Parents need to be able to send their children out to play without worrying and kids need to be able to play freely. An outdoor play structure should be a challenging, stimulating environment where kids can enjoy themselves with minimum supervision. Safety is of the utmost importance.
The most important safety feature for any play structure is the "use zone." Make sure you have established an area filled with resilient surfacing material.
USE ZONE: There should be at least 6' of obstacle-free space all around the play structure. This allows kids to run around and and to fall without landing on something hard. If there are swings give at least 12' of space front and back because kids may try jumping off the swings at full speed - in either direction.
RESILIENT SURFACING MATERIAL: It is highly recommended that the "use zone" be filled with "resilient surfacing material," such as bark chip, sand, rubber chip, rubber matting, or pea gravel. Experts have proven that the installation of a resilient surfacing material in the play area id by far the most important safety feature you can provide. It creates a resilient surface that kids will "bounce" off of when they slip and fall. Most serious injuries occur on play equipment installed over hard surfaces (concrete, dirt, grass, or compacted sand).
BORDERING: Once you've selected the material, you can decide whether to install a border to keep the resilient material inside the play area. Or you can have the area excavated so that the material ends up level with the rest of the yard (a more expensive option.) Install the landscaping fabric between the ground and the resilient material to prevent weed growth.
Here are some other safety tips for residential play structures:
Round over edges of the wood to eliminate sharp corners and sand/grind all wood surfaces to reduce the possibility of splinters.
To avoid creating any potential for entrapment of a child's head or torso in the railings, gaps should be no larger than 31/2" x 5 1/2".
Bolts should have more than 2 threads exposed beyond the nut. More than that creates potential for injury.
Keep deck heights at a maximum of 7' off the ground. Railings should be 3' high, very sturdy and well-attached.
Make sure no electrical wires are within reach of the structure.
Try to place your structure in a shady place.
Meet of exceed building codes for backyard decks, even if it is not required.
Provide a 1/2" gap around all doors and shutters.
For any openings on an upper level, such as a fire pole, add a safety gate with self-closing hinges, so no one can accidentally fall through the opening.
Think about the flow of kid traffic when designing your play structure. For example, avoid having the kids come off the slide right into the swings.
Stains are better than paint because they are easier to maintain: paint tends to chip and peel, while stains simply fade with time.
Inspect your play structure frequently. At least once a year: tighten bolts, check for damage, clean off debris and spider webs, and check the swing hardware.
Barbara Butler, the premiere artist and builder of children's play structures in the United States, hand-designs and craft her incredibly elaborate play structures for children. Butler has combined childhood fantasies with architectural know-how to create a world enchantment right in your own backyard, Butler's client list includes Robert Redford, Will Smith & Jada Pinket-Smith, Kevin Kline & Phoebe Cates, Bobby McFerrrin, and walt Disney Productions.
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