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Play Center Safety Considerations

by Dr. Arthur H. Mittelstaedt Jr., Ed.D

Above and below: Tot lots should include shade, small sand and water areas for group play to stimulate the children's social characteristics and a small climbing or crawling apparatus.
Photo: St. Louis Children's Hospital All-Inclusive Playground, "Together We Play" @ Tilles Park, SWT Design.

Photo: Freedom Playground @ MacFarlane Park, Tampa, Fla. Hardeman Kempton & Associates.

Play centers are both indoor and outdoor environs that are increasingly popular in providing childcare and play. They have become congregational points for children ages up to two and two to five, often with parent or guardians or with other caregivers. The play center is often a mix of play units and various apparatuses and furniture designed to look and be creative and imaginative.

Play centers units and equipment afford exercise, creativity and the release of energy. The play elements provide physical, intellectual and emotional values, from climbing, swinging and building to just hollering and screaming.

Young children should be exposed to a free and spontaneous opportunity to play and express themselves before their regular school experiences. Play centers for such children should have fitness nooks, creative and social corners and other spaces incorporated into their care rooms.

Play centers are often found in condo/apartment complexes, preschools/daycare centers, community rec centers, social halls and church adjuncts.

A growing trend is for industry to provide childcare programs for its employees particularly those in executive categories. Similar play center spaces are found in a variety of office or factory buildings. Such play nodes are often achieved without extensive and expensive additions.

There are also playgrounds affiliated with hospitals. (Editor's note: In this issue, we feature two playgrounds built for hospitals, one geared specifically to severely handicapped, live-in pediatric patients. Taking these wheelchair bound children to "regular" parks was just too impractical, nor did nearby playgrounds meet their special play needs.)

College and universities today have increasing numbers of students that bring their children to a campus daycare center. Many such school programs are confined to a small extra room in a classroom building. As a result, the parent/student has limited opportunity to participate in any type of interactive program with their children. The use of play center nodes can offer more.

Some retailers have even been adding childcare centers to their facilities, along with meeting rooms for community use.

Planning considerations

It is imperative that the owner/operator consider the following basis for the planning layout of each proposed play facility. It is to guide the architect or landscape architect in arriving at the most appropriate design of the play environ, so new materials and methods that are being introduced constantly in the field can be considered.

Children do not need encouragement to grow. They want to grow. They do not want to stay small, either in their physical growth or in their ability to handle life. Their entire drive is toward growth, real growth. It is little satisfaction to them just to get bigger and older. How fast or how well they grow depends on the feelings in the adults about them and on the feelings within themselves. These feelings are far more important than any set of principles about growth. Feeling free to grow and feeling able to grow are the keys to growth.

Preschool children (2-5 year olds) require a relationship to the group and team effort, with play elements that require coordination and cooperation among the children participating.
Photo: Adventure Island Playground, Meridian, Idaho. The Land Group, Inc.

Some Thoughts on Childhood Growth and Development

Children grow best in an atmosphere of friendliness and warmth, whether it is with adults or other children. Parental love is the most powerful, most constructive force in a child’s growth. Children grow best when they are interested in what they are doing for its own sake. They will be interested when it has meaning to them.

Children grow best:

  • when they are with adults who are at ease with them and enjoy them.
  • when they are permitted to make mistakes which will not harm them unduly, and are permitted to live with adults who themselves do not pretend to be perfect.
  • when those about them believe in them and express confidence through words and through giving them freely.
  • when those about them understand what purpose they are trying to achieve and team with them or support them in their endeavors.
  • when those who have authority over them permit them to raise questions, to express doubts, to try out their own ideas.
  • when they understand the limits of freedom within which they can make decisions.
  • when those about them deal with them with firmness and consistency.
  • when adults about them behave as adults and show what the grownup way is like.
  • when those about them help them when they need help to succeed, but let them struggle when they are winning by themselves.
  • when those about them gear their expectancy of a child’s behavior to his capacity for that behavior.
  • when those about them understand their developmental needs and provide motivation and opportunities for them to accomplish those tasks.
  • when they feel strong within themselves, when they feel they are just the kind of person wanted by their family and their friends.
  • when they meet actual life situations, emotionally charged and deal with them constructively, with or without help.
  • when the tasks they face are suited to their ability and their performance expectancy is related to themselves rather than to the performance of others.

