Safety & Risk on the Playground
When it comes to playground safety, the battle rages on between keeping kids safe at any cost and providing a level of acceptable risk that offer kids more developmental opportunities.
"I think there's a movement where people want to make their playgrounds even safer, to make them lower and eliminate moving items," said Caroline Smith, manager of professional development for the National Recreation and Park Association. Smith is also a Certified Playground Safety Inspector. "I would like to see parents being more comfortable with the children challenging themselves more, and I think the designers and playground manufacturers would, too. But it's kind of a societal attitude right now."
Smith believes that playground designers are doing the best they can to create exciting, challenging equipment for kids that's still relatively safe. In fact, there's little evidence that the kinds or frequency of playground injuries have changed much in recent years.
According to an October 2009 report from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), most incidents resulting in emergency care (67 percent) involved falls or equipment failure. More than half (51 percent) of injuries occurred on public playground equipment. Playground experts believe that everything possible is being done in terms of designs and standards to minimize these risks.
"We're never going to eliminate the fact that you can fall off a piece of equipment. It's just one of the skill-building things that children like to do. They like to climb on things," Smith said. "As long as they're climbing, there's the risk of falling. You can't get away from that, nor would we want to. I think that's just part of the physical and cognitive growth of children."
Likewise, Teri Hendy, a spokesperson for IPEMA's Voice of Play initiative and president and owner of playground consulting company Site Masters Inc., noted that improvements in playground surfacing don't significantly address the issue of long bone fractures from falls, which the CPSC report identified as the most common type of playground injury requiring emergency care. "The protective surfacing is designed to prevent life-threatening and debilitating head injuries. And that's really its sole purpose," Hendy said.
In fact, while appropriate playground surfaces include artificial turf, engineered wood fiber, interlocking tile, rubber mulch and poured-in-place surfaces, none of them can reliably prevent this kind of injury. "… [L]ong bone fractures are unfortunately sometimes just a part of growing up," Hendy said. "Kids typically heal from those, and no one has been able to come up with a surfacing or a test method to prevent them."
Hendy noted that, anecdotally, some playground owner-operators who have switched to a unitary surface from a properly maintained loose-fill surface have experienced an increase in long bone fractures. "So we know that there's some protective characteristic in a loose fill when it comes to long bone fractures. But even with the best-maintained loose-fill material, if you fall at the right angle, you're still going to have a broken bone," Hendy said.
That being said, only a properly maintained loose-fill surface can afford even that level of additional protection. And for some high-volume playground attractions, those maintenance requirements can be a deal-breaker. Hendy noted the example of Maggie Daley Park, a destination park in Chicago's downtown Loop area that opened in 2014 and that features a Play Garden with six different play areas for kids.
"Loose-fill surfacing wasn't even a consideration because of the Chicago Park District's own internal policy," said Hendy, who worked as a playground safety consultant on the project. "But also, with the number of people who use the park on a daily basis, you would literally have to have somebody standing at the base of a slide raking that surfacing back into place every hour. And that's just not reasonable."
While surfacing options haven't changed significantly over the past few years, experts are seeing growing options for safety in other areas, such as an ever-growing array of shade structures to help protect kids from excess sun. At the same time, Hendy is seeing more operators strike a balance between safety and vandalism prevention in opting for stainless steel slides more often.
On a new playground, it can be tough to provide an appropriate level of shade to prevent these slides from overheating in direct sun. "Many people are finding that it's really necessary to put stickers or signs at the top and bottom of the metal slides warning that they can get hot," Hendy said.
A Potential Shift to More Adaptable Standards
As they consider the dangers of falls versus the developmental benefits of giving kids the opportunity to climb and take appropriate risks, the developers of playground standards are considering taking an approach that gives the owner and designer of the playground environment more responsibility and choice in determining the level of risk and challenge that they're willing to take in their playgrounds.
Hendy has been involved with developing and shaping safety standards since 1987 through work with the AS™ International, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and the National Playground Safety Institute. She noted that this shift in thinking has been spurred, in part, by criticisms of the current standards. "We've been accused over the years of dumbing down playgrounds to the point that they're no longer challenging and developmentally appropriate, and we're trying to negate that," she said.
