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The Evolution of Playground Equipment
February 9, 2015 | Comments

The Evolution of Playground Equipment

Playground design has continued to evolve since the first playground was introduced in Manchester, England in 1859. The first public access playground was introduced in the United States at Golden Gate Park (San Francisco, California) in 1887, but few parents today would be willing to allow their children to scale the equipment that was once provided in the day.

As our understanding of safety and of the physical and cognitive development needs of children broadened over the decades, the design of commercial playground equipment improved—albeit slowly. The advancements have enhanced the durability of playgrounds as well as the health of the children that use them.

The Pipe Playground

From the 1800s to the early part of the 1900s public playground equipment was predominantly constructed from steel pipes. The hollow tube structures were formed into see-saws, slides, and “monkey bar” climbing apparatus that were durable frames which could withstand outdoor use.

Later, playground designers developed the pipe frames into more imaginative designs by adding sheet metal to create mock fire trucks, rocket ships, and even jungle animal themed structures. The pipes were left untreated and subject to rust, corrosion, and could develop metal burrs, which posed a safety hazard for children. Cuts and scrapes were commonplace, and, because no thought to fall hazards was given, so were broken bones and other serious injuries.

The Wooden Wonderland

In the 1960s and 1970s the popular choice for commercial playground construction was wood. It was inexpensive and readily available, and it provided a natural aspect to play. The use of such materials echoed the zeitgeist of the day, which embraced nature and the outdoors, and favored using organic materials.

While pressure treated lumber was more resilient than untreated wood, and did help overcome issues of decay, the long term durability and safety of 100% wood structures was questionable. Concerns about the toxicity of the chemicals involved in the treatment process halted its widespread acceptance. Wood playgrounds were also susceptible to termites, and mold and moisture damage was never fully overcome. Splintering, warping, and other structural problems limited the overall lifespan of wood play structures.

Thin Wall Metal Tubing

In the 1970s a process that creates prefinished, thin-walled steel tubing, and provided an advancement in playground design, was developed by a major steel manufacturer in the . The thin wall metal tube design allowed the manufacturer to create new sizes and dimensions that mimicked the look, thickness, and durable appearance of natural wood structures.

The thin wall steel and aluminum tubing are still used in the manufacturing of some commercial play structures to the present day, and with powder coating options to reduce corrosion and enhance outdoor durability.

The Powder Coating Process

Powder coating for metal was a leap forward for commercial playground structures. Metal tubing and posts are treated with several layers of both galvanization and sealers to provide corrosion protection. In this process powder coating (powdered paint) is applied to the metal using an electrostatic process, and is then baked to cure coating to the surface of the metal.

Commercial playground structures almost unilaterally feature powder coated metal components which not only enhance the durability of the structure, but also provide a lead-free non-toxic alternative to traditional paints. This is better for the health of children at play and better for the environment. Through the powder coating process, concerns about metal surface temperatures were alleviated.

Rotationally Molded Plastic

Contemporary commercial playground structures feature rotationally molded plastic components. To create a plastic part, a mold of melted plastic is inserted into a high temperature oven and rotated to allow the hot plastic to completely fill the mold with an even thickness.

The advantage of rotationally molded plastic structures include durable, stress free weight distribution, seamless construction, UV stabilization, vandalism and moisture resistance, and other factors that make it idea for commercial playground equipment. Plastic playground components, such as slides, are now the popular replacement for the sheet metal slides of yesteryear because they stay cool even in long periods of direct sun.

Vinyl Coated Metal Decks

When metal playground components became the norm over wooden systems, the surface temperature safety concern became a moot point thanks to the innovation of vinyl coating. Decks were dipped in large tanks of liquid polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic. But it wasn’t long until the realization came about that the plasticizers (phthalates) that were necessary to make the PVC flexible for playground application posed health risks.

Now the vinyl coating formulas no longer include phthalates, and other PVC-free methods have become popular. American Parks Company uses a textured polyethylene coating that is durable, flexible, long lasting, and comes in a variety of textures for either superior comfort or improved friction.

Metal Core Rope

A cargo net climber is a time-honored playground favorite, but natural rope fiber structures were unstable and susceptible to moisture and mold in outdoor environments. Consequently, metal variations of chain nets or climbers were susceptible to corrosion if not galvanized or composed of stainless steel (which can be cost-prohibitive). Instead, metal core rope is used to create bridges, climbing nets, trapeze components, and other flexible rope designs in contemporary playground structures.


As science and manufacturing processes continue to advance, the durability and safety of commercial playground structures will continue to improve while providing fun, imaginative spaces for children to learn and grow. If you have any questions about the playground components of American Parks Company products, consult a playground specialist by calling us at 1-800-381-4491.

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