Safe Ground

Building, maintaining and inspecting playgrounds to ensure all kids can play, safely

By Emily Tipping

Math, reading and science are all important factors in our children's education, but there's another activity that helps kids develop—physically, mentally, socially and emotionally. It's play, and some would say that it's not getting the attention it deserves. Whether it's school districts and local governments saying no to certain games like tag and contact sports, or it's a complete omission of recess, kids are finding it harder to get some free time for unstructured play.

But why is play so important? What makes playgrounds so special?

"For one thing," said Fran Wallach, a board member for the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association's (IPEMA) Voice of Play initiative, "they help to stimulate the growth and learning of the children, and in this world where we have taken away so much of the open space, playgrounds are essential in some areas, particularly in cities. Playgrounds give children the opportunity to learn, to grow, to socialize with each other and to contact each other."

We all understand how important it is to provide kids with play spaces—especially children in low-income areas where access to open space is limited and parks and playgrounds might not get the attention or funding they need. But as we address children's need for play time and space, we also must ensure they can play safely.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), in 2003 more than 468,000 children playing on public playgrounds were hurt badly enough to be treated by doctors, clinics and hospitals.

"Even given a 20 percent error factor, you're still looking at between 400,000 and 600,000 children injured every year," said Dr. Stephen Hurst, a fellow of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) since 1975 with a practice in San Mateo, Calif. "That number would include only those injuries that are reported to health care providers. So, there are lots of little minor aches and sprains treated by mom and dad at home."

The most typical playground injuries, Hurst said, include lacerations, fractures and bad sprains. "The most severe injuries, and I think they're diminishing now because playgrounds as a rule are so much safer now, are the falls."

While playground-injury-related deaths are rare, the CPSC does estimate that between 15 and 20 children die every year as a result of playground injuries.

But this is just where things stand now. Compared to 20 years ago, playgrounds today are safer than ever.

"We're getting smarter, and the numbers are getting lower, and the playgrounds are getting safer," Hurst explained.

"We have new types of products coming on the market all the time, and we look at them in terms of whether they meet the guidelines of the ASTM and CPSC, and sometimes you find a product that's so unique that it's not even covered by those things," said Wallach, who is also president of Total Recreation Management Services and a nationally known expert in park and playground safety.

When that happens, the product is considered, and the ASTM standard may be changed in order to cover the new product or any new problems that might be introduced.

"But you're not seeing a lot of new products coming out with hazards on them," Wallach continued. "Manufacturers have been extremely dedicated to playground safety and accessibility. In fact this [Voice of Play] advisory board is a product of their work and dedication."

But just because you can easily purchase safe playground equipment, that doesn't mean the work is done.

The National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) surveys playgrounds across the United States every five years, and provides a report card to show how things are—and aren't—improving. In 2004, the United States earned an overall C+ for playground safety. The good news? Some 27 states managed to improve their grades over the preceding year. The bad news? More improvements are needed—from increasing adult supervision and ensuring age-appropriate play areas to improving fall surfacing and ensuring equipment is properly maintained.

According to the National Safety Council (NSC), there are no national standards for playground equipment. That said, some states—including Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia—have passed legislation or regulations that adopt CPSC or ASTM recommendations.

Some of the rules apply only to childcare centers or public school districts. Others are more strict. California, for example, has adopted CPSC guidelines for all public playgrounds, and will not finance any playground that does not adhere to these rules.

Act locally

Numerous organizations across the country also have taken action to improve playground safety. The AAOS, for example, has partnered with KaBOOM!, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing play space within walking distance of every child in America, to build a new, safe playground every year. Since the partnership began in 1999, seven new playgrounds have been built across the United States.

"We've committed to building a safe, handicap-accessible playground in each of the cities that host our annual national and international conference," Hurst said.

The most recent was built in Englewood, on the south side of Chicago, where hundreds of volunteers gathered to construct the 4,200-square-foot playground. Exceeding accessibility guidelines set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the site includes safety features such as rubber surfaces, wheelchair-accessible ramps, a "tot lot" for children between 2 and 5 years old, a play structure for children between 6 and 12 years old, and safety signs in Braille. The playground also includes several slides, imaginary play components and plenty of space for climbing and balancing.

"This playground will allow our children to play in a safe, appropriate and amusing environment, keeping them off the streets," said William N. Burch, president of the Chicago Family Foundation and chairman and vice president of Black Youth in Action, in a press release.

In February, the AAOS will construct yet another safe and accessible playground, this time in Chula Vista, Calif. Children from the community have already provided their input.

