Playground Safety Association of Malaysia co-founder and secretary Noriah Mat on creating certified outdoor spaces where parents can let their children play without fearing for their well-being.
-Text: Tan Gim Ean
Play is a job for children. Without play, they will not have the critical experiences they need to grow into confident, competent adults.
Empirical data shows that children develop motor skills and interpersonal relationships in the playground. They are healthier, happier and better able to reach their full potential. Studies also show that over the last six decades that children’s play has been declining in the US, childhood mental disorders have been increasing, says Peter Gray, a psychologist and research professor at Boston College in the US.
With all the evidence of the benefits of play, it is important to build good playgrounds so that children can run around safely, and parents will let them, with peace of mind. “With proper standards in place, you don’t have to worry about accidents,” says Noriah Mat, co-founder and secretary of the Playground Safety Association of Malaysia (PSAM).
Fear restrains many parents and caregivers from letting children play outdoors. It is not unfounded. Reports say the second-highest incidence of accidents involving children occur at the playground.
The first step towards preventing mishaps at play areas is to “become a society that cares about safety. It is a head and heart thing. Singapore has done it. If we want to, we can”, says Noriah, a landscape architect and arborist by training. She was formerly director of parks and recreation with Putrajaya Corp’s park and landscape department and is now a director in PPlants Sdn Bhd.
In the 1980s, she adds, very few people knew about landscaping. But today, architects and landscape artists work together on the design of a property following certain criteria. The same goes for playground safety. Keep emphasising its importance and, in time, the authorities as well as industry players will take note and make it happen.
The good news: During a presentation at the Playground Safety National Seminar last November, the director general of the Public Complaints Bureau of the Prime Minister’s Department said Form G22 for playground safety would be included as part of the Certificate of Completion and Compliance issuance in the building approval process. Under G22, every playground component of a building has to be certified by the professionals and contractors responsible for its planning and installation.
“No date was cited as to when the authorities should start making it mandatory. The Ministry of Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government would need to go through other processes before we can see local authorities undertaking the responsibilities set forth by the Federal government on this matter,” Noriah says.
Policy and publicity are crucial to create safety awareness among decisionmakers of the playground industry in Malaysia, where standards are outdated, she adds, unlike in Singapore, where they are upgraded every few years.
“We cannot just build a playground and leave it to the elements and let it become a death trap. If we build, we must take care of it, and eventually decommission it. Once people understand the importance of playground safety, it is not difficult to keep them safe. Now, they don’t see the need to have standards to maintain recreational facilities properly. They don’t [realise] that regular maintenance costs less than injury or loss of life.”
A child who falls and lands on a concrete or asphalt surface can fracture his skull. The signs of a fall, consistent with those of blunt force trauma, are not evident immediately. But within two weeks, the child may become feverish and start vomiting. Within two months, he might succumb to the injury, Noriah says.
Among other things, playground owners must know that 70% of falls occur at the monkey bars and that the right rubber flooring can attenuate the impact of a fall. Often, such information is not available. PSAM, formed in December 2013, serves as a resource centre for owners and equipment suppliers. Last July, it inspected and audited 40 playgrounds to assess their maintenance needs and came up with reports for the PM’s Department.
The association advocates mandatory post-installation inspection and audits of playground sites to ensure they are safe for use. In 2012, with support but PPlants and RIS Learning, it brought in the International Playground Safety Institute of the US to conduct certification courses and examinations. There are 50 such certified inspectors in the country today – Noriah is one – and they do the inspection rounds.
Screws jutting from panels can hurt a child who hits hit harm against them. Rusty pipes and handles are dangerous, as are small parts that can penetrate the eye or snag belts, bows and chains. Broken swings or missing slides are potential hazards and improper openings on equipment can result in head entrapment.
Playground design is the attraction for children, and parents should take them to those appropriate for their age. The design should include an element of risk so that if a child falls and feels a bit of pain, he will learn to be careful. “That’s the value of play,” Noriah says.
Manufacturers have come up with all sorts of playground equipment that are acceptable as long as they meet safety requirements. However, problems can arise when a piece is placed wrongly or when, after it has been certified safe, a mistake occurs during installation, resulting in the distance between bars and floor mat, for instance, being too big.
Does cost stand in the way of those who may want to do the right thing?
“It’s more the attitude. When no one is around, we beat the red light,” Noriah says. “We must look at the issue on a bigger scale – money or life? The value system has to be embedded in the person.”
