Feature Article - January 2009
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Safe Havens

Building & Maintaining Safe Playgrounds

By Richard Zowie

"What works for one community or group of children is not going to work for all," he said. "Safety needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis with certainly some reliance upon basics for which CPSC summarizes."

Purvis said that properly monitoring a playground and investing in educational training are vital since playground regulations alone do not look to be an effective injury prevention tool. A rule book can be written, but if the rules aren't explained or applied, then they are of little use.

What do these playground officials see as the most important factors to consider regarding safety? Haake said that besides safe equipment, it's also important to make sure the layout is safe. This means installing equipment that the police and neighbors can easily see without the obstruction of trees and shrubs. There should also be a light for security at night and an Americans with Disabilities Act-accessible walkway, along with providing easy access for people to use all the park's amenities.

Verbeck lists these critical factors to increase safety: routine maintenance to equipment and surfacing, addressing potential high-risk incidents in a timely fashion, adult supervision, appropriate and sufficient surfacing, providing a diversity of play events, visual and physical accessibility and providing a layout that avoids conflicting use of the space.

When building playgrounds, mistakes can be made no matter how careful the process is. The same goes with any industry: Sometimes even sports arenas have been built only to become obsolete within a decade due to unforeseen changes in market demands.

Verbeck believes that the biggest mistake is a failure to see a playground through the perspective of a child.

"If you cannot see the world through the eyes of a child, you are not able to make a space that is intended for them," he explained. "They see risk at a whole different level because of their perspective and experience. If we make too 'safe' of a space, we don't teach children how to negotiate themselves in comparatively difficult situations and vice versa."

Quite a lot has changed over the years when it comes to playgrounds and their safety. Haake recalls playing at a playground 20 years ago and how there was sand under the play equipment and asphalt under the monkey bars and swings at her elementary school's playground. That playground was built by local parents, including her dad. Then, at a camp in a local forest preserve, there was a 10-foot-tall metal slide and a wooden teeter-totter that went all the way to the ground. ("No tire to bounce off of," she recalled.)

Haake added, "There was no such thing as safety surfacing. It was a play-at-your-own-risk situation. Play has since become a little more guided, and we go the extra length to make play safe."

Today, Verbeck sees what he described as a "formulaic approach" to playground safety that does little to recognize what children need in their play time and hasn't been proven to have an effect on the frequency or severity of injuries.

"The guidelines are an important step, but because they were based on commercial interests, they do not go beyond an equipment perspective," he said. "The positive outcome is that people are more conscious of playground safety now and are better equipped to avoid potential injuries."