Study Finds Playgrounds Often Let Safety Slide

From the WebMD Archives

June 15, 2000 -- Each year more than 200,000 children are hurt on America's playgrounds and end up in a hospital emergency room, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

On Thursday, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) and the Consumer Federation of America reported they found some common hazards at over 1,000 different playgrounds they studied in 27 states and the District of Columbia.

"Playgrounds can be wonderful places for children to have fun and face new challenges, but far too many playgrounds contain dangers that can injure and even kill," said Rachel Weintraub, staff attorney for USPIRG and co-author of the report.

Eight in ten of the facilities studied had ground surfaces that were too hard, using materials such as concrete, asphalt and packed dirt. And nearly half of the equipment was too high, standing more than six feet. One in three fun places had equipment with narrow openings that can be a child trap. And there wasn't enough space around swings in nearly a third of the places visited

Space was a big concern. In about a third of the places studied, there wasn't enough of it to provide a "fall zone" for kids at the bottom of a slide and around things to climb.

Then, there were protruding hooks and other snagging hazards along with chipped or cracking paint.

The safety groups have conducted five such studies in a decade and did note playground builders are providing softer ground surfaces that are a bit more forgiving. Others note manufacturers are helping, too.

"At least they are beginning to have newer and safer equipment," says Donna Thompson, who directs The National Program for Playground Safety at the University of Northern Iowa. "And we are very happy about that."

After studying more than 3,000 playgrounds, Thomspon's group announced in April that nearly half had appropriate, relatively new equipment.

Thompson stresses, however, that parents have to take an active role in making sure a playground is safe. "If adults find a problem, they shouldn't let kids play on it." If there is trouble at a commercial playground or a city park, adults need to tell the facility's director. Likewise, if it's at a school, the principal should hear about the problems. And kids should stay away until those problems are fixed.

Here are some tips from the experts about what adults should know if they take children to a playground:

  • Surfaces around the playground equipment should have either mats made of safety-tested rubber or similar materials or at least 12 inches of wood chips, mulch, sand, or pea gravel. (Remember, Thompson says, loose surfaces like wood chips or gravel must be raked back into place regularly, as kids will kick it out of place as they play.)
  • Stationary equipment should have protective ground surfaces at least six feet in all directions. Swings should have ground surfaces that extend twice the height of the suspending bar, both in front and behind the swing. (So a swing set 10 feet high needs 20 feet of ground material in front and behind the swing.)
  • Play structures taller than 30 inches should be spaced at least nine feet apart.
  • Check for dangerous hardware like open "S" hooks or bolt ends that stick out and other sharp surfaces.
  • Spaces, such as openings in guardrails or between ladder rungs, should measure less than 3.5 inches or more than nine inches, so a child's head either can't pass through at all or can do so freely without getting stuck.
  • Look out for tripping hazards such as exposed concrete equipment anchors, tree stumps, and rocks.
  • Elevated surfaces such as ramps and platforms need guardrails.
  • Equipment and surfaces should be in good condition.
  • Supervise your children and make sure they keep to equipment geared toward their age. Thompson says kids 2 to 5 years should not go on equipment intended for older kids because it's easy for them to fall.