You might think of your school’s playground as a kind of steady ornament. It’s always there, decorating the yard. Day and night, winter and summer, sun and rain and snow. In a way, the play structure might seem like an extension of the building. Maybe you don’t even really notice it anymore, now that you’ve walked past it so many times.
But for all its outward appearance of steadiness, the playground is in fact a changing environment. The wear and tear of regular use by dozens or even hundreds of kids takes its toll. So do the combined forces of wind and weather. The result: A loose bolt here, a new crack there, some trash left on the play surface.
Free play, the kind that engages children on playgrounds, helps them develop their motor skills, teaches social skills, and even aids in cognitive development. Your play structure is a valuable tool, and your school has likely invested many thousands of dollars to build it. Now, keep it in top shape and make it last with a little regular maintenance.
If you purchased your playground in the last several years, you likely have a maintenance guide from the manufacturer. If you playground is older or if you have lost that document, it’s possible that the playground hasn’t been inspected for many years. Your play structure and the area around it should be maintained regularly. Here are some basics of playground inspection and maintenance.
Start by examining the surfacing underneath the playground. It should be free of debris such as trash and animal droppings.
If your playground has a surface of loose fill, make sure the fill is spread evenly. Loose fill tends to migrate away from use areas, such as the landing spots at the ends of slides and underneath swings. Also, make sure that the fill hasn’t become compacted in these areas. If it has, break it up. As a general rule, fill should be 12 inches deep for equipment up to eight feet high, according to the National Program for Playground Safety.
If your playground has a synthetic surface such as rubber mats, look for cracks or cuts. Also, make sure the edges haven’t begun to curl.
If the area has a wooden border, check for splintering and decay.
Examine the play structure for cracks and breakage. Make sure handrails are in place and firmly attached. Give the stairs a shake to make sure they’re not loose. If you have metal equipment, check for rust spots that need to be repainted. On wooden equipment, look for splinters, large cracks, and rotting. On plastic equipment, pay attention to discoloration. In some cases it might indicate excessive wear. Run your hand over plastic parts. They shouldn’t have any obvious imperfections.
At ground level, is the equipment still firmly anchored? Are there any tripping hazards such as exposed footings or even rocks or roots?
Now take a closer look. Are there any sharp edges on the equipment that could cut hands or snag clothes? Make sure all of the bolts and nails are tight and not protruding. You should never be able to turn a bolt with your fingers. Keep an eye out for missing protective caps or plugs. These are common on ladders and climbers. All S-hooks, which are typical fasteners on swings, should be closed. Make sure the hooks haven’t started to wear out, too.
If your play structure has moving parts, make sure they are in working order. Look for wear in gears, and check to see that parts are properly oiled. Inspect chains and ropes. Are they secure and in good condition?
Grab the see-saw handles to make sure they are secure and can be gripped easily by the children. Make sure bumpers are in place to create a soft landing.
To clean your playground equipment, stick to mild detergents such as soap and water. Bleach eats away rubber and glue. Wooden structures should be treated with wood preservative once a year. Metal equipment should be repainted as needed. If your school has a metal playground installed before 1978, lead paint might be an issue.
The National Consumer Product Safety Commission provides a maintenance checklist as an appendix to its “Handbook for Public Playground Safety.” You can download it at www.cpsc.gov. The National Program for Playground Safety also publishes maintenance and inspection guidelines. The website is www.playgroundsafety.org.