Active churches have many important ministries. Ask those churches what they consider a particularly vital ministry, and most will list children’s ministry. Highly effective children’s ministries are those that are able to capture the attention and interest of children. What do kids do best? They play, they climb, they scream. A play structure is a natural selection to let children be kids, and make the church a place where kids get excited to go.
There are three areas a facility manager should address when considering the addition of a play structure to the facility: equipment selection, proper installation, and ongoing maintenance.
Only six states have regulations controlling playgrounds; in most states the installation of playground equipment is not regulated. Due to this variation, it’s important to check with both your town and state government agencies to determine what, if any, regulations the church will need to be in compliance with when specifying and installing their playground.
There are a variety of standards that apply to playgrounds. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) offers a range of documents and recommendations that pertain to play structures: F 1148 addresses residential play equipment; F 1292 describes methods to test impact attenuation (the ability of the play area surfaces to absorb impacts and thus reduce the potential for injuries); F 1487-01 is the standard consumer safety performance specification for playground equipment for public use; F 1918 provides guidelines on soft contained play systems; F 1951 describes methods to test accessibility; F 2049 provides guidelines for fencing and barriers; and F 2075 deals with engineered wood fiber construction materials.
For the church facility manager the two standards to focus on are ASTM F 1918 and F 1487-01, as these are the most relevant to the church environment.
When choosing equipment, there is a tendency to purchase the less-expensive model. However, it’s important to understand that safety needs to come first. Also, consider the total cost of ownership. A play structure that is less expensive may only last a fraction as long as a more expensive model. Often times that does not add up to good stewardship of the church’s resources. If longevity and growth of the children’s ministry is the goal, consider quality over price.
Traditionally, playgrounds are designed for ages 2-5 and 5-9; however, in church ministries, children are often grouped differently. While one church may break it up for ages 1-3 and 4-6, etc., another church may group all elementary-schoolaged children and all middle-school-aged children. Whatever the method, make sure the age groups are properly identified, and think through who will be using the equipment.
An excellent source of information is the local park district. The information they provide can help you decide what is available, as well as provide education on local regulations governing the installation of play equipment. They have lots of experience in managing the town’s playgrounds, and may be able to provide insight into a structure’s longevity and durability in your particular region.
Will the installation meet CPSC (U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission) and ASTM standards? Compliance with the recommendations in these standards is often voluntary, but installing according to the standards reduces injury liability.
If the unit will be outdoors, get a site plan, and make sure there is good drainage. Playgrounds located in areas where water collects will be of limited use and likely decrease the lifetime of the equipment.
If your church is creating an indoor play area, look for a location that best accommodates the play structure itself as well as the flow of people. Outdoor units accommodate noisy children well; indoor systems need to be located so that the inevitable noise of children playing won’t overflow into your worship and teaching spaces, or plan on closing the play area when quiet is necessary.
As with any piece of equipment, play structures need to be kept clean and in good operating condition. Lack of proper attention to these items, particularly when children are involved, will endanger the very people you are trying to reach in your community.
Follow instructions from the manufacturer of your play structure on proper cleaning techniques. Do not use bleach or chlorine on plastics. Use mild cleaners, and don’t overlook the inaccessible areas when cleaning. Develop clear procedures, and train staff and volunteers on how to deal with the event of urination, defecation, blood spillage, or vomiting.
Keep the unit in good physical condition. A good maintenance program involves ongoing inspections. Heavily used structures should be inspected daily. Less-frequently used structures may only require monthly or annual inspections. In any event, keep detailed records of all repairs made to the units.
A Few More Things to Consider
Are exits and entrances clearly marked? Is there space for parents and supervisors to watch and wait? Know the number of supervisors required. Reduce blind spots as much as possible. Design the play structure to reduce overhead concerns such as wires, mechanical system, etc. How close are first-aid kits and restrooms? Kids get scraped, and young kids need the pottynow! Use doors with re-enforced glass to allow for visual observation. Install hinge protectors to prevent finger entrapment. Doors should not open into the play spaces they should open in the direction of egress. Plan for adequate storage kids bring jackets and Bibles to church, and a clean space helps promote safety. Both indoor and outdoor units require sufficient surfacing under the equipment. For outdoors, wood mulch is the most common grass and asphalt are not acceptable. Indoor units typically use rubber. These soft surfaces reduce the chance of scrapes when making “hard landings” from equipment such as slides.
Play structures and play areas are a great way to create excitement in a church’s children, as well as being a great evangelistic outreach tool. Mothers can invite neighborhood families to join them at the church for a group play time, and thus open the door to questions about the church and their faith. But they also require a strong commitment on the part of the facility’s staff to proper safety and maintenance. Otherwise, today’s outreach tool may become tomorrow’s lawsuit-inwaiting. Christ’s love is shown not only through providing a resource such as a play structure, but also in how it’s maintained through the years.
Dan Lauder, FMA, RPA is the Director of Property Management for the Catholic Diocese in Rockford, Illinois. His email is .
NPSI (National Playground Safety Institute)
(703) 858-0784 www.nrpa.org
CPSC (U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission)
(800) 638-2772 www.cpsc.gov
ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials)
(610) 832-9585 www.astm.org