Friday, November 20, 2009

Profit Motive Scales Down Today’s Playground Equipment

Safety and design experts had a lot to say about the latest generation of playground equipment at a recent National Recreation and Parks (NRPA) trade show in Salt Lake City. A common observation was that manufacturers not only are cutting back by using cheaper materials, but they also are reducing the overall size of products such as slides and climbing structures.

This is being done simply to reduce overhead costs, instead of providing playgrounds with the best possible products. The unfortunate end result here is a less exciting and enjoyable playground experience for today’s generation of youngsters, who as it is spend far too much time indoors in front of screens within walking distance of the refrigerator. With the considerable rise in childhood obesity and health problems compared to generations past, playground activities and equipment should be as fun as appealing ever, not scaled down and cut back.

Sure, today’s playground gear may be softer and significantly safer, but can’t there be a happier medium? Why can’t today’s slides, swings and other playground attractions be safe and as much fun as equipment from the 1970s?

Women’s lifestyle website Divine Caroline takes us back to yesteryear with a photographic review of the elaborate, immense climbing structures, slides and swing sets circa a generation ago. The designs that currently dominate the landscape in parks and school yards all over the nation pale in comparison in terms of visual appeal and their ability to inspire fun and excitement.

This phenomenon of cutting back on the quality and overall enjoyableness of a product reminds me of what’s happening to our favorite food and candies, which used to be packaged in generous portions. Revamped, watered-down recipes are changing the taste and texture of all kinds of food products, while at the same time giving smaller portions. And yet the price constantly goes up.

Take my favorite snack from years ago, the Devil Dog, which sadly is no longer what it once was. Today’s version tastes like saw dust thanks to a totally changed ingredient formula. And like so many slides and playground climbing structures, it’s about half the size it was in its heyday.

Playground structures definitely should not go the way of the Devil Dog because outdoor play activity is essential to keep kids happy and healthy. Consumer feedback to equipment manufacturers would be a good start toward improving their products’ appeal and entertainment value.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Surfacing Products Wear Out Quickly, Fail Safety Tests & The "Low-Bidder"

There’s this unfortunate "low bidder" mentality in the playground equipment and surfacing industry. Far too often, manufacturers cut corners and don’t deliver quality, lasting products, especially surfacing materials.

Simply put, many surfacing companies do not use the highest quality polyurethanes in rubber-based materials. So for example, the result is that the top layer of an EPDM surface, which is supposed to be 3/8 of an inch in thickness, ends up at 1/4-inch after only about a year. This will downgrade the surface’s ability to cut down the force of impact if a child falls, an obvious safety concern.

Similar corner-cutting also goes on with construction contractors who lay playground foundations and equipment footings, which aren’t poured according to specification requirements with a minimal amount of concrete. This results in unstable playground equipment after not much time in use.

SBR tiles are another extremely noticeable example of the “low bidder” phenomenon. SBR tiles are manufactured from shredded rubber tires, called “tire buffings” or the “retreats” of truck tires. Buffings are mixed with polyurethane, then placed in a mold and compressed into different shapes.

The polyurethane can be pigmented red, blue or green and act as a coating over the black SBR tiles. This colorful surface is usually short-lived, however, because foot traffic wears the colored polyurethane on SBR recycled tire shred, exposing the tile’s black surface. What happens six months to a year later is a blackened red, green or blue surface, especially on heavy wear zones near slides, swings and other playground equipment.

In addition to the color fading to black, there’s the shrinking over time that creates large gaps and traps dirt, glass, and debris, with the added problem of the surface becoming subject to vandalism. Vandals can easily rip shrunken tiles from the ground and remove a portion of the playground surface.

The most dangerous aspect of poorly made SBR and other rubber tiles is that over time, these tiles won’t meet the ASTM International fall test rating standard after they have been installed more than a year. This may be rubber or polyurethane hardening issues due to sun exposure or extreme cold, and/or the manufacturer may meet too closely to the minimum ASTM-1292 fall height and impact attenuation rating.

Cutting it so close to the minimum fails to leave enough of a cushion to account for wear and tear. So after a year the surface tile will no longer meet the standard development organization’s minimum a year later. This means it will less effectively break a child’s fall.

