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04 May 2023
Creating a playground that’s not only visually appealing when first installed but remains safe, functional, and engaging throughout the design life requires careful consideration and planning. A good playground design must strike the right balance between competing interests, such as achieving a desired look and ensuring easy maintenance and longevity.
Maintenance can be a very onerous and costly exercise throughout the life of a playground, so it’s important to consider this aspect during the specification process. This is particularly relevant with local Councils as they generally have many playgrounds to maintain. Councils always seek ways to reduce their assets’ maintenance requirements and, therefore, the maintenance costs. Maintenance budgets are required to stretch over both routine maintenance and responses to emergency and safety issues, and the minimisation of both these costs is critical in the selection of construction materials. Another key consideration, particularly with local Councils, is the need for replacement parts to be sourced promptly.
It should be emphasised that routine maintenance on any play equipment is a must. Any reputable manufacturer will supply an Owner’s Manual to assist in this regard. Designers choosing to specify custom manufactured equipment need to be aware that they must also produce an appropriate maintenance regime as part of their documentation. How onerous maintenance requirements are does depend on the materials used and is of course, strongly influenced by the choice of components and how many of them include wearing parts. This is a whole topic on its own, and we won’t try and cover it here.
Maintaining structural integrity, ongoing compliance with standards, and continuing visual appeal are all important aspects. Local community expectations and changing demographics somewhat drive playground upgrade cycles, but capital works budgets each year only stretch to cover a predetermined range of projects, and it’s absolutely essential that playground longevity is designed to exceed the predetermined replacement cycle. The lifespan of the playground can be influenced by various factors such as the materials used, coatings applied, and of course, proper maintenance. A well-designed and well-maintained playground can last for many, many years.
We have already mentioned using timber as a desirable and frequently specified playground material. Timber can offer a natural, warm and inviting look to a playground, but it’s important to consider the type of timber that is suited to the local climate. Some of the commonly used timbers in playgrounds include White Cypress, Robinia, Jarrah and Spotted Gum. Each of these timbers have unique characteristics, such as inground and strength qualities, which should be duly considered as they play a significant role in the longevity of the playground
Inground rot is not common; however important to consider. Timber playgrounds remain viable with inground uprights, but post stirrups are often used to address these concerns.
It’s important to note that an off-the-shelf stirrup primarily designed for, say a domestic patio is not automatically suitable for playground structures, so a product that has been specifically engineered for play equipment is imperative. It’s also important to choose a stirrup that does not detract from the overall look of the playground.
Another option that’s becoming increasingly popular in playground design, as already discussed, is the hybrid mode
l, where steel or aluminium is combined with timber elements. The variety of materials not only adds interest to the overall look of the playground but has the added benefits of removing inground rot issues and ensuring minimal maintenance requirements.
The use of plastic is also worthy of consideration as there can be issues around UV stabilisation and longevity, particularly in the Australian climate. A hidden issue with plastics is their high relative expansion rate in hot climatic conditions resulting in the need for carefully engineered fixing methods. The choice of plastic should be based on its ability to withstand the harsh elements of the outdoors, as well as its impact resistance and overall durability. While this should be reflected in a reputable playground supplier’s product offering, it’s handy as a specifier to understand the characteristics of such material. The most common types of plastic include Low-Density Polyethylene (or LDPE) which is used in rotational moulding for products such as slides, or High-Density Polyethylene (commonly known as HDPE) which is typically manufactured as flat sheets and turned into activity or cladding panels.
Steel of course, is strong, and if manufactured to the structural integrity standards required by the Australian Playground Standard, should provide outstanding longevity, free of breakage, deterioration, or distortion. However, preparation of welded connections prior to powder coating is most critical as rust spotting can occur relatively quickly in cheaper brands of equipment. While this may not necessarily be a structural issue, it can be unsightly and concerning to the stakeholders. Fasteners that are not galvanised or stainless steel can likewise show unsightly corrosion relatively quickly. This is particularly relevant in coastal or other corrosive environments, and aluminium and stainless steel are preferred materials where these conditions are experienced. Regardless of the base metal, though, it is imperative that salt encrustation is regularly and thoroughly washed from the equipment throughout its lifetime to ensure longevity.
While fading and wear are inevitable in many cases, it’s still an important consideration in playground design. For aesthetics, it’s recommended to use a coating of some kind for timber elements to ensure the playground maintains its ‘as built’ look. This coating will ideally need to be reapplied regularly throughout the life of the playground, making it perhaps less attractive to those seeking minimal maintenance. In contrast, steel and aluminium products are usually powder coated and providing this is applied correctly along with suitable surface preparation such as sandblasting and priming, will easily last the lifetime of the playground.
Fibreglass slides and rubber undersurfacing are the most susceptible to fading, so it’s recommended to choose hard-wearing colours. Typically, this becomes evident when using primary red for fibreglass slides and bright colours such as yellow and orange. It’s strongly recommended that colour schemes involving these materials are discussed with a playground consultant where longevity is a serious consideration with the primary stakeholders.
When planning your next playground project, it’s important to consider the local climate, the strength or property of materials, the potential for fading or wearing, and the desired lifespan to ensure the longevity of any playground. With careful consideration and proper maintenance, a playground can provide safe and engaging play experiences for children for many years to come.