Feature Article - January 2007
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Safe Ground

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

By Emily Tipping

Are you S.A.F.E.?

Created in 1995, the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) helps communities address playground safety. The organization's national action plan is based on four goals:

  • Supervision
  • Age-Appropriateness
  • Fall Surfacing
  • Equipment Maintenance

By addressing concerns in each of these four areas, playground operators can bring their sites up to speed and ensure kids have a safer place to play.

In early 2000, the Lee's Summit R-7 School District in Lee's Summit, Mo., started to focus on playground safety. Environmental/Risk Manager Mark White discovered that many students were getting injured on playgrounds. He gained support for a Playground Safety Initiative and attended the NPPS Playground Safety School. The S.A.F.E. concepts were incorporated into the district's practices, and the frequency and severity of playground injuries have decreased 27 percent on average over the past six years.

Last year, the school district won a safety award from the NPPS.

Higher and Higher

Most injuries on public playgrounds are associated with climbing equipment.

So what's a safe height?

Depends who you ask.

According to a report from the Consumer Federation of America, 58 percent of more than 1,000 playgrounds surveyed had climbers or slides exceeding 6 feet in height. The report states that this is "higher than necessary for play value and only serves to increase the risk of injury."

The National Program for Playground Safety says it's OK to go over 6 feet, but you must provide an intermediate surface where the child can stop to decide whether to climb higher or climb back down via an alternate route.

Fran Wallach, a nationally known expert on park and playground safety and advisory board member for IPEMA's Voice of Play Initiative, pointed out that height probably doesn't matter that much to the children. The critically important factor is making sure to provide a protective surface.

"At the moment, we have surfaces which will only tolerate falls from a certain distance," she explained. "But if you were the child and you were up on top of something, would you really know if it were 7 feet or 8 feet tall?"

Safe heights are also dependent on the age of the children playing. For example, for preschool-age kids, slides should be no higher than 4 feet, while 6 feet is OK for school-age children.

"You don't really need to go up into the sky somewhere and risk something happening," Wallach said, "as much as you want to meet the perception and desire of the child wanting to go up."