For example, current playground standards include reasonable requirements for guard rails or protective barriers when children are on platforms above a certain height. Those kinds of rules would remain in place. But Hendy noted that there's also been a lot of discussion over the years about whether there's any value in climbing high at all, or whether it's better to use climbers that encourage more climbing sideways than up. Climbers are responsible for more injuries (23 percent) than any other type of equipment. It is in these kinds of decisions where more leeway may evolve in terms of acceptable risk. "Those are the kinds of decisions that a designer and an owner-operator working with a playground sales rep, for example, might make in the type of equipment they put into their play environment," Hendy said.
Adjusting to New Playground Designs
As more and more new pieces of equipment enter the market, this trend toward innovation is also being accompanied by an attempt to also shift away from design-based standards to hazard-based ones that can more adequately gauge and promote the safety of new pieces of equipment. CPSC's Public Playground Safety Handbook, for instance, currently only addresses log rolls and merry-go-rounds in its standards for rotating equipment. But manufacturers have continued to innovate, designing and manufacturing multitudes of new products with rotating elements, making it difficult for standards-makers to keep up.
"When we evaluated writing standards for the different types of rotating equipment, we discovered that we would need 33 different standards to address the various types of rotating equipment that are on the market today," Hendy said. "We are beginning to realize that we can't be design-based standard. We don't want to have to come up with a new standard every time a manufacturer creates a new piece of equipment that we haven't seen before."
The Struggle to Offer Age-Appropriate Challenge
Another difficulty that playground experts face is creating age-appropriate equipment that's actually interesting for the prescribed age ranges of the playgrounds. The current delineation between playgrounds for ages 2 to 5 and those for ages 5 to 12 can sometimes be insufficient, which is causing the industry to consider making changes in this area.
"The reality is that equipment for a 2- to 5-year-old is probably pretty boring for the average 4-year-old," said Hendy, who sees a similar dynamic at play in playgrounds intended for the older demographic. "By the time kids are 10 years old, they're bored to death with our traditional playground equipment, and they're seeking other ways of challenging themselves."
In addition to these realities, many families who have both younger and older children will tend to gravitate toward the playground intended for the older kids. Hendy noted that she doesn't see the 2-to-5 structures getting nearly the use of the 5-to-12 structures. "But there are clearly things on a 5-to-12 structure that really, from a developmental standpoint, would not be appropriate for a 2- or 3-year-old," Hendy said.
In these instances, there's not much for a park district to do except post clear signage about the ages that the playground and specific pieces of equipment are designed for. Recreation managers can also take care to select equipment that provides different levels of challenge for different kids, while also offering them opportunities to turn back if the challenge gets too intense.
Another trend that is enabling playground owner-operators to provide developmentally appropriate challenges to a broader age range is that of adventure playgrounds.
One example might be a rock-climbing element that also includes a stairway beside it that a younger child could use, or a platform that a child could rest on halfway up. "You want to make it challenging enough for a 12-year-old to enjoy, but you also want that 5-year-old to go out there and try," Smith said.
Because today's typical playgrounds aren't always sustaining the interest of older kids, some designers are striving to create options that are more appealing to an older demographic. These include options such as challenge courses inspired by the popularity of things like the NFL Combine and shows like American Ninja Warrior.
"That's definitely what we're wanting to fill is that need for older ages specifically—the 8-to-12-year-old group who's really looking for a challenging experience," said Fred Wiechmann, vice president of marketing and product development for a manufacturer of playgrounds and challenge courses. According to Wiechmann, these challenge courses can offer more interest to this demographic while still meeting current playground safety standards.
A representative course includes a 40-yard-dash event that includes timing pads embedded in the surfacing at the start and finish lines, along with an obstacle course that includes timing that is activated by pushing a plunger at the beginning and end of the course. The timing element gives kids a way to offer ongoing interest as they strive to hit new records, while also encouraging fitness.
"It's really a win-win in that that age group can have something that is dynamic and really focused on fun fitness. Because if fitness is fun, kids are going to do it more often. And they're not going to hop on a treadmill," Wiechmann said.
Mixing Adventure With Safety
Another trend that is enabling playground owner-operators to provide developmentally appropriate challenges to a broader age range is that of adventure playgrounds. These offerings, however, present an entirely different set of safety and staffing considerations for recreation managers. In fact, those unfamiliar with adventure playgrounds may not have a good sense of what they actually are, or are meant to do.
"Before I became versed in adventure playgrounds and playwork, I had something specific in mind. I thought it meant zip lines and giant climbing walls and big boulders—a grand-scale nature version of a playground. But an adventure playground is actually really different," said Erin Marteal, executive director of Ithaca Children's Garden (ICG). "The defining characteristics of an adventure playground are loose and moveable parts and playwork staff."
