Here is some planning advice, drawn up with help from nonprofit playground organizations, to give you the assurance and confidence you need to make the most of your outdoor play areas.

by Nicole Stoddard, Playground Hound

SELECTING A PLAYGROUND COMPANY

The salespeople who represent the many playground makers in our country would love to sell you the biggest, most expensive playground in their catalog. Practically speaking, this probably will not work for most childcare centers. Start your search for playground equipment by contacting the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association, or IPEMA. This nonprofit association assures the public that the products they certify and the companies that certify them are in compliance with playground safety standards. Over 15 technical documents govern the making of playgrounds. This is, in part, the reason why so many of the playground designs in catalogs look similar. But judging the equipment by how it looks may be deceiving. Calling IPEMA for referrals to certified playground companies and their products, or looking for the IPEMA certification seal on the playground design you select, allows you the broadest choice from the most reputable playground equipment manufacturers. Visit ipema.org.

After gathering a list of playground equipment manufacturers that offer IPEMA certified products, you still need to prequalify the sales representative that serves your geographic area. Ask for referrals from other childcare operators who are happy with their playgrounds or get references from the park and recreation director of your city. Look for a sales company that offers turnkey services. This means it will hold your hand through the entire planning, purchasing, and installation process. The company must be willing to send someone out to your site to evaluate your play area and show you site-plan ideas. The company must be able to provide inhouse installation services or the name of a reputable installer with whom they have worked before.

INSTALLING THE PLAYGROUND

Playground installation requires skills and knowledge not commonly known or understood by the layman. Interview potential installers to make sure they will receive delivery of equipment and start installation the moment equipment arrives. Know in advance that whomever you hire will complete the job in a timely fashion and leave the job site and surrounding area clean and undamaged.

Reputable playground contractors will be able to provide you with proof of liability insurance to build playgrounds. This protects childcare owners from any negligent act the builder commits during construction and also after he leaves, should an injury occurs due to faulty installation. Obtain a copy of the builder's certification as a playground safety inspector (CPSI). A safety inspection by a CPSI on new equipment and add-ons to your current equipment ensures the equipment meets applicable guidelines, safety standards, and regulations. Each CPSI receives extensive training from the National Playground Safety Institute, or NPSI, to inspect playgrounds for potential hazards that are known to cause injury. Without such an inspection, even newly installed equipment could be an accident waiting to happen. Contact NPSI at nrpa.org.

Most states require some sort of licensing to operate a childcare or preschool facility, and many states require a state license or state registration to build playgrounds. If you are unsure what your state requires, contact the International Playground Contractors Association, or NPCAI, for a complete state listing. The NPCAI, a nonprofit trade association that provides education, training, and reference services to its members, can refer you to the names of qualified playground installers in your state. If you cannot locate a qualified contractor by contacting the NPCAI, obtain referrals and check references on anyone you select to build your equipment. The NPCAI can be reached at playgroundcontractors.org

TURNING THE NEW PLAYGROUND OVER TO THE CHILDREN

Playgrounds provide children an opportunity to extend themselves, learn new skills, and take age-appropriate risks. It is important to teach children the dangers inherent in using playground equipment. Even very young children can learn and understand how to dress appropriately for a day of outdoor play, remove bike helmets before getting on the equipment, play on equipment that has a soft surface, and never take toys or items that are not part of the playground onto the equipment. Ask your playground salespeople or installer if they offer something in the way of playground safety education for children, or visit SLYDE the Playground Hound at playgroundhound.com to view a comprehensive program for teaching playground-safety awareness to children. Like Smokey Bear who teaches fire safety, SLYDE the Playground Hound is America's icon for teaching playground safety awareness to early-age learners. SLYDE offers storybooks and coloring books that teach safety, an in-depth curriculum for classrooms, and live appearances from SLYDE himself at your playground ribbon-cutting or other safety event. Children can visit slyde.com for free fun and games.

REFERENCES

International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association, IPEMA; 800-395-5550, ipema.org

National Playground Safety Institute, NPSI, a program of the National Recreation and Parks Association; 703-858-0784, http://nrpa.org

International Playground Contractors Association, NPCAI; 888-908-9519, http://playground-contractors.org

Playground Hound; 800-388-2196, http://playgroundhound.com, http://slyde.com

Nicole Stoddard is project manager for Playground Hound. She has worked in the playground profession since 1997. Teaching playground-safety awareness to children is her favorite role to date. Nicole@playgroundhound.com.