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Playground Maintenance Training: What are you doing?

A look at the Clemson Playground Maintenance Technician Course One Year Later

Thu, 01/23/2014 - 10:46am
Last updated
7 months ago
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Playground Maintenance Training

Happy New Year!

Last month I ended my column with the following statement: “Assuming the ISO TC 83 terminology paper “Injury and Safety Definitions and Thresholds”is approved and published, I intend to discuss the definitions for different types of injuries and ultimately break down each type into various levels of severity.” I hoped to explain how the total sum of playground injuries relate to the different levels of injury severity as well as relating the severity of injury and types to a currently compliant playground surface system per our current surfacing standards. This is a complex discussion and there may not be a definitive black and white solution but the discussion needs to take place in my effort to help better understand how the current maximum allowable impact thresholds relate to some definitive measurement scale for different levels of injury to the same body part or region based upon what ASTM F1487 and ASTM F1292 performance requirements are attempting to address. That was quite a mouthful and I cannot wait to get it out. It is right there ready to go but….unfortunately I am unable to go forward with this column at this time. As of end of 2013, this terminology document is still in the voting process. It appears to be moving forward towards approval, based upon comments from various international voting members; however, I am not sure when the voting process will conclude. I therefore have decided not to run my column until the final results are known.

This month my comments will be directed towards playground maintenance and the need for training at all levels of playground management. This is a subject near and dear to my heart. It is one of the four pillars of the National Program for Playground Safety’s S.A.F.E. program. The four S.A.F.E. Factors are:

1. Provide proper supervision of children on playgrounds.

2. Design age-appropriate playgrounds.

3. Provide proper fall surfacing under and around playgrounds.

4. Properly maintain playground equipment.

Step 1 – Supervision is something most of us cannot do anything about other than post a sign or supervise our own children and grandchildren. I hope someday the U.S. CPSC will find the means to do more to help educate the general public on what proper playground supervision is for a young child on the playground. It should not be a helicopter parent or one who does not allow for any exploration on the playground for fear of failure and injury. We need more information on understanding how children learn through trial and error and how important it is for a child to fall. Children learn each and every time they fall, and if they do not learn this important lesson early on in life, the consequences of falling may become harder to overcome. Regardless, supervision is very important to injury prevention especially in childcare and elementary school environments.

Step 2 - Age-Appropriateness of Play Equipment is something that is more the manufacturer and playground owner’s responsibility but it too becomes a responsibility of the parent or guardian who should know to look for signs indicating the intended age group of the play area. I think manufacturers and owners have made strides in this area, but we cannot control each and every child who may be brought to the playground. That is the responsibility of the supervisor.

Step 3 - Proper Fall Surfacing is the responsibility of the owner, but the surfacing manufacturer has an obligation to provide complete impact testing information to show the critical height of the surface system they are selling as well as the detailed installation, inspection, maintenance, and repair information to the perspective owner of the play area, so they may make an informed purchasing decision. Manufacturers can only be expected to provide what is required by voluntary industry standards, and it is up to those who create standards or federal regulations to do their part in making sure they are developing performance requirements based upon the best information and research available. It is the owner’s responsibility to meet these requirements at a minimum but I can see from my own experience the need for owner’s to rethink their purchasing requirements and look for something more than just a minimum acceptable surfacing system. How will anyone know when the system falls out of compliance? The answer to this question will be discussed more in my next column when we start to look at compliance versus performance or outcomes from falls to complaint surface systems by today’s standards.

Step 4 - Properly Maintained Play Equipment is the fourth and final factor. I would suggest we add the words “and Surfacing” after the word Equipment. Maintenance of these valuable community assets is most important to protecting children for injury and preserving the intended life of the play environment. We keep hearing the statistic that almost 40% of the playground injuries requiring medical attention are due to improper or lack of maintenance.

If parents and CPSC are going to try and address the proper supervision of children in the play environment issue and manufacturers are going to deal with age appropriateness of the equipment within their play area designs, then all that is left is for the owner/operators to maintain the area as the manufacturers have instructed. It sounds too simple. If the solution is simple, what is the problem? Why are there so many injuries attributed to lack of maintenance?

The Playground Maintenance Technician program

It has been a little over a year since the first Clemson University sponsored maintenance course was held in Beaverton Oregon for the Oregon Recreation and Park Association. One year almost to the day they held their second course. They are averaging around 35 people per program. The number of participants per course and the job experience and background of the group has proven to add a lot to the classroom, which benefits everyone.

