Feature Article - January 2016
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Balancing Act

Safety & Risk on the Playground

By Chris Gelbach

When it comes to playground safety, the battle rages on between keeping kids safe at any cost and providing a level of acceptable risk that offer kids more developmental opportunities.

"I think there's a movement where people want to make their playgrounds even safer, to make them lower and eliminate moving items," said Caroline Smith, manager of professional development for the National Recreation and Park Association. Smith is also a Certified Playground Safety Inspector. "I would like to see parents being more comfortable with the children challenging themselves more, and I think the designers and playground manufacturers would, too. But it's kind of a societal attitude right now."

Smith believes that playground designers are doing the best they can to create exciting, challenging equipment for kids that's still relatively safe. In fact, there's little evidence that the kinds or frequency of playground injuries have changed much in recent years.

According to an October 2009 report from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), most incidents resulting in emergency care (67 percent) involved falls or equipment failure. More than half (51 percent) of injuries occurred on public playground equipment. Playground experts believe that everything possible is being done in terms of designs and standards to minimize these risks.

"We're never going to eliminate the fact that you can fall off a piece of equipment. It's just one of the skill-building things that children like to do. They like to climb on things," Smith said. "As long as they're climbing, there's the risk of falling. You can't get away from that, nor would we want to. I think that's just part of the physical and cognitive growth of children."

Likewise, Teri Hendy, a spokesperson for IPEMA's Voice of Play initiative and president and owner of playground consulting company Site Masters Inc., noted that improvements in playground surfacing don't significantly address the issue of long bone fractures from falls, which the CPSC report identified as the most common type of playground injury requiring emergency care. "The protective surfacing is designed to prevent life-threatening and debilitating head injuries. And that's really its sole purpose," Hendy said.

In fact, while appropriate playground surfaces include artificial turf, engineered wood fiber, interlocking tile, rubber mulch and poured-in-place surfaces, none of them can reliably prevent this kind of injury. "… [L]ong bone fractures are unfortunately sometimes just a part of growing up," Hendy said. "Kids typically heal from those, and no one has been able to come up with a surfacing or a test method to prevent them."

Hendy noted that, anecdotally, some playground owner-operators who have switched to a unitary surface from a properly maintained loose-fill surface have experienced an increase in long bone fractures. "So we know that there's some protective characteristic in a loose fill when it comes to long bone fractures. But even with the best-maintained loose-fill material, if you fall at the right angle, you're still going to have a broken bone," Hendy said.

That being said, only a properly maintained loose-fill surface can afford even that level of additional protection. And for some high-volume playground attractions, those maintenance requirements can be a deal-breaker. Hendy noted the example of Maggie Daley Park, a destination park in Chicago's downtown Loop area that opened in 2014 and that features a Play Garden with six different play areas for kids.

"Loose-fill surfacing wasn't even a consideration because of the Chicago Park District's own internal policy," said Hendy, who worked as a playground safety consultant on the project. "But also, with the number of people who use the park on a daily basis, you would literally have to have somebody standing at the base of a slide raking that surfacing back into place every hour. And that's just not reasonable."

While surfacing options haven't changed significantly over the past few years, experts are seeing growing options for safety in other areas, such as an ever-growing array of shade structures to help protect kids from excess sun. At the same time, Hendy is seeing more operators strike a balance between safety and vandalism prevention in opting for stainless steel slides more often.

On a new playground, it can be tough to provide an appropriate level of shade to prevent these slides from overheating in direct sun. "Many people are finding that it's really necessary to put stickers or signs at the top and bottom of the metal slides warning that they can get hot," Hendy said.