Feature Article - January 2009
Find a printable version here

Safe Havens

Building & Maintaining Safe Playgrounds

By Richard Zowie


An Ounce of Prevention

Preventing these injuries can sometimes be tricky. At times, it's as simple as making sure parents pay attention to the signs indicating the age appropriateness of the equipment, said Laura Haake, a city park designer for the United City of Yorkville, Ill. "Some injuries can be avoided if the child is old enough to play on the equipment," she added. "A 2-year-old on an age-5-to-12 playground is not a safe situation."

Unfortunately, analyzing playground injury prevention recommendations can be difficult due to the many variables to consider, Purvis added. For example, the sites may vary with the amount of adult supervision, equipment maintenance and environmental factors. The doctor noted that several studies have worked to try to chronicle the effectiveness of injury-prevention programs and regulations.

Besides appropriate adult supervision, Purvis sees several things that need to be done to make the playgrounds as safe as possible: parental input and the proper design and installation of the equipment. And, of course, regular inspections and maintenance. Parents, physicians, park officials and school authorities should join together to be certain that their playgrounds meet the highest standards of safety, he said. Playground design and upkeep should be directed to challenge the imagination but avoid serious injury to children. Current initiatives hold promise, but playground injuries continue to be a significant and costly problem.

The doctor added that many accidents result from a child's natural desire for excitement and adventure.

Some injuries can be reduced by working with the natural terrain and installing an appropriate feature that uses what's available. "A playground that includes activities such as sand and water events, theme-play structures, or the inclusion of natural features is a space where the reliance upon kinesthetic events is not as central, thus resulting in fewer injuries, Verbeck said. "In other words, to reduce injuries you have to broaden the horizons of what occupies the space and how it is situated within the context of a specific environment. For instance, if I install a slide into a hillside I have not only reduced my risk of falling from an elevated height, but I have also acknowledged the space in which it resides."

Improving playground safety can be a detailed process that makes sure the equipment is designed and installed properly and then maintained. Sometimes, that process involves trust that you, the person with the need for a playground, are working with a professional whose work is nothing less than superior in quality or safety.

"We rely upon our playground representatives and manufacturers to make sure that our design meets all the safety guidelines," said Haake.

After the installation, she said, a representative does a site inspection to make sure the contractor installed the equipment correctly and that it meets all safety standards. Then, the staff checks the play equipment daily to make sure it's safe to play on—not quarterly, monthly or weekly or when there's already been word of an injury, but daily.

Verbeck feels some caution should be taken when talking about building safe playgrounds.

"We should not even begin to think that we are building safe playgrounds," he said, adding, "To broadcast that a playground is safe is to give a false notion that play is without risk. We should instead be creating playgrounds where risk is closely evaluated at a level that we are comfortable with."

Furthermore, he added, a playground shouldn't be considered completed simply because the contractor "has pulled away the orange fencing." It's important to continue to be responsible for the playground by making adjustments due to repeated incidents or due to a particular design flaw.

Verbeck added that it's important not to implement a one-size-fits-all approach to playground safety, simply because not all playgrounds or communities are the same.