Feature Article - February 2022
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Let Kids Take Risks

Best Practices on the Playground Allow Room to Stretch & Grow, Safely

By Emily Tipping

My fourth-grade class, circa 1980-81, had a rough year on the schoolyard playground. One friend did a cartwheel off of a wooden balance beam installed over hard-packed dirt and broke her arm. Another fell backwards from a swing onto the asphalt below, splitting her scalp and necessitating an ambulance ride. And those were just the injuries requiring emergency room visits.

We certainly weren't "bubble-wrapped"—our play equipment was installed over asphalt—but safety developments since then, particularly in surfacing, but in equipment and maintenance practices as well, might have made these serious accidents less serious, and prevented many minor injuries, too. That year, 1981, the CPSC published the Handbook for Public Playground Safety. Standards for surfacing under and around equipment and other standards from AS™ were established beginning in the late 1980s.

The National Program for Playground Safety was founded in 1995 at the University of Northern Iowa with a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As a nonprofit organization, NPPS performs research and safety education for the playground industry, as well as the public.

The NPPS uses the acronym SAFE, to outline four elements of playground safety:

  • Supervision
  • Appropriate Environments (formerly "Age-Appropriate")
  • Fall Surfacing
  • Equipment Maintenance

On its website, the NPPS says that active supervision "… helps ensure safety and positive play experiences. It requires adult supervisors who are alert, are aware, know safe playground rules and intervene when inappropriate behavior occurs."

Adults who are monitoring children on the playground should be positioned where they can observe all of the children, using their understanding of child development to anticipate problems and intervene when necessary.

For many public playgrounds, supervision is a difficult needle to thread, though. Outside of school recess and childcare facilities, very few playgrounds are actively supervised by an employee who holds that responsibility. In parks across the country, and on school grounds after hours, we rely on parents and caregivers to do the supervising.

Besides signage to inform caregivers of the expectation that they'll keep an eye on their children at play, what can playground owners do to encourage proper supervision?

The NPPS suggests, "When activities, equipment and open spaces are designed well, it is easier to supervise by sight and sound." That means clear sight lines are important.

The other elements of playground safety—appropriate environments, fall surfacing and equipment maintenance—are more within the purview of those who own and manage public playgrounds.

Appropriate Environments

According to the NPPS, creating an appropriate environment involves:

  • Planning for child development characteristics, which takes children's size, strength and decision-making abilities into account, and involves planning developmentally appropriate outdoor environments.
  • Offering suitable environmental conditions, including paying attention to problems with extreme temperatures—especially at midday on the hottest of summer days, when equipment can become too hot and expose kids to unsafe conditions.
  • Providing inclusive spaces that provide opportunities for all children to play.
  • Providing direct exposure to natural elements outdoors.

Ultimately, playgrounds should give children of all ages and abilities the opportunity to stretch beyond their limits. Playgrounds should be safe, yes, but care must be taken to expose children to these kinds of boundary-pushing experiences to maximize their developmental benefits.

"We advise all our customers to think in terms of 'as safe as necessary,' as opposed to 'as safe as possible," said Avery Croteau, director of sales for a play equipment manufacturer with U.S. headquarters in Greenville, S.C. "We need to remove some of the bubble wrap that we've put on the modern playground, which will expose children to that positive risk that they need and crave.

"When you build in risk, you're also building in safety, because kids play differently when there's a perceived risk," Croteau added. "The standards are doing great things by eliminating hazards from the playground spaces, which is what customer really need to be concerned about, but we can still do a lot better to remove the barriers that prevent children from experiencing risky play."

Playground manufacturers have found myriad creative ways to give their play equipment that positive balance—offering the perception of risk that helps kids grow and explore. The inclusive play movement has had a positive impact as well, with manufacturers increasingly looking for ways to design equipment that allows children of all abilities to play on all parts of the playground, including the higher levels. But here again, supervision is key.

"Accessible and inclusive playground environments invite our youngest users to reach higher levels within play areas," said Tom Norquist, immediate past president of IPEMA, the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association. "Supervision of preschool children is super-valuable in creating a safer play experience on accessible and inclusive playgrounds."

Balancing safety and perceived risk is important for kids learning to stretch their skills and their boundaries. "One begets the other," Croteau said, "meaning the added perceived risk can reduce the rate of injury, resulting in a safer play space."

He added that this has been validated by research from Mariana Brussoni on the benefits of risky play.

"Rope-based play inherently builds risk into the playground simply by the nature of the material," Croteau explained. "Instead of a deck beneath your feet, you have a rope strand, which can have a cliff-like feel. That experience, among others, has been identified as one of the key elements in providing a 'risky' play environment."