Quality equipment is expensive, she agrees, but demand determines supply.” [At some point], it will reach equilibrium and be affordable.”
The aim is to have Malaysia adopt the latest safety standards and practices so that its recreational facilities meet international requirements, and our children can do their job at the playground.
Water features give children splashing fun as they hone their motor skills at play
Designing Playgrounds for fun
Unlike the proverbial all-work-and-no-play, Joanna Ong’s job takes her to parks and playgrounds, where she enjoys watching children having fun. Her observations impact the design concepts she presents clients who want to build play areas for children.
Ong is the business development manager of Playpoint Malaysia, a distributor of outdoor play equipment from around the world. Its core brand is Kompan of Denmark.
In the mid-1990s, a handful of Malaysian companies imported equipment for sale from the US, she says.
When the ringgit was pegged at 3.80 against the US dollar during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, they stopped importing and began manufacturing their own products, replicating the foreign designs.
Safety was not a big issue then, Ong says, and the minimal safety guidelines in place were based on the machinery the companies had and whatever they could fabricate.
The industry has evolved since but what is still lagging is awareness of safety standards, a fact the Playground Safety Association of Malaysia recognises and has been working to address in the last few years.
Two types of clients approach Playpoint to set up playgrounds. The first has the budget and wants to put everything within a small area. “I tell them I cannot do it because we have to abide by the safety perimeters.”
Space constraints mean that a developer may not get to install swings, a playground favourite, in his project. The rule is every swing must have a 4m radius of space around it to prevent children from hitting each other as they play.
The other type of client has no budget and will constantly ask to cut down on the equipment.
“We cannot stop a child from trying or doing something different at the playground,” Ong says. “You cannot prevent accidents from happening, just as you cannot stop someone from driving at 220kph in a car equipped with six airbags. After taking into account all the calculated risks children take at play and how they use equipment, we can install safety features.”
For example, rubber flooring with the correct thickness can reduce injury from falls, the most common playground mishap. Recreational equipment uses rounded or flattened nuts and bolts so there is no danger of clothes snagging on them and causing strangulation, she explains.
The Malaysian standard for rubber flooring is 25mm compared with the international requirement of 50mm. In Singapore, the thickness goes up to 100mm because they are building 7.5m-long slides, Ong says.
“Children can enjoy climbing and we encourage them to do so because that is how they learn to take risks. If they fall, they learn not to fall again.”
Safety is a key consideration when she designs recreational concepts for a client, besides the landscape and architecture. “I would say a good playground or park is one that children want to go back to again and again. Our buyers are adults but we design what the users like. The play area must look nice and be functional.”
It is a space where children develop physical and cognitive skills as they scale bars and nets, balance on beams and romp with other kids. Sitting together around little tables in playhouses teaches them interaction.
A cool playground – minimum size: 100 sq m – should have lots of climbing structures (rope climbers are popular) and slides with features grouped according to age zones because children of different ages differ in height and motor skills. The younger ones are attracted to bright colours while those older enjoy interactive activities with music and lights.
Slides, ramps, multi-layered mounts, tunnels, skywalks, recess trampolines, sculptures and water-play equipment are welcome features. Also, open spaces encourage robust children to run around and release their energy.
Two decades ago, Ong took on an administrative position in a local playground manufacturer and developed its export market to Southeast Asia and the Middle East. She then joined an export company dealing with high-density polyethylene panels and got to know playground equipment manufacturers from around the world.
In 2011, she was approached by Playpoint Asia to take charge of its new office in Malaysia and replicate what it has been doing in Singapore since 2001. “We started as a one-man show and now have 12 employees.”
Ong says in the last decade or so, big private developers in both countries have been clamouring to differentiate themselves. They want something unique that reflects or represents their development – whether it is the architecture, landscape, design or concept – and which they can use to market it.
Playpoint’s first Malaysian project was Central Park at Desa ParkCity, completed around 2008. The key attraction for buyers was the huge lake in the project, she reckons, which prompted other clients to replicate the feature, and the company to move into design and customisation.
Her principle, regardless of the project size, is to propose, cost and supply the equipment. “Clients want higher, bigger and more exciting things. If they customise [structures], they may go beyond the safety guidelines. So we advise them on what they can or cannot do,” says Ong, who now works with the developer from the start of a project.
“Every project is something new and when you get it all done up, there is a sense of achievement. When you see children playing, you feel even happier. They give way to each other on the slide, reach out to grab someone who falls, and help each other climb,” the mother of two adds.