The Evolution of North American Playgrounds From 1900 to the Present and Beyond

How architects, landscape architects, child-development experts, and equipment designers have revolutionized outdoor play
[ Page 2 of 4 ]  previous page Page 1 Page 2 Page 3 Page 4 next page
Sponsored by Little Tikes Commercial
Kathy Price-Robinson
This test is no longer available for credit

The Rise of Safety Standards for North American Playgrounds

As playgrounds came to be built, accidents began to happen. Children, as they are learning how to use and move their bodies, are bound to have accidents.

Each year, more than 200,000 U.S. children end up in hospital emergency rooms with injuries from using playground equipment. vii According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), most injuries occur when a child falls from the equipment onto the ground. viii

And so along with incidents of injury came standards to create safer environments.

The CPSC, whose playground safety standards are considered the industry norm, has created a checklist to ensure a local community or school playground is a safe place to play:

  • Make sure surfaces around playground equipment have at least 12 inches of wood chips, mulch, sand, or pea gravel, or are mats made of safety-tested rubber or rubber-like materials.
  • Check that protective surfacing extends at least 6 feet in all directions from play equipment. For swings, be sure surfacing extends, in back and front, twice the height of the suspending bar.
  • Make sure play structures more than 30 inches high are spaced at least 9 feet apart.
  • Check for dangerous hardware, like open “S” hooks or protruding bolt ends.
  • Make sure spaces that could trap children, such as openings in guardrails or between ladder rungs, measure less than 3.5 inches or more than 9 inches.
  • Check for sharp points or edges in equipment.
  • Look out for tripping hazards, like exposed concrete footings, tree stumps, and rocks.
  • Make sure elevated surfaces, like platforms and ramps, have guardrails to prevent falls.
  • Check playgrounds regularly to see that equipment and surfacing are in good condition.
  • Carefully supervise children on playgrounds to make sure they are safe.

Americans with Disabilities Act: As any architect, designer, or builder knows, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. In 2000, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board issued accessibility guidelines for new construction and alterations of play areas. These guidelines were adopted into law in 2010. As of March 15, 2011, all play areas must be in compliance with these guidelines.

ASTM: Likely all architects, designers, and builders are familiar with the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), which has developed more than 12,500 voluntary consensus standards under the guidance of 140 technical standards-writing committees that represent many diverse industries. But some in the design-build industry may not be aware of the standards created specifically for playgrounds.

The following standards are considered the most important that deal with playgrounds:

  • ASTM F1148: Home Playground Equipment
  • ASTM F1487: Public Use Playground Equipment
  • ASTM F2373: Under Two Play Equipment
  • ASTM F1292: Playground Surfacing
  • ASTM F2049: Fencing
  • ASTM F1816: Drawstrings on Children’s Upper Outerwear
  • ASTM F1918: Soft Contained Play Equipment
  • ASTM F2088: Infant Swings

The producers of playground equipment should meet the standards and provide written material to indicate that they have tested their products in an independent lab and that they meet the standards involved. If they do not pass, the products should not be produced.

At the state level, lawmakers have passed legislation or regulations to improve safety on playgrounds. The following states have adopted all or parts of CPSC or ASTM.

Arkansas: The CPSC guidelines were adopted as the standard for outdoor play areas for early childhood programs funded under the Better Chance Program. Sections of CPSC were also adopted for regulations concerning licensing of childcare facilities.

California: This state adopted CPSC guidelines for all public playgrounds. The statewide regulations must include special provisions for childcare settings and address the needs of the developmentally disabled. California Code of Regulation’s Title 22: Safety Regulations for Playgrounds provides detailed specifications for the design, installation, and maintenance of public playgrounds, referencing compliance with CPSC and ASTM guidelines as mandatory.

Connecticut: CPSC guidelines have been adopted as voluntary for public use playgrounds.

Florida: Florida’s Child Care Standards include playground safety. Florida’s Child Care Standards (F.A.C. 65C-22.003) include playground safety in the list of potential courses required to be taken by childcare providers.

Illinois: Licensing standards for childcare centers require that protective surfacing be in compliance with CPSC guidelines. Illinois’ licensing standards for day care centers spells out requirements for playground equipment at day care centers. The standards require that protective surfacing be in compliance with CPSC guidelines.

