Feature Article - March 2012
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Safe and Secure

Balancing Safety and Fun on the Playground

By Deborah L. Vence

When children go to a playground, fun is the ultimate goal—especially with so much to choose from. Twisty slides, crawl-through tunnels, swings, monkey bars and more can keep children entertained for hours. But, ahead of having fun, safety still needs to be the No. 1 priority.

The fact is that the main source of playground injuries is falls to the surface, though "there are three other areas that need attention because they are related: supervision of the children, age-appropriate design (taking the children to the wrong age level of equipment) and equipment maintenance (the equipment may be broken)," said Donna Thompson, Ph.D., executive director of the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS), a Cedar Falls, Iowa-based nonprofit organization that delivers training and services about outdoor play and safety.

According to information from the NPPS Web site, playgroundsafety.org, between 2001 and 2008, an average of 218,851 preschool and elementary children received emergency department care each year for injuries that occurred on playground equipment. Furthermore, 51 percent of the injuries happened on public playground equipment; and 19 percent occurred on home playground equipment; 20 percent were not recorded; and 1 percent were listed as "other." And, of the incidents reported, 67 percent involved falls or equipment failure; 8 percent involved hazards around, but not related to the equipment; 7 percent were collisions with other children or the equipment; 7 percent involved entrapments; and 11 percent were listed as "other."

"Safety and proper design is important and must be dealt with first. Fun is the result of interaction with the equipment and with other children," Thompson said. "If the area is designed to meet the children's needs, they will be safe and will have fun."

Moreover, a representative from the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA), which provides third-party product certification services for U.S. and Canadian public play equipment and U.S. public play surfacing materials, noted that the majority of injuries that take place on playgrounds are related to falls because "kids climb, jump and exercise their bodies in a variety of ways on playground equipment. To a certain extent, falls are inevitable—and are even a part of learning."

But, risk of injury can be minimized by ensuring these key points:

  • Installing IPEMA-certified playground equipment and surfacing materials, which are compliant with ASTM standards for impact-attenuation and fall-height requirements and are designed for specific age groups.
  • Ensuring compliant installation and maintenance procedures at proper intervals.
  • Having a participatory adult (supervisor) presence on playgrounds to help facilitate play activity.

Of course, both the ground surfaces and the playground equipment itself must be up to safety standards. In this issue, Recreation Management takes a look at the safety of playground surfaces and equipment today, and what playground owners and operators can do to ensure both are up to industry standards.