I will discuss the background of the typical class participant to date in a moment. The Playground Maintenance Technician program was first introduced in Illinois by the Park District Risk Management Agency, who developed the course curriculum and classroom materials. PDRMA’s members were the only beneficiaries of the program up until 2011. Since the first course in 2009, I have been involved in at least 10 different course presentations, and since 2012, I have been involved in four PMT programs outside Illinois. Since PDRMA and Clemson University reached an agreement to offer the program outside of Illinois, I have taught five courses in the USA and internationally. In February I will be teaching the second course for Gwinnett County Parks and Recreation in Georgia and in March there will be another course in Malaysia. This spring there will be two more courses in Colorado and two more in Illinois. To help explain the program and its content the principals have created a new six minute YouTube video that explains the program in detail. I urge you to click on the link to learn more about the program. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rvtwszvctPk

In the four most recent Playground Maintenance Technician courses I have instructed we analyzed approximately 140 program evaluations forms. The program evaluation form was kept rather short. We wanted to see the demographic makeup of who the program was attracting, what their needs and expectations were, whether or not we met their needs, and what they liked or did not like with one open-ended question to see if anyone would take the time to share their thoughts. We are finding out who is attending by their job title and employer. We were interested in age, gender, education background, job requirements, type of employer, job responsibilities, and number and types of inspections each have conducted. On top of that we needed to know what they each thought about the quality of the presenter, the subject matter, the relevancy of examples used in group activities, printed materials, audio visual aids, and the quality of the teaching environment. We wanted to know if they learned anything new and whether the course met or exceeded their individual expectations. I want to know how the training relates to the participants work situation. We are all different but we have so much in common.

Those of us involved in this program had to make assumptions based upon the participants from a typical park and recreation agency member from PDRMA. They have all types of agencies from the very small one person department to a large county or almost statewide organization. We also assumed participants would be from agencies with just one playground to those with over 100. We wanted to find out what type of teaching facility and seating arrangement best meets the needs of the learning experience.

We wanted to see how the number of participants affects the learning experience. In other words, what size class is too large? Those involved in the delivery of the program believe the larger the class roster, the less interaction that will take place. Small groups seem less intimidating and a bit more intimate. This environment allows for more interaction among all the participants. We have found that those who interact and participate usually get more out the learning experience. Whether you have 1 playground or 100 the job is the same.

The Playground Maintenance Technician’s needs are the same regardless of how large the organization. Knowledge, knowing what to do, along with actual experience, should create an environment that will result in the outcome each owner needs and desires.

Playground Maintenance TrainingMy personal observations over the past several years, tell me there is a need for this training at all levels of the organization. The person in the field who actually conducts routine custodial inspections must know there is more to playground maintenance than just to pick up litter, sweep walkways, and remove graffiti or debris throughout the playground area. They have to become proactive and address small problems before they become big ones. They need to be empowered to take appropriate action before someone get hurts. These front line staff members need adequate support at all levels of the organization. Therefore all levels of playground management, supervision, and maintenance need to understand the entire scope of a comprehensive playground inspection and maintenance program. Everyone needs to understand when routine maintenance is enough and when repairs or replacement are needed. Everyone on the playground owner’s team should be engaged and understand the entire process. Only then can resources be appropriately allocated to meet the needs of the community and children’s safety. Everyone regardless of their position within the organization needs to learn what is expected of the others on the public playground safety team. This concept was very effective in my days with the Wheaton Illinois Park District.

Those of us involved with the program development and delivery need to find out how this training program meets the needs of those on the front line. Without their input we can never be sure the current program content meets both of our expectations.

The last question on the Playground Maintenance Technician participant evaluation form provides the most important and telling information with regards to the relevancy of the program content. Everyone was asked what they liked and did not like about the program. This was an open-ended question with space to make any comment they wished.

I will first share the current demographics on the participant pool from four courses outside Illinois. Then I will share a few of the comments from the participants. As far as dislikes there were few. Primarily the room physical setup was the most often mentioned. Room comfort is most important since the audience is not use to sitting still for 6 plus hours, and sitting on hard chairs is definitely a negative. Choose a site with padded chairs.