In addition to nonprofit advocacy, some cities have taken action due to the efforts of local citizens. Pittsburgh enacted one of the first city ordinances to mandate a playground safety program in 1993. Susan DeFrancesco, an injury prevention consultant for a local health department at the time, spearheaded the effort to pass the legislation.

Under the program, the city's Department of Public Works assessed safety and renovated playgrounds, including installing safety surface and modular play units to ensure structural stability. In October 1996, Mayor Tom Murphy and the City of Pittsburgh received a CPSC Chairman's Commendation for Significant Contributions to Product Safety due to this program.

These days, every new playground built in the city must comply with CPSC and ASTM specifications.

Similar advocacy efforts have been effective around the country, according to the Consumer Federation of America, in cities such as Chicago, Boston, Anchorage, Alaska, Berkeley, Calif., New York City and Baltimore, among others.

Danger From Above

Making sure playground equipment and surfacing are safe is important, but there are other dangers lurking.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, avoiding exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun's rays is very important, especially for children. In fact, research has shown that getting five or more sunburns can double one's risk of developing skin cancer.

You can't stop kids from playing during the peak sun hours, short of shutting down the playground entirely. But you can help by providing shade, whether by erecting shade structures over the playground or by making sure your playgrounds are situated near trees.

The American Academy of Dermatology strongly recommends that maximum continuous shade be provided over a primary play area between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., the hours when UV radiation is at the highest levels. Fabric used to block shade should block at least 93 percent of UVA and UVB radiation.

Are you S.A.F.E.?

Created in 1995, the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) helps communities address playground safety. The organization's national action plan is based on four goals:

  • Supervision
  • Age-Appropriateness
  • Fall Surfacing
  • Equipment Maintenance

By addressing concerns in each of these four areas, playground operators can bring their sites up to speed and ensure kids have a safer place to play.

In early 2000, the Lee's Summit R-7 School District in Lee's Summit, Mo., started to focus on playground safety. Environmental/Risk Manager Mark White discovered that many students were getting injured on playgrounds. He gained support for a Playground Safety Initiative and attended the NPPS Playground Safety School. The S.A.F.E. concepts were incorporated into the district's practices, and the frequency and severity of playground injuries have decreased 27 percent on average over the past six years.

Last year, the school district won a safety award from the NPPS.

Higher and Higher

Most injuries on public playgrounds are associated with climbing equipment.

So what's a safe height?

Depends who you ask.

According to a report from the Consumer Federation of America, 58 percent of more than 1,000 playgrounds surveyed had climbers or slides exceeding 6 feet in height. The report states that this is "higher than necessary for play value and only serves to increase the risk of injury."

The National Program for Playground Safety says it's OK to go over 6 feet, but you must provide an intermediate surface where the child can stop to decide whether to climb higher or climb back down via an alternate route.

Fran Wallach, a nationally known expert on park and playground safety and advisory board member for IPEMA's Voice of Play Initiative, pointed out that height probably doesn't matter that much to the children. The critically important factor is making sure to provide a protective surface.

"At the moment, we have surfaces which will only tolerate falls from a certain distance," she explained. "But if you were the child and you were up on top of something, would you really know if it were 7 feet or 8 feet tall?"

Safe heights are also dependent on the age of the children playing. For example, for preschool-age kids, slides should be no higher than 4 feet, while 6 feet is OK for school-age children.

"You don't really need to go up into the sky somewhere and risk something happening," Wallach said, "as much as you want to meet the perception and desire of the child wanting to go up."

Someone to watch over them

The AAOS claims that proper supervision is one of the most important keys to playground safety. Why? Because without adults to watch over them and ensure they don't push the limits of what's safe, children may push the boundaries and end up hurt.

According to Hurst, if the playground equipment and surfacing are both safe, the next most important thing to turn to is adult supervision.

"Adults can spot when kids are getting too rambunctious or engaging in unsafe playground practices," he explained. "So the recreation director has to assign responsible people to supervise."

Wallach agreed, adding that product-wise, we're already doing "just about everything that can be done," with most manufacturers meeting the ASTM and CPSC guidelines. She added, "Increasing supervision, which has nothing to do with products, would be helpful in some areas."

Training on playground supervision was one of the main keys to driving down injuries in Lee's Summit, according to the NPPS.

School districts are able to provide personnel who can supervise the playground. But what should park managers and other unsupervised locations do?

You can't force parents to watch their children. But you can do everything in your power to make supervising their kids as easy as possible.

