Let Kids Take Risks
Best Practices on the Playground Allow Room to Stretch & Grow, Safely
My fourth-grade class, circa 1980-81, had a rough year on the schoolyard playground. One friend did a cartwheel off of a wooden balance beam installed over hard-packed dirt and broke her arm. Another fell backwards from a swing onto the asphalt below, splitting her scalp and necessitating an ambulance ride. And those were just the injuries requiring emergency room visits.
We certainly weren't "bubble-wrapped"—our play equipment was installed over asphalt—but safety developments since then, particularly in surfacing, but in equipment and maintenance practices as well, might have made these serious accidents less serious, and prevented many minor injuries, too. That year, 1981, the CPSC published the Handbook for Public Playground Safety. Standards for surfacing under and around equipment and other standards from AS™ were established beginning in the late 1980s.
The National Program for Playground Safety was founded in 1995 at the University of Northern Iowa with a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As a nonprofit organization, NPPS performs research and safety education for the playground industry, as well as the public.
The NPPS uses the acronym SAFE, to outline four elements of playground safety:
- Appropriate Environments (formerly "Age-Appropriate")
- Fall Surfacing
- Equipment Maintenance
On its website, the NPPS says that active supervision "… helps ensure safety and positive play experiences. It requires adult supervisors who are alert, are aware, know safe playground rules and intervene when inappropriate behavior occurs."
Adults who are monitoring children on the playground should be positioned where they can observe all of the children, using their understanding of child development to anticipate problems and intervene when necessary.
For many public playgrounds, supervision is a difficult needle to thread, though. Outside of school recess and childcare facilities, very few playgrounds are actively supervised by an employee who holds that responsibility. In parks across the country, and on school grounds after hours, we rely on parents and caregivers to do the supervising.
Besides signage to inform caregivers of the expectation that they'll keep an eye on their children at play, what can playground owners do to encourage proper supervision?
The NPPS suggests, "When activities, equipment and open spaces are designed well, it is easier to supervise by sight and sound." That means clear sight lines are important.
The other elements of playground safety—appropriate environments, fall surfacing and equipment maintenance—are more within the purview of those who own and manage public playgrounds.
According to the NPPS, creating an appropriate environment involves:
- Planning for child development characteristics, which takes children's size, strength and decision-making abilities into account, and involves planning developmentally appropriate outdoor environments.
- Offering suitable environmental conditions, including paying attention to problems with extreme temperatures—especially at midday on the hottest of summer days, when equipment can become too hot and expose kids to unsafe conditions.
- Providing inclusive spaces that provide opportunities for all children to play.
- Providing direct exposure to natural elements outdoors.
Ultimately, playgrounds should give children of all ages and abilities the opportunity to stretch beyond their limits. Playgrounds should be safe, yes, but care must be taken to expose children to these kinds of boundary-pushing experiences to maximize their developmental benefits.
"We advise all our customers to think in terms of 'as safe as necessary,' as opposed to 'as safe as possible," said Avery Croteau, director of sales for a play equipment manufacturer with U.S. headquarters in Greenville, S.C. "We need to remove some of the bubble wrap that we've put on the modern playground, which will expose children to that positive risk that they need and crave.
"When you build in risk, you're also building in safety, because kids play differently when there's a perceived risk," Croteau added. "The standards are doing great things by eliminating hazards from the playground spaces, which is what customer really need to be concerned about, but we can still do a lot better to remove the barriers that prevent children from experiencing risky play."
Playground manufacturers have found myriad creative ways to give their play equipment that positive balance—offering the perception of risk that helps kids grow and explore. The inclusive play movement has had a positive impact as well, with manufacturers increasingly looking for ways to design equipment that allows children of all abilities to play on all parts of the playground, including the higher levels. But here again, supervision is key.
"Accessible and inclusive playground environments invite our youngest users to reach higher levels within play areas," said Tom Norquist, immediate past president of IPEMA, the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association. "Supervision of preschool children is super-valuable in creating a safer play experience on accessible and inclusive playgrounds."
Balancing safety and perceived risk is important for kids learning to stretch their skills and their boundaries. "One begets the other," Croteau said, "meaning the added perceived risk can reduce the rate of injury, resulting in a safer play space."
He added that this has been validated by research from Mariana Brussoni on the benefits of risky play.
"Rope-based play inherently builds risk into the playground simply by the nature of the material," Croteau explained. "Instead of a deck beneath your feet, you have a rope strand, which can have a cliff-like feel. That experience, among others, has been identified as one of the key elements in providing a 'risky' play environment."
