Playgrounds play an important role in the growth and maturation of children. Municipal parks and recreation departments spend large amounts of money annually to develop and maintain play spaces because they provide positive places for children to be outside, active and social.
While most professionals agree playgrounds are needed, these spaces have risks. Across the country, more than 200,000 children under age 14 are seen in emergency rooms annually for injuries that occur on playgrounds. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), 75 percent of those injuries happen on public playgrounds. Because of these statistics, the CPSC has developed playground-safety guidelines to combat the most typical injuries related to falls, design problems and maintenance issues.
Studies describing how children play and use playground equipment are continuously reviewed to make changes to the guidelines as well as to reduce injury incidences. The most recent changes in 2008 address issues such as new playground designs, the effects of sun over time and playground surfacing.
As parks and recreation departments continue to invest in play spaces, there must also be continued maintenance and evaluations. The more a playground is used, the more likely it is to incur problems. For example, playground surfacing is worn away by shoes while swing chains wear out, and nuts are loosened from bolts. Weather also affects equipment–paint chips, metal rusts, and plastics crack. Evaluations should be conducted by trained, certified playground inspectors who know where to look for problem areas. Once issues are identified, they must be fixed. Therefore, it is recommended that there be a playground maintenance plan and a certified playground evaluator on staff.
To get started, follow these 10 tips from Tennessee authorities regarding playground safety:
1. Identify any equipment within the agency’s jurisdiction that has caused a reported injury due to poor maintenance, lack of repairs or poor design that does not comply with CPSC guidelines and ASTM standards. If the cause of the injury has not been corrected, remove the equipment.
2. Remove any existing playground equipment that is not recommended for use on public playgrounds in the CPSC guidelines and ASTM standards, including:
• Heavy animal-figure swings
• Multiple-occupancy swings (excluding tire swings)
• Rope swings
• Swinging exercise rings and trapeze-bar swings
• Swinging gates
• Giant strides (Maypole).
For added protection:
• Cover or replace exposed concrete footing
• Remove cement landing pads in use zones
• Evaluate older playground equipment for the presence of toxic substances.
3. Ensure that adequate surfacing material exists below each piece of playground equipment. It has been widely documented that almost 70 percent of all playground injuries can be avoided or minimized by providing soft landing materials.
4. Identify any tall equipment that requires a landing surface that exceeds the maximum fall height of the underlying protective surfacing material. Agencies should consider removing this equipment unless a tested surfacing (ASTM F 1292) 200 G and 1000 HIC impact standard is available, and placed below this equipment with an acceptable use zone.
5. Adjust playground borders and/or when possible relocate equipment to accommodate CPSC and ASTM Layout and Spacing Guidelines (use zone requirements).
6. Identify and repair areas of non-compliance on playground equipment by beginning or improving a regular playground-inspection and maintenance program. A major playground-equipment manufacturer study alleges that more than 30 percent of playground accidents are caused by inadequate maintenance practices by operators. Inadequate maintenance inspections and lack of follow-up corrective procedures are common causes of playground accidents. The resulting lack of inspections or poor documentation may be a basis for legal action against a public agency.
7. Conduct a comprehensive playground safety audit of each playground site to determine the adequacy of its compliance with the 2008 CPSC handbook and the current ASTM standards. This audit will assist agencies developing playground replacement schedules by identifying and prioritizing serious areas of non-compliance in existing playground equipment and park/playground sites as a whole. The results of the audit will also identify some conditions that are correctable by agency staff as well as those that may be abated by contacting manufacturers for retrofit upgrades. Because standards have changed throughout the last 20 years, it is suggested that you determine with legal counsel those standards that apply to your playgrounds.
8. Formalize maintenance policies and procedures.
9. Establish a long-term action plan to upgrade playground sites, and which is reflected in the agency’s capital-equipment replacement program, existing staff resources and maintenance/repair budget.
10. Obtain an ongoing commitment of each person who is actively involved in providing safe and challenging playgrounds in the community.
CPSC (2009), Playground Safety Handbook. Retrieved from www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/325.pdf
Tennessee (2004), Tips for Playground Safety. Retrieved from www.tn.gov/environment/recreation/pdf/PlaygroundSafetyTips.pdf
Merry Moiseichik is a certified as a playground safety inspector and a professor at the University of Arkansas. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.