Playing It Safe

A guide to playground diligence and maintenance

By Stacy St. Clair


You've spent hours pouring over the latest safety recommendations. You followed the Consumer Production Safety Commission guidelines as if they were Gospel.

Now the top-of-line equipment has been installed. The structure has been checked—and rechecked—to ensure things are bolted and fastened properly.

You've done everything within your power to ensure the safest play structure available.

Your work here is done, right?

Nope. Not even close.

Providing a safe play structure is a responsibility that will last as long as the structure does. Such care requires constant maintenance and vigilance. And to do it properly, supervisors must dedicate more employee attention to the equipment.

"It's not that hard," says Steve King, chairman of an American Society for Testing and Materials task force charged with setting playground industry guidelines. "But most still don't want to do it. They don't have the time or inclination."

A dangerous playground, however, can end up costing more than just a few man-hours. In today's litigious society, play structures often find themselves the focus of lawsuits.

The best way to avoid legal headaches, of course, is to prevent them. Here are four steps to keeping a safe playground.

1. Surfacing

Find a injured child on a playground, and chances are they hurt themselves falling off the equipment.

Playgrounds must be safe for users of all ages
and abilities.

"It's the first thing we see in a lawsuit," says King, a certified playground safety inspector and chairman of a major playground equipment manufacturing company.

Roughly 60 percent of all playground injuries result from a fall from structures. The numbers were even higher a few decades ago, when an unplanned drop from the monkey bars could find a child thudding onto grass or, even worse, blacktop.

The playground industry, however, has greatly reduced the chances of injury with various types of shock-absorbing surfaces. The Iowa-based National Program for Playground Safety highly recommends several loose-fill materials or synthetic surfaces.

Acceptable loose-fill materials include hardwood fiber chips, mulch, pea gravel, sand and shredded rubber. Loose fill has become the most popular surface on American playgrounds because of its relatively low cost.

"They don't consider all factors," King says. "They want the cheapest thing available."

Loose-fill materials, without question, are the most inexpensive option. But they're also—at least in theory—the surface requiring the most maintenance.

Playground caretakers should check the play area regularly to ensure its spread evenly. Heavy playground traffic never fails to redistribute the surfacing, leaving dangerous bald spots that provide little cushion to falling children.

Experts recommend the surface—which should extend a minimum of six feet in all directions from the edge of stationary playground equipment—be raked daily. They must regularly be inspected for sharp objects such as glass, can tops and jagged rocks.

Loads of loose material also may need to be trucked in once a year to make sure the appropriate depth is maintained.

Loose-fill surfaces should be maintained to a depth proportionate to the structure's height. The equipment manufacturer can provide the exact proportions, but a general guideline is a 12-inch depth for equipment eight feet or lower.

Manufacturers also should provide testing results to indicate the proper depth for synthetic surfacing, a typically more expensive option that includes rubber tiles, rubber mats or synthetically poured surfaces. Though they require less maintenance than their loose-fill counterparts, synthetic materials should regularly be checked for gouges, burns and loose areas. They also should be swept daily to prevent sand, dirt and rocks from becoming a slipping hazard.

2. Maintaining Structure
Raking loose-fill playground surfacing is an important
maintenance issue, especially at the base of swings
and slides, where kids tend to displace it.

Playground surfacing isn't the only area requiring a dedicated maintenance schedule. The structures themselves need constant attention.

On ladders, for example, the protective caps and plugs should be checked regularly. Crews also should scrutinize swings for severe wear, openings on S-hooks and deterioration of bearing hangers.

Supervisors should ensure their employees regularly inspect the structures for flaws. The maintenance plan should include everything from mundane chores such as picking up broken glass and trash to more critical examinations of bolts, welding points and moving points.

"It's frustrating," King says. "If they just did this, it would be so much better. And [the structure] would last so much longer."

Experts recommend daily inspections, though many concede it would be impossible given the size of some park districts and budget constraints during an anemic economy. In most cases, they say, playgrounds can suffice with review two or three times a week.

However, the only way such examinations will work is if they become a top priority. Supervisors need to show their crews they're committed to the idea by carving time out of busy workdays for inspections.

