A Healthier Way to Take the Structure Out of Play
Back in the day, it seemed like the biggest hazard on a playground was a metal slide on a hot summer day. But as it turns out, many conventional playgrounds pose potential health risks to the people who play on them, with consequences much more serious than a mild burn (and we’re not talking about falling off the monkey bars).
The artificial surfaces now common on playgrounds are home to some pretty scary toxic contaminants, which is just one of the reasons some people are turning to homemade playground alternatives. Do-it-yourself playgrounds allow people to choose how a structure is made—and what it’s made with—and also help make play accessible to people from all walks of life. Read on to learn why it may be worth your time to join the DIY playground trend and how to get in on the action.
What’s the Matter with Modern Playgrounds?
Since the 1960s, more and more playgrounds have utilized artificial surfaces. Today, artificial turf is used on approximately 4,500 playgrounds, tracks, and fields in the U.S. Millions of scrap rubber tires are ground up for use as a surface material on playgrounds. These materials, in addition to other substances commonly found on modern playgrounds, may contain toxic contaminants that pose human health risks. Potential hazards on modern playgrounds include:
- Arsenic: Prior to 2004, wood designated for outdoor uses—including playground equipment and wood chip surfacing—was often treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) in order to protect the wood from weather damage. CCA contains arsenic, a known carcinogen, which can seep out of the wood over time and stick to children’s hands, where it can be ingested or inhaled.
- Artificial turf: Synthetic grass can contain lead, which can attach to dust particles. Those may be inhaled or ingested by humans in the surrounding area (more about lead below). Other downsides of artificial turf include vulnerability to heat stress and an increased risk of shared infection resulting from bacteria lingering on artificial turf grasses.
- Crumb rubber: Millions of scrap rubber tires are ground up for use as a surface material on playgrounds. Ordinarily utilizing recycled materials is smart, but in this case, it’s better to pass. These tiny black, brown, red, or green pebbles may contain a slew of toxic substances, including arsenic, mercury, lead, acetone, methyl ethyl ketone, chloroethane, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, benzene, and flame retardants. These substances can harm people’s lungs, kidneys, reproductive organs, and livers.
- Lead: Older paint layers on longstanding playground equipment may contain lead, as can the soil surrounding the playground. Lead is harmful to humans when it’s ingested or inhaled, and children climbing on playground equipment may get paint chips on their hands or inhale lead particles attached to dust.
- Play sand: Made from ground quartz, this manufactured material can contain carcinogenic crystalline silica and tremolite, a mineral related to asbestos. Each of these contaminants can be inhaled as dust and can cause lung damage.
Before you panic and steer clear of playgrounds altogether, remember these contaminants generally exist in minimal quantities, and the Environmental Protection Agency is still determining whether these contaminant levels are cause for concern.
Don’t want to risk it? The good news is we can have our cake (well, playgrounds) and eat it (… or play on it) too. By going DIY, playground builders gain more control over the materials used. And they preserve the benefits of play for the whole family (while also keeping things safe).
Why DIY Playgrounds Are Worth the Work
Abandoning play because of potentially hazardous materials would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Playing outdoors is crucial for children who are developing motor, problem-solving, and observation skills. Free play is important not just for kids, but adults as well. It can help us connect with our bodies, free our minds, and feel the joy of moving and being alive.
A custom playground can provide all these benefits, not to mention allowing you to use healthier materials and maintain control over proper playground maintenance for optimum safety. It can also foster feelings of pride and self-sufficiency, teach the value of hard work, and encourage creativity during the building process.
Other benefits of building your own playground include the opportunity to customize the design to fit each family’s desires and needs. The DIY route is often a much cheaper alternative to purchasing a pre-built structure and amounts to a free entertainment system for your family for years and years to come.
How to Build Healthier Playgrounds
Ready to tackle a DIY playground project? To help ensure the building process runs smoothly, consider the following steps:
- Choose Safer Products: When purchasing building supplies, take the time to investigate the healthiest and safest playground materials. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Check the Consumer Product Safety Commission website for playground safety guidelines and checklists.
- Choose manufacturers certified by the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA), the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), which has developed standards for non-toxic recycled materials, and/or the Cradle to Cradle Innovation Institute.
- Steer clear of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), both of which are potentially harmful to humans.
- Choose Better Wood (or Wood Alternatives): A greenish tint on wood indicates it should be tested for CCA. If you’re concerned wood may contain CCA, you can order a test kit from the Environmental Working Group. Safer alternatives to CCA-treated wood include plastic and rubber lumber, composite lumber, naturally rot-resistant wood, and arsenic-free wood.
- Test the Soil: If you’re worried about lead levels in the soil near your playground location, test the soil using a lead testing kit. If the test is positive, work to reduce the level of lead contamination before proceeding with the playground build.
- Avoid Artificial Turf: It’s best to avoid artificial turf entirely. Stick to natural grasses instead. Though real grass may require more upkeep than the artificial stuff, it’s generally better for you and the environment. It helps reduce surface temperature, provides natural habitat for insects and small critters, and absorbs water runoff.
- Plan for Your Needs: Before purchasing supplies or designing a structure, figure out how many children are likely to use the playground, how old they are, and what kind of fixtures would be most exciting to them. There are no rules for what constitutes a “perfect” playground!
- Choose a Surface Material: When it comes to playgrounds, falling accounts for 44 percent of emergency room-treated injuries, so it’s an important safety practice to include cushioning beneath and around the play structure. Consider non-toxic options, such as mulches, pea gravel, and natural sand.
- Consider Green Alternatives: Using non-toxic materials in your DIY playground is good for people and the environment, too. The materials that meet the highest environmental standards use Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified wood as well as recycled materials made from 100 percent post-consumer waste. Take things up a notch by also incorporating water conservation measures into your plans. Consider collecting rainwater and using it to irrigate the landscaping around the playground.
- Assume Responsibility: If you’re going to have a play structure in your own yard, it’s likely to attract neighborhood kids. Understand children may hurt themselves while playing on your playground. To help combat this, be sure to establish ground rules with children before they start playing, and check on them often. With great playgrounds comes great responsibility.
- Get Creative: Using a playground is an opportunity to connect with your creative side, and so is building one. Give yourself the space to get a little wild during the design process. Consider using unusual materials and configurations that suit your own desires and needs. The sky’s the limit! Playgrounds can be made from virtually anything that inspires playfulness, from classic wooden structures to shipping containers and even so-called junk! Not sure where to start? Check out these free plans.
- Commit to the Long Haul: Assembling a playground takes time—weeks if not months—and patience (and, hopefully, some help from neighbors and friends). It will also require regular upkeep, including painting, cleaning, or staining. It’s best to accept in advance that maintaining a playground is a year-round responsibility.
By taking your playground into your own hands, you can provide healthy, creative opportunities for your family to enjoy all the benefits of unstructured play. Happy building!
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