 11Recess May Be More Than You Think
I&P Vol. 31 No. 14 Replace, Repair, Renew: Why a Facilities Audit Helps

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