"It's really not that complicated," King says. "But the guy on top has to be for it."

New Dog Teaches New Tips

First, Smokey the Bear cautioned only we could prevent forest fires. Then, Woodsy the Owl instructed us to give a hoot and not pollute.

In recent years, McGruff the Crimedog has urged us to take a bite out of crime.

Now, Slyde the Playground Hound hopes to emulate the safety trio's iconic status.

Idaho resident Curtis Stoddard created Slyde as a entertaining way to teach children about playground safety. A member of the National Playground Contractor's Association, Stoddard has spent the past 18 years installing playground equipment.


As he tracked changes in industry safety standards over the years, Stoddard realized no one was addressing a key player in providing playground well-being: the children. Even if the construction requirements became stricter and the materials more user-friendly, he believes playgrounds still posed a danger if kids aren't taught how to avoid potential problems.

"Playground manufacturers have spent millions of dollars and have created rigid standards to ensure the safest possible play structures for our children," Mitch Brian, Playground Hound marketing manager says. "One thing that hasn't been done is there has never been a concentrated effort to make kids more aware."

Roughly 200,000 preschoolers and children visit hospital emergency rooms for treatment of injuries sustained on playground equipment, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Seventy percent of the injuries, or about 140,000, are classified as severe—meaning they include traumas such as fractures, internal injuries, dislocation, amputations and crushes.

"The statistics speak for themselves," Stoddard says. "We send our kids off to the playground and we expect them to come back. Well, last year, 17 kids didn't come back, and that is tragic."

To spare further tragedies, Stoddard created Slyde, a floppy-eared cartoon mutt who sort of looks like McGruff's kinder, gentler nephew. He gave Slyde both a personality and a story to appeal to children.

According to legend, Slyde was a frequent visitor to his local park, where he would frolic with the kids and play on the equipment. One day, he climbed to the top of a slide and prepared to go down the slippery chute. His leash, however, became tangled around the apparatus, and he nearly choked.

Fortunately, an adult came to Slyde's aid and saved him from an early appearance in doggie heaven. A grateful Slyde has since dedicated himself to helping children avoid similar tragedies. He tells them he survived, but more than a dozen children each year aren't so lucky.


Stoddard has packaged Slyde's message in curriculum that can be purchased by local schools and park districts. Geared toward students in kindergarten through third grade, the classroom kit includes a storybook, puzzle, board game and worksheets.

Students receive Slyde stickers, patches and coloring books. The packet also includes a teacher's guide and a 42-page copy of the CPSC guidelines for playground safety.

Slyde offers catchy phrases to remind children of the dangers around the playground. For example, two of his biggest safety concerns are hooded jackets and sweatshirts. The apparel easily can get wrapped around the apparatus and present a choking hazard similar to Slyde's leash. As such, the playground hound tells students with hooded clothing to either "tuck it in or take it off" when playing.

"If we can save one child from dying or being seriously injured, we've done a wonderful thing," Stoddard says.

The kit also includes playground signs to remind children of the safety lessons once they go outside. With enough exposure, his marketing team believes Slyde could become the next icon of American safety.

"I remember as a boy, learning from Smokey and Woodsy," Brian says. "I think Slyde will be just as influential—if not more so."

For more information on the Slyde the Playground Hound program, call 800-388-2196 or visit

3. Age Appropriate
Good playground design
provides several ways for
kids to get on and off the play
structure, creating a safe
flow of play.

Simply put, children on playgrounds need to act their age.

The majority of preschool-age children injured on playgrounds last year were on equipment designed for older children, according to the CPSC. In many cases, the railing and steps were too far apart for the children to reach. In other instances, the apparatus required strength or coordination not possessed by someone younger than five years of age.

"Every playground is not one size fits all," says Jack Kloubar, who does strategic marketing for a playground manufacturer. "You simply don't have big kids playing with little kids. There too much of difference, both in size and development."

The National Program for Playground Safety encourages parents to be aware of the dangers posed to young playground users. However, park and school officials also carry some of the burden.

