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Playground Safety Design and Potential for Child Abuse

By Dr. Arthur H. Mittelstaedt, Jr., EdD

New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman signed the first state-level version of Megan's Law. The federal law, signed by Pres. Clinton in May 1996, mandates uniform sex offender registration in all states and to release that information. In California, for instance, the public can access detailed information on the state's more than 63,000 registered sex offenders. However, Fresno, Calif.'s KFSN-TV reports that of the 1,691 Fresno County sex offenders listed on the state site, 323 of those are in violation of Megan's Law. Further, Fresno private detective Rocky Pipkin estimates the website is only about 60 percent accurate. Some counties have gone a step further, making it illegal for registered sex offenders to live within 2,000 feet of a school. Monitoring or enforcing compliance, however, is proving difficult.

Safety of playgrounds, parks, malls and other public assembly facilities can be directly traced to the administrator as policy implementer and to his superiors as policymakers. The priority of attention directed to safety is ordered or ranked in importance by the policy administrator and supported by funds allocated to him by the policymakers.

Public playground safety depends on the extent of the administrator’s attention and the scope of his interpretation of the significance and important of safety. In a department’s capital projects plan, a detailed checklist or guideline should be established that pinpoints specific hazards to the consumer or user of parks and other facilities that require attention. The Consumer Products Safety Commission is taking tremendous steps to overcome the hazards in many products, many of which are recreational products.

Administrators continue to overlook the hazard that exist in playground facilities improperly planned, designed, engineered and constructed. This problem relates to public playground safety and must be corrected by competent personnel.

Another aspect of internally introduced problems is in operational services of a department, programs and accompanying leadership in the direction or supervision of activities with often improper or unqualified staff. The administrator tends to provide programs and activities to a nonrelevant population, in the wrong place, in an inadequate space, with unsafe equipment along with personnel that are untrained, with unchecked backgrounds, nonsensitive to children's needs, over or under reactive, unconcerned and sometimes even insecure. This tendency not only can introduce harm to the playground consumer or user, but hostility among the playground public. The maintenance of the facility is also another internally introduced function in recreation services that tends to contribute to the encouragement of an unsafe environment.

The lack of interpretation and attention to the many hazards generated by disrepair that arises from lack of proper maintenance can cause harm and ultimately public hostility.

An important design priority should be playground lighting for increased public safety and for greater use of the facilities without fear. Restroom and sitting areas should be designed in open areas. The number of entrances to a playground should be minimized and visable to those within and outside the park.

An Operational Concern

The management systems used to administer the delivery of park programs and maintenance is also an internal force that affects the atmosphere that can induce or reduce unsafe and insecure park environments and is important to consider. Safety can quickly appear as a major consideration. This is not a philosophical concern, but an operational concern that reflects a need to restructure and restrengthen the management of the delivery system to the public. This implies the importance of safety and that our management processes can overcome the problems of unsafe and insecure conditions and situations that might be created internally. The safety or our playgrounds as reflected by the internal attention to and interpretation of what has to be done to better protect and serve the park user must be considered, and not just by pointing the blame on outside forces.

Designers, Planners, Administrators Must Do Their Part

The increasing potential for child abusers, pedophiles, stalkers and other antisocial and criminal elements is becoming obvious, with legislators seeking to prohibit their access to playgrounds, schools, daycare centers, churches and other places where children may congregate. Because playgrounds are vulnerable, administrators of such facilities must have their facilities planned, located, designed and constructed in locales where such antisocial and criminal elements can’t have access.

Those responsible for the design of such playgrounds must make sure the owner/operator has considered this problem as it will get less possible to legislate the limited areas in which such criminal elements may go in a community when they are on probation or release. The designer and the installer must do their part in resolving this treat to the children and youth in our neighborhoods.

The playground administrators and designers, the local and national law enforcement agencies, the representatives of ASLA, AIA and American Society of Civil Engineers as well as the playground and park and recreation agencies should open up more communications and involvement in conferences and institutes on designing of playgrounds to eliminate antisocial activities.

Revised new existing publications on playground design, written should devote considerable attention to functionality and realistic concerns of law enforcement personnel in combating pedophile and other related activities. The design of playgrounds should meet the special needs of each age group but deterring the potential for child abuse.

Innovative Approaches

The guidelines for playground planning and other recreation facilities should include the recognition of new activities, innovative approaches and challenging concepts where activities may be effectively conducted and supervised and where the greatest safety precautions can be maintained.

The design of playgrounds should be functional, foster safety and resource protection, thus creating a low-tension atmosphere. The restroom and sitting areas should be designed without concealment in open areas. The number of entrances to a playground should be minimized but to no less than two and be in visual proximity to a broader public. The design of playgrounds should allow for fences, barrier islands, or plant growth facilitating separation of activities but affording visibility. An important design priority should be playground lighting for increased public safety and for greater utilization of the facilities without fear.

Professional associations should conduct research on the space and personnel needed in playgrounds for safety. Local agency need to present a better understanding of the rules and regulations concerning the use of playgrounds and recreational facilities and an appreciation by the press and public of the problems facing these officials. Local agencies need frequent evaluation of rules, which is essential to retain public acceptance. Public suggestions should be encouraged in written form and also suggestions boxes should be adequately placed.

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December 9, 2019, 10:14 am PDT

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