All this shoddy product manufacturing stems from companies trying to be too competitive and "low bid" their products to undercut the competition.

Florida-based EPDM tile manufacturer Impact Rubber Surfacing Incorporated notes on their website,, “It has come to our attention that there is a new company in our area selling a painted rubber product for a little less per square foot than our EPDM surfacing. Before you buy this inferior and toxic product, you should know a few things about the differences between the EPDM product we install and the painted product they sell.”

The webpage, ominously headed “Buyer Beware,” goes on to compare its EPDM surfacing with SBR recycled tire products. This is a good example of the hyper-competitive state toward which the industry is taking a negative turn.

The site does aptly advise, however, to “know exactly what you're getting before you spend your hard earned money on an imitation product. Ask the company you're dealing with to provide you with their ASTM test results.”

Let’s Play Recreation, Inc. provides a great look at quality rubber tile. The company’s “Safe Guard Fun Tiles are pressure-molded and processed from 100% recycled rubber and urethane binder.” These tiles “can reduce impact from falls of up to twelve feet, and because they’re made from recycled material, they have little impact on the environment.”

This blog’s posting from August 11 provides a solid list of criteria for rubber surface shoppers to consider:

1. Company length of service 15-20 years

2. IPEMA certified (Int. Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association)

3. Factory-direct installation

4. ASTM 1292-04 (Impact Attenuation)

5. ASTM F-1951 (Wheel Chair Accessibility)

6. GSA-approved (General Services Administration)

7. ASTM E-108 (Fire: Pass a Class A)

8. Combined staff experience of 82 years

9. Computerized inventory & state of the art field equipment

10. Certified playground equipment/surfacing inspectors (CPSI) on staff

11. Broad product choices

12. References: min. 50

13. State-licensed for general & specialty product flooring

14. General liability, workers’ comp. & auto insurance of min. $2,000,000 -
      $5,000,000 in coverage

15. Bonding of at least $750,000

16. Extensive literature & specifications to minimize the approval process

17. 5-Year warranty

18. Dun & Bradstreet scoring

19. Active industry & community Involvement

20. Head Start Body Start physical activity consultant on staff

A sound solution here would be to properly qualify and accredit manufacturing companies according to the above criteria. “Low bidders” should know that it is not always strictly about the overhead cost and selling price, but many important elements that characterize a quality, desirable playground product.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Clothing and Sun Exposure: Important Keys to Safe Outdoor Activities

Sensible clothing is an essential part of playground safety. Bare feet are always a no-no, as is extensive sun exposure.

Toward limiting sun exposure, the National Program for Playground Safety advises parents and child care providers to avoid scheduling outdoor activities during hours of peak sun intensity, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. standard time. “If outdoor activities during these peak times are unavoidable, encourage the use of protective clothing and sunglasses, suggest playing in shaded areas, and, of course, always use sunscreen,” the organization states on its website.

The NPPS also supplies a “Quick Tips” list:

• Monitor the daily UV Index forecasts for your area (go to or look in newspapers) and plan indoor activities on days of high sun intensity.

• Teach children how to identify and find good sources of shade.

• Keep infants and small children in the shade when outdoors.

• Plan trips to parks and places where adequate shade is available.

• Plant trees that provide maximum shade on school or child care center property.

• Purchase portable shade structures such as umbrellas, tents and tarps.

• Build permanent shade structures such as porches, picnic shelters and fabric shade canopies.

• Include shade covering in the design of playground equipment and recreational areas.

On attire, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission had this to say about helmets: “Make sure children remove their bike or other sports helmets before playing on the playground. Helmets can become entrapped in playground equipment, posing a strangulation hazard.”

Obviously school clothes and playwear are synonymous. “Dress your kids so they are able to play on the playground safely and feel comfortable in class,” wrote educator and freelance columnist Margaret Lavin on

In addition to aptly noting that pants, shirts, dresses and skirts shouldn’t be too tight or too loose, Lavin also has excellent advice on shoes: “No open-toed shoes, flip-flops or high heels. Gym shoes are ideal. Also, check the laces. Kids are often tripping over 10-foot-long, filthy, tattered shoestrings. Velcro for little ones is a wonderful option.”