One way to do this is to ensure that play areas have been designed without "blind" spots. Adults should be able to see the kids no matter where they are on the playground. This not only will ensure adults can watch the kids, but it also helps provide safety from nefarious characters and bullies.

It's also important to establish the rules. You can't guarantee that everyone will read them, but by posting signs you can establish guidelines for expected behavior. Having supervision rules posted is one of the areas that received an F on the NPPS report card.

"The best thing if someone is not on site is to have signs," said Hurst. "All the playgrounds we have built have signs to direct proper behavior."

The rules for rules, according to the NPPS, are based on age. For 2- to 5-year-olds, you shouldn't post more than three rules. For children older than 5, five rules is plenty. And, make sure that the rules you do post are general and to the point, like "No running" or "Take turns."

You must be this tall...

Kids of different ages need different spaces to play. Put a 2-year-old and an 8-year-old on the same play equipment, and you're bound to run into problems.

Most manufacturers now design and build playground equipment for different age groups. Generally speaking, these can be divided into three groups: children who are 6 months to 23 months old, preschoolers from 2 to 5 years old, and school-age kids from 5 to 12.

But it's not enough to just install age-appropriate equipment. You also have to help the right-aged kids get to the right equipment.

You can incorporate certain elements into your design to accomplish this. Separate the play areas somehow, such as with a hedge or a row of planters, maybe with a bench or two where parents can sit. In addition, you can post signs to point out which age groups should be using which equipment. It's not always obvious to parents or kids that equipment designed for older kids is inappropriate for a 3-year-old.

Playgrounds for All

After the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1991, many playground planners and playground equipment manufacturers started taking kids with disabilities into consideration. Newer playgrounds and updated playgrounds can be found around the world that provide access to children with special needs, helping all children get a chance to play.

The ADA requires a 60-inch-wide pathway that is firm, stable and slip-resistant to allow kids to get to the equipment, but it's up to you to be sure you purchase equipment that is accessible to them once they get there.

Playgrounds built by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons exceed ADA requirements, providing children of all abilities an opportunity to interact.

"Our focus has been more specific, in that the playgrounds we build, all the equipment is connected by ramps so the handicapped kids can access the equipment by wheelchair," explained Dr. Stephen Hurst, a fellow of the AAOS. "It's one additional step to broaden the use of this recreational equipment. A lot of these handicapped children have non-handicapped siblings, so this is one of the few areas where they can play and fight together as siblings do and should. It levels the playing field, so to speak."

Boundless Playgrounds is a nonprofit organization helps communities develop barrier-free playgrounds that are not only configured to support every child's development, but also offer every child the opportunity to reach the highest play deck.

In October 2002, Rotary Park opened in Simsbury, Conn., which provides a safe place to play for children of all abilities. The playground was designed by Boundless Playgrounds in cooperation with the local Rotary Club. At least 70 percent of the playground is accessible to children in wheelchairs, walkers or leg braces.

Falling down - safely

Many of us remember swinging and sliding on the playground when we were kids, and the surface under out feet was dirt, grass or even asphalt, as it was at my elementary school. But these days, we know a lot more about what's safe underfoot and what's not.

According to "Playing It Safe: The Sixth Nationwide Safety Survey of Public Playgrounds," 75 percent of more than 1,000 playgrounds surveyed in 2002 did not have adequate protective surfacing. This report, put together by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and the State Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), shows a 5 percent improvement over 2000, when 80 percent of playgrounds lacked protective surfacing. That said, we still have a long way to go.

According to the CPSC, most of the injuries sustained on playgrounds are the result of falls, primarily falls to the ground beneath the equipment.

Long gone are the days when asphalt, dirt—even grass—were considered OK for kids to play over. The CFA, along with many other safety-conscious organizations, claims that hard surfaces like these are inappropriate because of their lack of shock absorption. The NPPS reports that falls from just 1 foot onto concrete could cause a concussion, and a fall from 8 feet onto dirt is the same as running into a brick wall at 30 miles per hour.

"Very importantly, you need to have a surface on which a child can fall and not be injured, and we call that the critical fall height of the product," Wallach said.

So what kinds of surfacing are acceptable?

Appropriate fall surfacing can be divided into two broad categories: loose-fill surfacing like wood chips, shredded bark mulch, pea gravel and rubber mulch, and synthetic surfaces like rubber tiles, mats and poured-in-place surfaces.

No matter which type of surface you use, you will have to perform some sort of routine maintenance.

If you use loose-fill surfacing, you should ask the manufacturer about the appropriate depth for the type you've purchased. Then you should maintain that depth religiously. Generally speaking, for loose-fill surfacing you need to maintain a minimum depth of at least 12 inches around each playground component in a 6-foot fall zone. On the NPPS report card, providing the appropriate depth of loose fill was another area that received an F.