This far I have learned the following about the limited number or participants in the past year:

Age of Participants:The classes were 80% male and 20% female broken down this way:

(4% (< 25), 23% (25-34), 30% (35-44), 28% (45-54), 15% (55-64), and 0 % over 65)

What Best Describes Your Employer: 70% Local, County, State or Federal Parks and Recreation Agencies, 10% School Districts, 2% University, 4% Play Equipment Suppliers, 2% Not-for-Profit, 12% Other.

What Best Describes Your Level of Education: 21% High School, 42% Some College, 28% Bachelor Degree, 9% Masters, (1) PhD

What Best Describes Position Within Your Agency:7% Chief Administrator, 8% Department Head, 28% Supervisor/Foreman, 48% Park Maintenance, 3% School Maintenance/Custodian, 3% Educator, 1% Designer/Planner//LA, <1% Risk Manager, 3% Other.

Number of Inspections Performed in Past 12 Months:7% (None), 50% (1-10), 15% (11-20), 6% (21-30), 6% (31-40), 6% (41-50), 2% (51-60) , 3% (61-70), 1% (71-80), 1% (81-90), 0% (92-100), and 4% (>100)

Number of Audits Performed in Past 12 Months: 76% (None), 18% (1-5), 3% (6-10), <1% (11-15), <1% (16-20), <1% (>21)

Effectiveness of Presenter on a Scale of None – Somewhat – Yes or None Applicable:When we look at the Instructors’ ability to communicate the course materials, their qualifications to present the course material, and their use of relevant examples to make a point, the participants said; 2% were somewhat qualified or effective in presenting the course materials and 98% qualified and effective in their presentation.

Participants learned what they expected:10% thought the course and materials somewhat met their expectations and 90% thought the course and materials met their expectations.

Usefulness of the instructional materials and handouts:3% said somewhat and 97% said yes they were useful.

Would you recommend the program to others:Almost everyone said they would recommend to others and 10% had a problem with the length of the program (either is was too long or too short). Some had a problem with the teaching facility or food and amount or length of breaks. Comments ranged from the room was too cold, too hot, crowded, not convenient parking, no veggie option, uncomfortable chairs, room lighting, etc. These kinds of comments seem to be universal when it comes to participant evaluations.

I mentioned the importance of the last question on the evaluation. This open-ended question resulted in comments ranging from one extreme to the other. In general, everyone loved the program. Some thought it was too general and some thought it was too specific. This is what was expected from such a diverse group based upon their years of experience and job description. Some wanted more task specifics and others thought there was too much detail. Some wanted the course to be one day and others thought it should be one week.

In general, everyone loved the program, instructors, and overall experience. Those with a lot of experience thought they learned new things or it refreshed their memory of things they had forgotten. It gave managers a sense of direction for a new or enhanced playground safety program. Those that came with others from the same agency had a new sense of partnership that was lacking. The general written comments from the participants were telling. They supported the assumptions of those responsible for the program’s development. These comments reinforced the need for playground maintenance training at all levels of an organization responsible for the management of public playgrounds.

At the end of the day every participant had the participant guide and the notes they took during the two days. They also had the 250 plus page manuscript which is the basis for each program module. This will prove to be an invaluable resource as each participant moves along their career path to the point where they too become a playground maintenance expert, or they at least know more than the person who follows them.

Let us all be proactive and improve our skills and do what we can to make our playgrounds safe.

Playground Maintenance TrainingParticipants Comments:

“Loved the group discussions and introductory videos at the beginning of each session.”

“Presentation was Comprehensive and easy to understand.”

“Instructors are professional, experienced and eager to share their experiences.”

“I really enjoyed being able to follow along the videos and PowerPoint with my book.”

“Liked that it’s geared more towards the people in the field.”

“Brought a focus to importance of maintenance and record keeping. Gave step by step directions.”

“It will make me better at my job of keeping kids safe.”

“I liked the use of examples that were real life examples and the topics presented were easy to understand without overloading details.”

“Instructor’s all-day enthusiasm, energy, and vast knowledge of playground safety and maintenance kept our classroom lively and fun. I highly recommend this course to all parks and recreation personnel, as it not only teaches valuable knowledge, but makes learning easy with top-notch multi-media.” David Allen Spencer, Grounds Maintenance Associate, Gwinnet County Parks and Recreation, Georgia

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