Do Look Down
Providing the thrill of climbing high on ropes, platforms and other elements also requires careful attention to what's below: an appropriate safety surface, whether loose-fill surfaces like engineered wood fiber or rubber mulch, or unitary surfaces like poured rubber, rubber tiles or synthetic turf designed for use on the playground. Long-cited research reveals that seven out of 10 injuries that occur on the playground involve falls—most often, falls onto unsafe surfaces, like the asphalt at my elementary school or the hard-packed dirt under the swings and slides at my favorite childhood park.
"There's absolutely no place for sacrificing safety when it comes to playground equipment, but there are ways to increasingly ensure it," said Todd Brinker, senior vice president of commercial growth for outdoor play for a playground manufacturer headquartered in Huntersville, N.C. "For example, research suggests 75% of playground injuries result from a fall on an unforgiving or poorly maintained playground surface. That's potentially 200,000 emergency room visits a year."
He added, "It's true that kids like to challenge themselves both physically and mentally on the playground, to stretch their boundaries and skill sets. These are all vital developmental opportunities, and it's our job to make those experiences as safe for them as is humanly possible."
Norquist quoted IPEMA President Lloyd Reese, who said, "Failure is not a bad thing because children can learn from failure. Adequate surfacing and clearances around the equipment help to create play environments that allow children to discover their abilities, develop skills and self-confidence."
The NPPS recommends taking four steps to ensure you're doing what you can to protect kids when they fall to the surface:
- Choose the right materials. Not asphalt or dirt, cement or concrete. Appropriate surfaces include loose-fill material like engineered wood fiber, sand, pea gravel or crumb rubber, and unitary surfaces like rubber tiles, poured-in-place rubber and synthetic turf.
- Keep equipment height in mind. Equipment height has an impact on the ability of a surface to provide protection. Different materials provide varying degrees of protection for different fall heights. Be sure to talk to your playground manufacturer and your safety surface provider about how to determine the appropriate surface for the height of your equipment.
- Evaluate the depth of loose-fill material. The required depth will depend on the material you're using, as well as the fall height of the equipment. The CPSC Handbook for Public Playground Safety provides some guidelines, and your safety surface provider can advise you on how deep the material should be, as well as how to maintain the surface depth, i.e., by raking loose-fill back into place, or by placing mats in high-wear areas like under swings and at the bottom of slide runouts.
- Be aware of use zones, and proper layouts for different kinds of equipment.
"It is so important to create play environments that allow skill development and prevent serious injuries, primarily from falls," Norquist said. "Past AS™ F1487 Chair Dr. Fran Wallach advised me that 'you have to learn to think like a child.' For example, look at equipment in different ways—how is a child going to climb up a slide instead of just going down it? How will children climb down equipment that's main purpose may be providing access to a higher level? These insights can vastly help a designer. Additionally, one of your best safety measures to allow more aggressive play behavior is to install and maintain impact-attenuating surfacing."
Which of the many surfacing options is best for your playground? It depends. Many factors should factor into your analysis, including the prevailing climate, expected use patterns, budget, maintenance capabilities and more.
Loose-fill surfacing like engineered wood fiber or rubber mulch can provide excellent fall protection at an economical value.
Scott Merchlinski, CPSI, sales and marketing manager for a manufacturer of playground and other surfaces based in Middletown, Pa., also touted the green nature of engineered wood fiber. "When manufactured from virgin wood chips, engineered wood fiber is a green material, made from a renewable resource coming from locally owned and operated lumber mills, which helps reduce the carbon footprint, as well as supporting local economies. Plus, it maintains a natural look for most outside playgrounds."
The biggest concern with loose-fill materials is the need for regular maintenance. "As a loose-fill material, engineered wood fiber easily kicks out from under high-use areas, decomposes over time, requires maintenance to maintain ADA accessibility, and easily conceals broken glass and other foreign objects."
To reduce time required for maintenance, Merchlinski suggests using playground mats, accessibility pathways and accessibility ramps.
Unitary surfacing, and pour-in-place, or PIP, surfacing in particular, provides head-impact protection while offering ADA compliance "in a safe and fun way," said Chris Wolf, general manager for a playground safety surface manufacturer based in Corona, Calif. "Poured-in-place materials fit the 'built environment,' providing designers latitude to coordinate surfacing elements and colors with equipment in creative ways.
"While PIP has a higher initial installed cost than loose-fill materials, the better life-cycle costs of PIP become evident by the lack of annual refilling of play areas and additional employee labor costs and owner liability of loose-fill surfacing, which requires daily maintaining, raking and grooming of low spots."
Whatever surface you choose, Merchlinski emphasized the importance of installing the product so it will exceed fall safety requirements for the long term. "All too often, we see surfaces installed that 'pass' fall testing today, but lack of required maintenance—like not installing thick-enough surfacing, movement of loose-fill surfacing, lack of drainage or incorrect installation—will cause the product to fail fall testing within weeks or months of the original installation."