Stimulate and Motivate

To be effective, play environs must provide certain conditions that will stimulate and motivate the child. The individual child is used as the common denominator for providing recreation services. In activities, there are the various conditions and functions of play that must be available. These conditions and functions are described by J.B. Nash, the noted recreation philosopher, as being essential to child development, as well as the continuing recreation of adults.

The tot lot must have seats and tables appropriately scaled. Sand areas are maintained daily.
Photo: Lake Taylor Hospital Pediatric Playground, Norfolk, Va. LandMark Design.

Foreseeable Misuse and Abuse

The surroundings in which the play apparatus or equipment is placed are critical. Placement of equipment requires considerable care to avoid hazardous or dangerous conditions. All reasonably foreseeable misuse, as well as abuse, must be anticipated by the operator, designer and manufacturer. There are several elements to the environ that must be considered in selecting the space for equipment. The surroundings must be large enough to allow a six-foot use zone around the perimeter of the equipment, unless it is wall mounted; remove out of the way of sharp corners or protrusions from chairs, benches, and other fixtures and be out of traffic patterns unless circulation is specifically directed through the environ to another unit. The environ should have floor surface reflective of the activity, such as wood or synthetic surfacing or safety surfacing particularly if fails could occur. The walls should be cement or brick with epoxy finish and wall mats in areas of possible impact areas. The ceiling height should be a minimum of 10 feet plus, depending upon activity. The illumination should be a minimum of 100-foot candles. The node should have at least two outlets in two different walls, placed out of reach, with all intercoms for hookup to a future monitoring system.

The individualized play/fitness center can be used for small group activity. It is an opportunity for total participation. Once the activity functions are selected, it is important to lay out the relationship of the units conforming to required use zones. These units should follow a progression of play. It is desirable to examine the layout in perspective and elevation as a fitness or play area is dimensional. The equipment and its environ should be scaled for the intended user and not a hodgepodge of different equipment for different age groups. The ASTM Standard on Soft Play is applicable to indoor environs.

Thoughts on "Age Appropriate"

There are varied thoughts and opinions on age group categories. However, "age appropriate" is the key phrase, and that is why ASTM has standards for three playground age groups: under 2, 2-5 and 5-12 years old. A play area for 5-12 year olds is too broad and should be further subdivided into 5-6, 7-9 and 10-12. Only then can the type of play equipment be appropriate to meet specific age characteristics.

The Tots

The pre-school group (nine months to two years) is increasingly becoming the user of play centers. Infants, being so mobile and curious, desire a magnitude of exercise and freedom, yet necessitate constant supervision.

A tot space should consist of these basic elements: a small, soft unit; small sand and small water area for group movement to stimulate the children’s social characteristics; and a small climbing, crawling apparatus area with the ultimate in the variety of apparatuses now available. The space should be well segregated from the older age groups. The tot spot should have a turf or synthetic grass area for low-level games and sand area maintained daily. Seats and tables must be appropriately scaled. Steps or stairs should be avoided. Trees for shade and seats for parents should be provided.


The preschool group (2-4/5 year olds) is the age group most often participating in a play center.

Children of these ages require a relationship to the group and team effort, with apparatus that requires coordination and cooperation among the children participating. Skills involving simple dance and rhythmic patterns, and eventually dancing with a partner in which the movement of the other party becomes important. The recognition of self-abilities, performance in relationship to others, and the use of these abilities to further newly acquired skills are important elements to include in designing the play area for this group.

Still, the need to provide different experiences is evident, since the area must accommodate the slow and fast, as well as the less able and gifted performers. Some considerations are space for a complete range of physical development and motor skills. The play elements should require more strength, better coordination, control and precision than the primary play area.

The play elements should be spaced for group participation, with the emphasis on specialized performance rather than individual exploration or special relationships of the earlier age group. Space should be required around and between each piece of equipment for safety, as well as to allow and adult to test, evaluate, and institute remedial measures as required.

Play centers, if planned and designed properly, can be an educational and recreational environment for the increasing numbers of children that are becoming the responsibility of caregivers. Such centers must be safe and secure.

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December 14, 2019, 7:51 am PDT

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