Michigan: This state requires that all new playground equipment must meet CPSC and ASTM specifications. Civil penalties are imposed for those who violate these specifications for manufacturing or assembling playground equipment.

New Jersey: CPSC guidelines have been adopted for public use playgrounds in New Jersey, with rules and regulations for the design, installation, inspection, and maintenance of playgrounds.

North Carolina: Sections of the CPSC guidelines have been adopted in childcare facilities, including use zones and surfacing, age and developmentally appropriate equipment, and prohibitions of protrusions and entrapments. These state requirements also prohibit the use of gravel for surfacing if the area will serve children less than 3 years of age.

Oklahoma: Oklahoma’s Child Care Standards include playground safety but make no mention of CPSC guidelines; rather, the standards include fall zones of at least 6 feet for all equipment except for swings, which require a fall zone a distance twice the length of the swing’s chain. The regulations also include entrapment and entanglement hazard prevention, as well as swing seat composition requirements.

Rhode Island: Rhode Island requires that public school playgrounds—including equipment and surfacing—comply with CPSC guidelines. Bond money was allocated to remove old, dangerous equipment and install new, safer playgrounds.

Tennessee: Tennessee’s Child Care Standards suggest that childcare centers use CPSC guidelines for guidance on playground construction and maintenance, but compliance is not required. Tennessee rules state that fall zones should be between 4 and 6 feet, which is not in compliance with CPSC guidelines, which require a minimum of 6 feet. However, the Tennessee rules for playground surfacing require that surfacing type and depth is in compliance with CPSC’s guidelines.

Texas: Texas requires compliance with the CPSC guidelines for the purchase and installation of new playground equipment and surfacing if public funds are used.

Utah: Licensing for childcare centers require that the protective surfacing must comply with CPSC guidelines and ASTM standards. The rules also require a fall zone of 6 feet surrounding all playground equipment.

Virginia: Virginia’s childcare standards include playground safety. The Minimum Standards for Licensed Child Day Centers for Virginia (22 VAC 15-30-310) require that a center develop written playground safety procedures, which must include provision for active supervision by staff and a method of maintaining resilient surfacing.

Wyoming: Wyoming’s regulations cover childcare centers and family childcare homes. Rules address outdoor play space size, supervision, surfacing, use zones, and equipment. Wyoming also has standards for weather conditions and natural environment of play areas.

Evolution of Surfacing

The earliest playgrounds, sometimes fashioned from vacant city lots, were situated on asphalt or hard-packed dirt. As injuries occurred and continued, guidelines were developed to make falling safer for children. ix

According to the CPSC, unacceptable surfacing beneath playground equipment includes asphalt, most carpeting, concrete, dirt, grass, and wood mulch treated with cremated copper arsenate (CCA), a preservative known to cause cancer.x

 Advancements in shock-absorbing surfacing have made playgrounds safer than those built on concrete, asphalt, or packed earth. In many areas, advanced surfacing is required by building standards and codes, particularly for public and school playgrounds.

Photo courtesy of Little Tikes Commercial

Advancements in shock-absorbing surfacing have made playgrounds safer than those built on concrete, asphalt, or packed earth. In many areas, advanced surfacing is required by building standards and codes, particularly for public and school playgrounds.

According to the CPSC, there are two options available for surfacing public playgrounds: unitary and loose-fill materials.

Unitary materials are typically rubber mats and tiles or a combination of energy-absorbing materials held in place by a binder. The material might be poured in place at the site and then cured. This forms a unitary, or one-piece, shock-absorbing surface.

Newly developed surfacing materials, such as combinations of loose-fill and unitary, should be tested to ASTM F1292. It’s important keep in mind that some darker-colored surfacing materials can become extremely hot when exposed to the intense sun and can cause blistering on bare feet (proper footwear is strongly recommended when using play equipment). In hotter climates, the architect, landscape designer, or specifier should choose lighter-colored materials or provide shading to cut down on direct sun exposure.

Before specifying a unitary material as a playground surface, ask the manufacturer for ASTM F1292 test data that will identify the critical height rating of the desired surface. Some unitary systems require professional installation.


[ Page 2 of 4 ]  previous page Page 1 Page 2 Page 3 Page 4 next page
Originally published in May 2015