Feature Article - March 2011
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Play It Safe

Improving Safety for Your Play Spaces

By Kelli Anderson


The Higher They Fly, the Harder They Fall

By far the greatest source of injuries in children's play is falls. According to a study from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), from 1990 to 2000, of the 200,000 estimated visits to the ER each year by children injured on playgrounds, 79 percent were due to falls. Improper surfacing and heights are the main ingredients in the recipe for these disasters.

It is natural to assume, then, that by reducing heights of equipment and softening surfaces, these kinds of injuries would be reduced. The answer is both yes, and no.

What manufacturers have learned is that just because a piece of equipment is tall, doesn't necessarily mean the fall height is hazardous. For example, a climber may have a tall apex, but when it is in the form of a dome or pyramid, fall heights don't start at the top since children are climbing a sloped surface which, if slipped from, slows the rate of descent and eases the severity of the impact when they reach the ground.

Or, a 30-foot slide, which initially sounds like a playground "don't," suddenly earns a seal of approval when it has been embedded in a hillside, flush with the ground and in which there are no ladders or dangerous heights from which a child could fall. All the fun, lots of height and a lot fewer trips to the ER.

Likewise, assuming that softer surfaces will reduce injuries is only useful when the surfaces are installed and maintained as intended. Wood chips have a great reputation for absorbing impact, but they are only effective if they are installed at the recommended depth. Furthermore, they only remain effective if they are maintained at that depth over time.

Some, in fact, have even suggested that the mere notion of believing that we can create the ultimate "safe" play environment is a hazard in itself. In his controversial book, No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society, author and former director of the UK's Children's Play Council for seven years, Tim Gill, suggests that by over-emphasizing safety's importance and its role on the playground, parents and children develop a false sense of security that leads to riskier behaviors that increase, rather than decrease, the number of injuries. Whether or not you agree with that assertion, or Gill's data, one thing is clear: Safety, if emphasized at the expense of all else, and if applied without regard to the particulars of each unique design, can become its own worst enemy.