ICG has its own version of an adventure playground in its Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone. There, kids can dig for worms, play with water, sand and clay, climb trees, get muddy and dirty, and build and tear down things like forts out of straw.
"Some of the forts and towers and structures and swings are really amazing. It's really incredible to see what kids are developing. There's no upper limit because it's a big giant construction and destruction factory, essentially," Marteal said.
In a world where kids' opportunities for free outdoor play are diminishing, adventure playgrounds give kids the opportunity to create a child-designed space. They can also provide appeal for older kids who have lost interest in the typical 5-to-12 playground. In fact, Ithaca Children's Garden initially designed the Anarchy Zone space for an older elementary and middle school demographic that was less drawn to its other attractions. "And what we found is that not only does the Anarchy Zone appeal to them, it also really appeals to the youngest sector, too," Marteal said.
Marteal argued that research shows that rates and types of injuries are less severe on adventure playgrounds than on conventional ones. What these playgrounds do intentionally provide is a greater sense of risk.
"There is a sense of being able to engage in riskier behavior from a child's perspective," Marteal said. "It's really important, as children move through the various stages of childhood, that they're exploring what their own capabilities are. They really benefit from being able to test different boundaries and test their own skills."
In the age of helicopter parenting, one of the biggest challenges in managing this kind of experience on playgrounds is getting parents to refrain from supervising and directing their children. "The point of the Anarchy Zone is for kids to play and for us to remove our own biases about how they should be playing and what they should be doing," said Marteal.
Adventure playgrounds, nature-based play, challenge courses and innovations in playground equipment each provide their own benefits and challenges when it comes to safety, maintenance and training. But all can provide a valuable experience to kids.
At the same time, the reality for recreation managers is that these facilities also require dedicated and well-trained staff to oversee the proceedings. At the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone, the staff receives training in playwork, which the garden has found incredibly valuable, even though the staff already had child development and early childhood education experience.
"Playwork is really the study and practice of supporting child-directed play, and that's different than being a teacher, an educator, a park manager," Marteal said. "If I had to say what's the one thing I would advise others who are considering starting an adventure playground, it would be to really explore playwork training and equip your key staff with basic training in playwork."
The safety requirements the Anarchy Zone falls under also vary depending on the type of programming being done. It's a public children's garden within a city park, so children and their parents can explore the spaces at any time. But the Anarchy Zone is subject to different regulations for registered programs.
For instance, New York state law prohibits the garden from allowing summer campers to climb trees—even though parents can bring their kids to enjoy the public park and let them climb trees whenever they want. "It's a bit of an anomaly that's pretty archaic and needs to be changed, but that's how it is now," Marteal said.
While the Anarchy Zone does have a shed where certain items like blocks of foam and cardboard can be locked up, that's done more for protection from the elements. But other adventure playgrounds that incorporate a heavier construction focus with hammers, nails and other potentially dangerous materials tend to have a more closed-off approach for safety reasons. In addition to locked sheds, this can include entry only during staffed hours, perimeter fencing and even waivers.
Berkeley Adventure Playground, for instance, requires people to sign a walk-in waiver when they enter the front gate. While the playground is open seven days a week for nine weeks in the summer, its fall hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends. In addition to adding to the safety of the space, fencing in this kind of adventure playground can also make the play space more acceptable to the neighboring community.
"Of all the adventure playgrounds that have started around California, the ones that have failed are the ones in people's neighborhoods," said Patty Donald, coordinator for the Berkeley Adventure Playground. "Because people don't like the look of them. They look like junkyards, or hobo villages. So that's one of the reasons to have it fenced in—so neighbors aren't going to mind being next to it."
The activities at the playground are overseen by paid, experienced staff. Many of them were once children who grew up in the playground and realized that it was important to them. "The challenge we have in schools now is that hands-on learning is not happening for a lot of people," said Donald, who believes that such outlets are particularly important for those hands-on learners who have difficulty in lecture-based classes.
"I think that the advantage of adventure playgrounds also is that we keep children longer," Donald said. "We have teenagers who will come in and build, whereas most teenagers won't be caught dead in a playground unless it's after 9 p.m. At the adventure playground, they think they're playing. But they're really learning life skills."
Adventure playgrounds, nature-based play, challenge courses and innovations in playground equipment each provide their own benefits and challenges when it comes to safety, maintenance and training. But all can provide a valuable experience to kids. And, when done properly, all can do it without an unacceptable level of risk for young patrons or the facilities that serve them.