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Any playground design requires someone with a detailed knowledge of the content and application of the Australia Playground Standards during the design process. However, it’s helpful for everyone involved in a playground project to understand some key concepts of the standard.
The current standard in Australia for playground equipment, AS 4685:2021, was introduced in 2004 and updated in 2021 and is closely aligned with the European Standard. Some changes made were significant, and more closely reflect global trends in playground child safety.
The standard is divided into eight parts; this article gives a general overview of the key concepts mostly from Part 1, which deals with general safety requirements and test methods.
The minimum space is the area required for the safe use of the equipment. It comprises of the space occupied by the equipment, falling space and free space. The minimum space influences the height, amount and type of playground equipment that can be included in a playspace.
As already indicated the extent of the falling space as well as the type and thickness of the impact absorbing surface are dependent on the free height of fall, so this is an important concept. In a playground complex, the free height of fall needs to be individually assessed for each component. It should be noted that the playground standard specifies a maximum free height of fall of 3.0m, with supervised early childhood centres being restricted to 1.8m.
Falling space is the space in, on or around the equipment that can be passed through by a user falling from an elevated part of the equipment. Calculating the falling space broadly depends on the FHOF, which is the greatest vertical distance from the clearly intended body support to the surface below.
In a platform deck situation, the free height of fall is just the height of the deck above the ground. But body support varies with other activities such as climbers and upper body activities, and special requirements apply to playground equipment with moving components. Falling space is then a graduated measurement from 1.5m to 2.5m, but with some exceptions for FHOF on fixed items under 600mm.
Supervised early childhood environments have limitations on the allowable FHOF and therefore have a reduced maximum falling space of 1.7m.
Up until now we have been discussing the space needed to protect against falls from the equipment. However, free space is the space needed for the normal use of the equipment. It is defined as the space in, on or around the equipment that can be occupied by a user undergoing a movement forced by the equipment.
Because of the need to maintain adequate free space for each individual activity, free spaces cannot overlap each other. This area of the standard is complex, because free space measurements and the resultant impact area may need to be assessed from a point in the forced movement rather than the static resting point.
The impact area is the ground that can be hit by a user after falling through the falling space. This space must be free of obstacles or protrusions, and covered with an impact absorbing surface. The fall attenuation characteristics of the impact area surface must be compliant with AS/NZS 4422: Playground surfacing – Specifications, requirements and test methods.
Usually, the FHOF determines the type and thickness of the impact surface. Popular impact absorbing surfaces include loose unitary materials such as timber mulches and sand, as well as fixed surfaces such as granulated rubber and synthetic grasses. These options are discussed in more detail in a separate article.
The issues raised with playground safety mean that AS 4685:2021 specifies much more than just the space required. Matters such as entrapment, access methods, fall protection and structural integrity are all covered, but these are more the concern of the equipment manufacturer. Nevertheless, every designer should be aware of potential entrapments which are defined as hazards in which a body, or part of the body, or clothing can become trapped.
Common entrapments include:
The standard details a range of probes that can be used to determine what are the critical gaps and spaces.
It is not possible to completely condense the 100 pages of AS 4685:2021 into a short article, so exceptions and further details apply. There are special requirements applicable to swings, slides, runways, carousels, rocking equipment and networks. There is a separate part of the standard applicable to each of these six types of play activity.
Whether you’re a landscape architect developing a new school playground or a project manager working on a public park redevelopment, a basic understanding of playground design safety standards is helpful to ensure compliance with AS4685:2021.
While we’ve discussed some of the key components, we recommend you seek help from professional playground designers, like adventure+, to ensure all requirements are covered.
Designers from adventure+ have over 30 years experience working with the Australian playground standards, developing a wealth of expertise in this complex and challenging area.