First, facilities should make a concerted effort to provide segregated playground areas. The design is becoming an increasingly popular option, not only for safety reasons but also because it reduces the social problems created when children of varying ages try to play within the same area.

Preschool-age children, for example, need smaller steps and crawl spaces. Their hands require small grips and low railings on platforms. Designs should include bright colors and low tables for sand and water play. The more creative playgrounds have tricycle paths of different textures and manipulation materials such as sand and dirt.

School-age children, on the other hand, should be exposed to horizontal and overhead bars that would employ their developing upper-arm strength. Semi-enclosed structures such as forts and turrets encourage important socialization and fantasy play.


A breakdown of playground injuries in the United States, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Important tools include a
maintenance kit (above) and a
safety inspection panel (below),
which teach adults how to
identify hazards.
  • Each year, nearly 20 children die from playground-related injures. More than half of these deaths result from strangulation and about one-third result from falls.
  • In 1995, playground injuries to children younger than 15 cost $1.2 billion.
  • Each year 200,000 preschool and elementary school students in the United States visit hospital emergency rooms for treatment of injuries sustained on playground equipment. That means every two-and-a-half minutes, a child is injured on play equipment in America.
  • Roughly 35 percent of all playground injuries are severe. The Consumer Product Safety Commission defines severe as injuries involving fractures, internal injuries, concussions, dislocations, amputations and crushes.
  • Slightly less than 3 percent of all playground injuries require hospitalization.
  • Public playgrounds account for 76 percent of playground equipment-related injuries.
  • In schools, most injuries to grade school students occur on playgrounds.
  • Falls of playground equipment account for more than 60 percent of all playground-related injuries.

An entry archway is a good
feature for directing the flow
of children onto play events.
4. Design

Deciding where playground equipment should go is a lot like buying a house.

It's all about location, location, location.

Though most manufacturers handle this chore, you should always double check to ensure your structure has the safest flow and components available.

Safety advocates have begun pushing for more shaded playgrounds, which reduce the chance of a child being burnt on hot surfaces. It also lessens the possibility of sunburn and ultraviolet-light damage.

Parks that select a playground location based on available shade should consider how much shade is provided between 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. standard time. Those are the peak sun hours when most exposure problems occur.

Playgrounds, however, don't revolve solely around the sun. Swings, without question, should demand your greatest attention because they are the piece of moving equipment most likely to cause injury. The National Program for Playground Safety recommends replacing all animal swings and metal or wooden seats with soft seats.

All swings should be positioned at least two feet apart at the base and 30 inches from any support. Ideally, there should be no more than two seats per frame.

Curbs and borders can help stop the surfacing from
migrating and also help direct the traffic flow,
keeping cyclists and runners out of the kids' area.

Experts also recommend the swings be attached to framework separate from other equipment. The segregation reduces the chances of a child being injured after running in swingers' path. The fall zone—the area requiring a properly padded surface—should be at least two times the maximum pivot or swing hanger. If, for example, a hanger pivot height is 15 feet, the fall zone must be at least 30 feet in front and 30 feet in back of the seat.

When picking a design for playground, resist a sky's-the-limit attitude. Studies show the greater a structure's height, the greater the chances for injury. A study conducted in Canada last year determined children who played on equipment higher than eight feet were nearly three times more likely to be injured than children on lower structures.

The National Program for Playground Safety recommends structures be no higher than six feet for preschool students and eight feet for elementary-age children.

Should you hear groans from daredevils who want higher—and presumably faster—structures, consider this: There is virtually no difference in velocity between an eight-foot and 10-foot slide.

And in the end, the nanosecond the speed demons lose could save their lives. Not a bad trade off.

It's up to you

Now that you've designed a safe structure, segregated age groups and rededicated your resources to minimize playground injuries, there's still one last chore.

Experts encourage playground managers to be aware of ever changing structure codes and guidelines. By monitoring the modifications, supervisors can adjust their equipment accordingly and reduce the possibility of successful lawsuits.

The best way to monitor the changes is to visit the CPSC Web site at and the American Society of Testing Materials at

Where the Hurt Is

The following is a breakdown of where playground injuries occur, according to the National Program for Playground Safety in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Percentages reflect some overlap among facilities.

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