"Industry estimates blame poor maintenance for at least one-third of playground injuries," Brinker explained, so you should ensure that you have a "well-considered maintenance plan" that helps you meet all of the requirements of your particular surface, such as refilling loose-fill.
"With any loose-fill surface, a playground owner should maintain a maintenance plan to be proactive in preventing injuries, rather than reactive when it's too late," Merchlinski said. "Part of this could be the use of playground mats to decrease the amount of kickout. This would help to maintain the fall safety while decreasing the frequency of maintenance. It is easy for a playground owner to overlook these added benefits. The decision to spend more on better, longer-lasting surfacing is easily lost to purchasing an additional slide or piece of play equipment. We believe that a correctly installed, and maintained, playground dramatically increases the functional longevity of the playground and the surface."
Wolf added that one of the reasons owners who have purchased his company's PIP system are satisfied with poured-in-place is the extremely low maintenance requirements. "Usually a quarterly inspection of the surface is all that is required," he said.
"Vandalism or areas needing a repair are very localized and easily repaired," he added. "Most PIP installations go years without any issues whatsoever."
The NPPS reports that about 60% of playground injuries that result in litigation list a lack of maintenance as the primary cause of injury. So, once your playground is installed, the most important thing you can do to protect children from injuries—and your organization from lawsuits—is ensuring you're following best practices when it comes to maintaining your equipment and surface.
"Equipment and environment maintenance of play areas involves more than simply fixing something that is broken," according to the NPPS website. "A well-designed maintenance program is proactive, responding to needs before crises occur."
In fact, Norquist said his best advice for keeping play areas safe is a regular inspection and maintenance program. "We like our customers to have trained personnel make daily visual inspections to be on the lookout for and quickly remove unwanted items brought into the play environment—things like trash, broken glass, strings and ropes," he said. "In addition, we recommend a closer inspection related to maintenance at least every quarter to help identify wear and tear on moving parts, tightening any loose hardware, reviewing safety surfacing and overall condition of apparatus."
"Playground owners should work with their local playground sales representative to ensure their playgrounds are properly maintained," Brinker added. "They should conduct periodic site inspections, which can reveal the need for improvements, such as engineered wood fiber surfacing refills and the repair of damaged structures."
In addition to following manufacturers' recommendations, Norquist suggested the sixth edition of Ken Kutska's "Playground Safety Is No Accident." It includes "… easy-to-follow playground maintenance-needs assessment worksheets," Norquist said. "Kutska's decades of work in the playground safety field is detailed into a practical guide to help practitioners keep their playground environments in the best possible condition to ensure years of fun and safer use."
Brinker said that many local representatives for playground manufacturers offer services to help ensure you're following proper maintenance requirements. In addition, he said his company offers a product that helps to protect current and new playgrounds from germs—important in these pandemic times. The product is "… an industry-first antimicrobial coating specifically targeted for use on indoor and outdoor playgrounds." The product is EPA-registered in the United States, and is an "… effective, safe and active surface protectant that provides continued playground protection, unlike cleaning and disinfection that only last until the next kid climbs aboard."
In addition to following proper maintenance practices with regular inspections and proactive plans, you'll need to be aware of the potential for vandalism and graffiti. Graffiti might not create an unsafe environment, but it does create a perception of one, while vandalism can actually damage equipment and cause hazards.
"The prevention of vandalism, including graffiti, is often best handled by creating a culture of care nearby the playground environment," Norquist said. "Involving the community in the ongoing life of a park, schoolyard or housing development can help to create positive vibes and curb vandalism. Having local eyes watching over park activity, combined with local law enforcement presence, helps to prevent vandalism."
Brinker's company took cues from customers on inappropriate nighttime activity on the playground to develop a new lighting product for its play structures. "Thanks to recent advancements in LED and battery technology, in September 2021 we introduced … a patent-pending, solar-powered safety light, durably designed to easily fit into the posts of new and existing playground structures."
The light shines in a downward trajectory from sunset to sunrise, discouraging "… loitering, vandalism and other destructive behavior," Brinker said, "and at a fraction of the cost of running electricity to otherwise light up a playground. It's an easy solution to a real problem, and one that's become a quick hit with our customers."
Norquist pointed to the power of messaging. "In fact," he said, "good educational messaging about how important play is to every human, no matter what their age, might even help alter some of this destructive behavior. Vandals are emotionally strained, and being a part of a playful community may actually have an impact on destructive behavior."
As Brinker concluded, "The world of playgrounds becomes significantly safer when we all work together to make it so." RM