Playgrounds are an important part of a child’s health and development, so it's a good thing that they love playing on swing sets, monkey bars and other playground equipment. Kids get exercise, burn off energy and develop their motor skills by the running, jumping and climbing they do on the playground.
Playgrounds are built in backyards, schoolyards and public parks, usually with the safety and best interests of kids in mind. However, each year approximately 200,000 children visit U.S. emergency departments for injuries sustained on playgrounds. The most common injuries are broken bones, bruises, scrapes and deeper cuts, but more serious injuries also occur.
Injuries can be related to problems with the playground equipment, such as improper installation, inadequate protective surfaces under the equipment, or poor maintenance. However, injuries also happen when kids use the equipment in unsafe ways. For example, a child may try to do something that another child is doing, even though he does not yet have the physical skills to do so, resulting in a fall or other injury.
To keep your kids as safe as possible, experts recommend that you:
Supervise your child. Many playground injuries are related to inadequate supervision. Children of all ages should be under constant supervision when playing on playground equipment. Younger children obviously need supervision because they still have difficulty using some of the equipment, but older children need supervision, too, because they sometimes take more chances, putting themselves at even greater risk of injury. Adults need to carefully watch children playing, interrupt when necessary to avoid dangerous situations, and be available in case an injury occurs.
Guide children to age-appropriate equipment. Most playground equipment is designed with a specific age range and typical developmental abilities in mind. Equipment designed for school-aged children (ages 5 to 12) is too big and probably dangerous for preschoolers (ages 2 to 5). In most playgrounds, different play areas for different age groups are available, and children should play only on age-appropriate equipment.
Survey the play area for apparent hazards. When visiting a play area, teach your child to look around and check to see that there are no potential hazards. Some hazards can be obvious (for example, broken glass on the ground or sharp metal edges on equipment), while others are subtle (for example, playground designs that create congested areas where children could run into each other). If the area is near a street or parking lot, make sure there is a fence to prevent children from running in front of cars. Be sure that metal equipment is in shaded areas or has a protective surface to prevent the metal from heating up in the sun and causing burns.
Check for cushioning beneath equipment. Falls from equipment are responsible for most playground injuries, and many of these are from improper surfacing. Playground equipment should not be located over hard surfaces such as grass, packed dirt, rocks, asphalt or blacktop; a fall to these surfaces could be life threatening. Acceptable surfaces include thick layers of hardwood fiber/mulch, pea gravel and sand. Other options include specially designed synthetic surfaces such as rubber tiles or mats. Surfaces should be maintained to a depth proportionate to the height of equipment. Experts recommend a minimum of 12 inches of loose fill, such as mulch, pea gravel or sand, for equipment up to 8 feet high; additional loose fill is needed for higher equipment. Check with the manufacturers of synthetic surfaces for recommendations regarding the depth of their products. Cushioned surfaces should be provided under all equipment and should extend a minimum of 6 feet in all directions from the edge of the equipment. For adequate cushioning, loose fill that has moved to the edge of the play area needs to be pushed back underneath equipment.
Inspect individual equipment.
- Ladders, platforms and steps. Steps should be in good condition and handrails should have appropriate grip sizes for children. Platforms should be surrounded with an age-appropriate guardrail or protective barrier.
- Swings. Swings should be on a separate framework, rather than attached to other equipment, with only two swings in each bay (or framework). Swings should be positioned at least 24 inches apart and 30 inches from any supports. The cushioning surface should extend for at least twice the height of the swing, in front and in back of the swing seat, and at least 6 feet to each side of the structure.
- Slides. Slides should be well anchored, have firm handrails for gripping, and have steps with good traction and drainage holes. There should be no spaces between the slide platform (at the top) and the slide itself, where shoelaces or strings from clothing could catch and cause injury. Make sure metal slides are shaded or covered with a protective coating to prevent the metal from heating up in the sun and causing burns.
- Seesaws. The handles of the seesaw should be secure and easy for children to grip. There should be a soft bumper under the bottom of the seat to absorb the impact with the ground, and all pivot points should be covered to prevent pinched fingers.
- Merry-go-rounds. Merry-go-rounds should be anchored firmly into the ground and have handles that children can grasp easily. The bottom surface of the merry-go-round should be positioned so that children cannot slide underneath, and the gearbox should be covered so fingers cannot get caught. A mechanical device (governor) should be attached to limit the speed of the unit.
When they are done playing at the playground, children should be reminded to leave the area in as good a condition as they found it. Have the children redistribute any loose surfacing that may have been pushed aside during play. Close any gates that are open.
If you or your child find any problems that you can’t handle yourselves, contact the administrator of the play area to point out the problems and suggest changes. If an injury occurs, contact the administrator of the play area and report the injury, the condition of the play area at the time and any factors that may have been related to the incident.
To report a product hazard or a product-related injury, write to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), Washington, DC 20207 or call the toll-free hotline at 1-800-638-2772. For more information on playground safety, visit the CPSC Web site or the National Program for Playground Safety Web site.