Feature Article - January 2007
Find a printable version here

Safe Ground

Building, maintaining and inspecting playgrounds to ensure all kids can play, safely

By Emily Tipping

Math, reading and science are all important factors in our children's education, but there's another activity that helps kids develop—physically, mentally, socially and emotionally. It's play, and some would say that it's not getting the attention it deserves. Whether it's school districts and local governments saying no to certain games like tag and contact sports, or it's a complete omission of recess, kids are finding it harder to get some free time for unstructured play.

But why is play so important? What makes playgrounds so special?

"For one thing," said Fran Wallach, a board member for the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association's (IPEMA) Voice of Play initiative, "they help to stimulate the growth and learning of the children, and in this world where we have taken away so much of the open space, playgrounds are essential in some areas, particularly in cities. Playgrounds give children the opportunity to learn, to grow, to socialize with each other and to contact each other."

We all understand how important it is to provide kids with play spaces—especially children in low-income areas where access to open space is limited and parks and playgrounds might not get the attention or funding they need. But as we address children's need for play time and space, we also must ensure they can play safely.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), in 2003 more than 468,000 children playing on public playgrounds were hurt badly enough to be treated by doctors, clinics and hospitals.

"Even given a 20 percent error factor, you're still looking at between 400,000 and 600,000 children injured every year," said Dr. Stephen Hurst, a fellow of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) since 1975 with a practice in San Mateo, Calif. "That number would include only those injuries that are reported to health care providers. So, there are lots of little minor aches and sprains treated by mom and dad at home."

The most typical playground injuries, Hurst said, include lacerations, fractures and bad sprains. "The most severe injuries, and I think they're diminishing now because playgrounds as a rule are so much safer now, are the falls."

While playground-injury-related deaths are rare, the CPSC does estimate that between 15 and 20 children die every year as a result of playground injuries.

But this is just where things stand now. Compared to 20 years ago, playgrounds today are safer than ever.

"We're getting smarter, and the numbers are getting lower, and the playgrounds are getting safer," Hurst explained.

"We have new types of products coming on the market all the time, and we look at them in terms of whether they meet the guidelines of the ASTM and CPSC, and sometimes you find a product that's so unique that it's not even covered by those things," said Wallach, who is also president of Total Recreation Management Services and a nationally known expert in park and playground safety.

When that happens, the product is considered, and the ASTM standard may be changed in order to cover the new product or any new problems that might be introduced.

"But you're not seeing a lot of new products coming out with hazards on them," Wallach continued. "Manufacturers have been extremely dedicated to playground safety and accessibility. In fact this [Voice of Play] advisory board is a product of their work and dedication."

But just because you can easily purchase safe playground equipment, that doesn't mean the work is done.

The National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) surveys playgrounds across the United States every five years, and provides a report card to show how things are—and aren't—improving. In 2004, the United States earned an overall C+ for playground safety. The good news? Some 27 states managed to improve their grades over the preceding year. The bad news? More improvements are needed—from increasing adult supervision and ensuring age-appropriate play areas to improving fall surfacing and ensuring equipment is properly maintained.

According to the National Safety Council (NSC), there are no national standards for playground equipment. That said, some states—including Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia—have passed legislation or regulations that adopt CPSC or ASTM recommendations.

Some of the rules apply only to childcare centers or public school districts. Others are more strict. California, for example, has adopted CPSC guidelines for all public playgrounds, and will not finance any playground that does not adhere to these rules.