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Overlooked Playground Issues

By Arthur H. Mittelstaedt Jr., EdD

The playground planner must not only be concerned with surfacing and structure safety, but examine the application of health, sanitation and security.

Playgrounds have had limited attention from a safety perspective until the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission published its Handbook for Public Safety, volumes I and II. These guidelines lead to the formation of several task groups within the American Society of Testing and Materials (now ASTM International).

The F8 Committee on Sports Facilities and Equipment formed the Playground Safety Surfaces Task Group; the F15 Committee on Consumer Products formed the Public Play Equipment Task Group to develop appropriate ASTM voluntary standards. These task groups, which have become subcommittees and expanded their respective efforts, will be discussed in a future column.

However, playground safety also encompasses health, sanitation and security. These are critical concerns in the safety design, construction and management of playgrounds. As we emerge into an increasingly suit-conscious society, critical and fatal injuries and illnesses will add untold hundreds of thousands of dollars to the budgets of playground departments throughout the country. The playground planner must examine the application of health, sanitation and security in playground safety.

Health might be considered in several different ways. First, health is oriented to the prevention of disease or sickness through personal hygiene; and second, to the prevention of disease or sickness through environmental controls. Both aspects of health are extremely important to the design and operation of playgrounds. Extensive literature is available on personnel health, though nonspecifically related to grounds and little literature is available on environmental health. Personnel health on grounds is concerned with hygiene. Medical forms and symptom check lists by playground personnel should be established to provide early detection of any communicable diseases that might be passed by users or employees by oral or physical contact in the play environs. An increasing problem in playgrounds is the feces accumulation from rodents, dogs and ducks.

A monitoring system should be established to check on the bacterial levels of soils and water in the play environs.

Environmental health on playgrounds is concerned with the elimination of bees, wasps, flies, mosquitoes and other insects.

These insects can disrupt and even cause extreme harm to playground users and spectators. All areas should be monitored and sprayed in accordance with EPA guidelines. Some plants are dangerous and labels should be affixed to those hazardous plants, or, better yet, eliminated from the design. Debris is also an environmental health problem. Excessive accumulation of broken equipment, paper and other trash becomes an environmental hazard. Rodents and other animal habitat must be designed out of a playground and must be exterminated, as they are disease transmitters or can cause serious bites.

Sanitation is the expansion into hygienic measures. It is the responsibility of the planning and maintenance staff to insure that water quality is checked in all potable water utilities and that all backflow prevention valves are operable; all sanitary systems (i.e., sewer, septic tanks or tile fields) are kept clear and operable; and that all restroom facilities are periodically inspected and cleaned on a scheduled basis. All other systems that affect hygiene should be reviewed and check lists established; all garbage receptacles, storage bins and other equipment and facilities must be regularly inspected, washed down, repainted, disinfected and contained.

Security might be considered in several ways: ones personal security from the antisocial behavior of others, and the security of property. It is imperative that playground designers and operators eliminate the potential for victimization and the fear of victimization. This implies providing adequate entry/exits in the playground, surveillance, patrols and other measures.

These planning efforts can contribute to the creation of a secure property environment. The need for adequate plans and designs is much more than for cosmetic or appearance sake. The basic essence of the value of playgrounds is at stake. The public health, sanitation and well-being is not only promulgated by such playgrounds but is affected by it. One negative experience can outdo a multitude of positive experiences. Designers must not let a negative experience happen.

A study should be made of playground design to determine vulnerability. It would include the points.


The playground has been the focus of numerous features and articles in Landscape Architect and Specifier News over the past years. The publication has now formalized a "Playground Safety" column to continue the effort to create an awareness of safety in playgrounds and ultimately other venues. Prior issues of LASN have covered the "National Program for Playground Safety," the "Use of Interlocking Safety Surface Tiles," the "Recycling of Tire for Playground Surfacing" and the last being a "Report Card on Playground Safety," a state-by-state comparison of 2002 versus 2004.

In order to provide a more technical and professional insight for future columns, LASN has reached out into the field and asked Arthur H. Mittelstaedt Jr., EdD, to coordinate this column. Over the years, Dr. Mittelstaedt has been a registered landscape architect in five states, a member of ASLA, an officer in the N.Y. downstate chapter of ASLA, director of the NYS Council of Landscape Architects, and has been a two-term member of the NYS Licensing Board for Landscape Architects, including chairman for two years.

Dr. Mittelstaedt received his doctorate of education in play and recreation from NYU, has taught full time for seven years as an associate professor at LIU, and has been an adjunct professor at four institutions and a guest lecturer at many others. He has extensively written and authored several chapters in various publications in the recreation field. He serves on several ASTM, ANSI, NFPA and other standards committees, and has participated in various other association efforts. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Service award from the National Safety Council, and serves as the chairman of its community safety division.

Future columns this year will include ASTM standards; CCA Guidelines; playgrounds and their elements; and fencing.

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December 6, 2019, 12:39 pm PDT

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