Be aware that when wet or compacted, these surfaces may not provide as much protection. You'll need to get in there and rake or till the fill from time to time, as well, to ensure it's not getting packed down, especially in the higher-traffic areas like the bottoms of slides and underneath swings.

Synthetic surfaces require less maintenance, but you'll still need to inspect the surface regularly. Make sure there are no drainage problems, and also check for damage like burns or gouges. Sometimes loose materials can end up on your synthetic surface (especially if you've combined loose-fill and synthetics on your playground), creating a slipping or tripping hazard.

Not allowed

Some equipment is just never safe.

According to a report from the Consumer Federation of America, 29 percent of more than 1,000 playgrounds surveyed contained one or more pieces of this too-dangerous equipment:

  • Chain or cable walks
  • Animal swings
  • Individual climbing ropes
  • Swinging exercise rings
  • Trampolines

You're not done yet

So, once you've found the safest, most age-appropriate equipment options and installed the proper surfacing along with signs to let everyone know the rules, you're set, right?


It's not enough to set up your playground and forget about it. Routine maintenance is crucial to ensure your playground's continuing safety.

Once the playground is installed, Wallach said the most important thing to do is to create a good maintenance program.

"It's the responsibility of the owner or operator of the playground," she said. "Almost always, they are given recommendations and suggestions from the supplier of the playground product as far as what to maintain and how to maintain it."

The ASTM specifications require manufacturers to provide clear instruction on maintenance. Ask them what needs to be inspected, how often you need to inspect it, what the expected maintenance tasks are and how to repair any problems.

Next, you can look to the CPSC guidelines for some help in outlining your plan.

Proactive maintenance can help you avoid more costly repairs down the road. For example, if your playground equipment contains wooden components, apply a wood preservative on an annual basis, and you'll prevent a lot of deterioration. Just be sure to use a preservative that meets CPSC guidelines.

If the equipment is metal, plan to repaint it on a regular basis to prevent any rust or chipping. If your playground equipment was purchased before 1978, you should probably get it tested for lead paint, just in case.

Check for unsafe openings to prevent kids from getting their heads caught. There should be no openings between 3.5 and 9 inches, and there should be no V-shaped openings at the tops of slides.

Check out your swings. There shouldn't be more than two swings per bay or support structure, and the tot swings should be separated from the big-kid swings.

Routine steps you can take include closing the S-hooks found at the tops of swings and picking up all the trash. Remove graffiti promptly as well, as it only encourages further vandalism, which can damage equipment and create unsafe conditions.

Regular inspections can help you react to problems before they cause accidents. Some general questions you or your staff should be asking at each inspection include: Is any of the hardware loose? Worn out? Is anything protruding dangerously? Are any of the equipment footings exposed? Is there debris or litter? Rocks or tree roots? Is there rust? Chipped paint? If the playground is built with wooden components, are there splinters? Cracks? Signs of decay? Are any components missing, like guardrails or swing seats?

Don't just adopt a general, one-size-fits-all approach to the playgrounds you supervise. Each should be considered separately. Why? One may be exposed to more wind and snow, while another might be vandalized more often.

For more guidance on creating a maintenance program for your playgrounds, check with the National Recreation and Parks Association. They offer several publications on standards for parks, open space and recreation facilities, as well as training and certification for Certified Playground Safety Inspectors (CPSI).

Many owners and operators have gone through the CPSI courses, Wallach explained. "And there are other playground safety courses out there, as well," she said.

Challenge children physically,
Protect their growing bodies

Ultimately, the important thing is to encourage children to get out and play—to challenge themselves physically and get active. This is the only way we're going to combat the childhood obesity problems in this country.

"I think that the playgrounds we've installed and the equipment we've reviewed and certified as safe allows the child to gain all the strength that he would need to help his body grow without having the risk of injury," Hurst said of the AAOS. "I have the pleasure of having two grandsons age 4 and 6, and they get to play on our playground near our house here, and I know they get challenged physically in a very safe manner."

Wallach agreed, stating that while it's important to remove hazards, that doesn't necessarily mean physical challenge is compromised. "We can make playgrounds safe without taking away the challenges," she explained. "We take away the hazards when we make playgrounds safe. …Things like exposed protrusions that can lacerate or hang the child don't have to be there, but have nothing to do with the challenge."

"We have a lot of fun fixing these kids," Hurst said, "but we have a lot more fun making sure everyone's safe."

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