Feature Article - January 2009
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Safe Havens

Building & Maintaining Safe Playgrounds

By Richard Zowie

History Lesson

The safety process begins with planning, developing and constructing the playground. After all, if it's not built correctly and safely, it should never be approved for use. A playground that's unsafe to use is useless.

A useless, unsafe playground can indeed result in disaster. In 2004, the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) rated each state on playground safety and gave an average grade of C+. For many students, a C+ is the type of grade that can make it difficult to get into a good college.

The NPPS reported that 15 percent of playground injuries were severe, with the most common injury—at 39 percent—being fractures (most involving the wrist, elbow or lower arm).

Over the years, the standards for playground safety have certainly evolved. It can certainly be said that today's playground isn't your father's. David Verbeck, a former New York City playground inspector, who's the founder of Honolulu, Hawaii-based Grassroots Playscapes, which designs customized play spaces, said that playground safety first started becoming a major issue in America when changes started taking place in the way children were cared for.

"Playground safety came hand-in-hand with a growing trend to have children in institutional forms of care," he said, pointing out the rise in day care and after-school programs and how they contrast with the traditional ways children have been raised. "Children generally invent their own play, but when they are not able to have access to their own neighborhood or surrounding environment because parents are too busy or worried for their safety, they are delegated to contained environments."

He noted that when playground manufacturers saw this as a growing market back in the 1980s, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) started to issue guidelines and standards. However, it wasn't until the mid to late '90s that playground safety became an emphasized issue. With that emphasis came sweeping changes. Gone were playgrounds that had lasted many generations, and in were commercial structures that reduced the risk of liability—whether it was a public or privately owned playground.

"Ironically—or rather predictably—there is very little data available to substantiate liability risk since courts actually see very few cases," Verbeck said. "Much like our notion of crime…it's the sensational cases we base our fears upon."

Playgrounds, coincidentally, originally developed as a place to separate children from adult traffic out of a concern for their safety, said John Purvis, M.D., a spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. He noted that in 1974, those concerned about playground safety petitioned the CPSC to recommend safety standards for play equipment. The results were surveys that revealed something disturbing: Playground equipment was among the most hazardous consumer products.

As a result, the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) began developing playground equipment standards.

"The National Recreation and Park Association subsequently accepted a call that was made for the development of standards for playground equipment," Purvis said. "Testing protocols were established and by 1978, major reports were received regarding both playground equipment and impact attenuation. This led to the formation of the National Playground Safety Institute, which now provides training and certification for playground safety inspectors."