An initial idea, whether it comes from a breakthrough, by mistake, or by following a specified design development method, is just the beginning of the design development process. In the case of playground equipment, a multitude of factors beyond form and function must be considered if the product is to be a success. One of the most important practical criteria is that the product must be safe.
There are strict safety codes in place in North America and in Europe. The North America safety codes for play equipment are defined by ASTM (American Standards for Tests and Measurements) and in Europe by EN 1176. These standards are intended to prevent unforeseen risks and hazardous situations, for example, a hole size in which a child could get their head stuck or a configuration where a string from a child’s jacket hood could get caught.
Preventing hazardous situations is mandatory in relation to the design of playground equipment and no one would argue otherwise, yet there is a hot debate as how best to do this. The safety standards in general describe things in two dimensions, for example, barrier railings shall be a minimum of 800 mm high, and that there shall be no hole larger than 8 mm in diameter or no smaller than 25 mm in diameter. However, playground design is becoming more spatially complex and often the standards do not keep pace as new concepts emerge. The safety standards are based on what has already been designed and can be inappropriate when applied to new innovations. This situation adds an extra challenge, and entails ongoing debate with safety specialists. Thus when designing new play equipment it is necessary to have a safety specialist involved in the design process from the very start.
Another important issue when considering safety is risk management. This is the term used to describe one’s ability to assess and manage any risk and thus avoid a dangerous situation. Being safe is about preventing hazards, not about preventing risk, for risk is always present. Viewed as a fundamental part of a child’s development it is essential that each child has the opportunity to experience situations where the risk level is appropriate to their skill level. This way a child can evaluate potential dangers and learn to manage similar situations as they occur. More and more often we see caregivers who follow their child around the playground with one hand under the child at all times (refer to editor’s introduction). This is an inappropriate form of protection. If a child does not have the opportunity to tumble, fall, and experience accidents and occasional pain, they will miss an invaluable stage in their development. As a consequence of an overprotective environment, the child might grow to be shy of physical activity, or clumsy, or possibly even accident prone as they have not had the vital experience that is a necessary part of growing up.
A challenging yet hazard-free playground is the ideal ‘safe haven’ for children to test themselves, to learn about risk and the limitations of their own abilities, both physically and socially. With these skills in place, children have a foundation upon which to build, giving them the confidence to overcome all kinds of new challenges in the future.
A second essential factor when designing playground equipment is accessibility. For all play areas in the United States, US law requires compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessible Guidelines (ADAAG). In The United Kingdom, the DDA guidelines (Disability Discrimination Act) are now in place and other similar standards are in various levels of implementation across Europe. These standards seek to ensure equal access for all users. The ADAAG, which is the most detailed of the accessible standards, outlines requirements for both ground level accessibility (ramps and paths), as well as elevated accessibility (access to upper platforms in play structures). This second requirement adds great challenges to the design development process and opens yet another debate concerning the relationship between access and safety for all users.
Forming the ADAAG for play areas was a long and difficult process. Once complete, my fellow colleagues (designer Lani Wollwage and child development specialist Karin Muller) and I were commissioned by the US Access Board to explain the guidelines in a user-friendly booklet.1 In general I believe that the guidelines are a reasonable compromise of many varying viewpoints; however one issue that is still unresolved in my mind is the potential increase in hazards when adding a ramp to a play structure.
A ramp provides greater access to elevated platforms but this access cannot be limited to a specific group. Access is made available for users of wheelchairs, as well as bikes, mopeds, skateboards, and two-year-olds. It is clear why children riding bikes should not be allowed up on the play structure, however the issue concerning two-year – olds might not be so obvious. Safety standards permit more challenging activities for older children so that play items can be designed to meet their developmental needs and skill levels. Before ramps were an issue, designers and safety experts made sure that a play structure was designed such that, in order to reach the upper platforms, a child had to have a given level of ability, a skill level that would ensure that the child could also navigate the more challenging activities found higher up. However, ramps provide an easy access to all children regardless of age or skill level. This means that two-, three-, or four-year-olds can easily access the upper platforms and once there, find activities that they are not yet experienced enough to handle. Fortunately, in some cases, the ADAAG allows exceptions to ramps and I encourage the profession to use these exceptions as well as to develop new equally accessible alternatives.
Other factors affecting the design development process include: engineering, production, sales, and installation. With regards to engineering, the product must be able to stand at least 10 years in all climates and weather conditions, and under heavy use and abuse, which may sometimes border on vandalism, and be virtually maintenance-free. To comply with contemporary production values, the product must be able to be manufactured, packed, and dispatched around the world at a reasonable price, using environmentally sustainable materials and methods of production. It is also important that the product appeals to the buyer, the adults paying for it, whilst being appropriate and attractive to the end user, the children. These two criteria are often in conflict – especially with regards to colour.
Finally, to meet installation requirements, the product must be able to be easily installed, for example by parent groups with no previous experience, and if necessary, be able to be quickly and simply repaired.
One way to insure that all of these factors are addressed and integrated throughout the design process is to assemble a team of specialists, which from the very outset, have the experience to contribute ideas, negotiate compromises, make decisions, and take action to make the product development process work on all levels. In the years that I have been working as a playground designer, I have been fortunate to be part of such a team and in the next section I will introduce two products that were designed by the Kompan Design Team and developed by Kompan’s International Product Development department. I will also describe the design development process behind them, and touch on some personal sources of inspiration.