How Safe Is Junior at Play?

Before kids hit the jungle gym, know what dangers they face.

From the WebMD Archives

April 10, 2000 (New York) -- On a path along the Hudson River at the southern tip of Manhattan, in the shadow of the World Trade Center, is a playground surfaced in a soft, green, rubber-like material. The playground beckons with brightly painted multilevel climbing structures, swaying bridges, curvy yellow slides, a pedal-powered merry-go-round, and an elevated sand table that allows a child in a wheelchair to scoop sand and build sandcastles. This innovative complex is a far cry from old-style playgrounds, with finger-pinching teeter-totters and swings sunk into concrete. But according to recent reports, America still has a long way to go in making outdoor play areas safer for kids.

A safety report issued in mid-March of last year from the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS), which analyzed over 1,300 playgrounds in 31 states, gave the United States an overall grade of C-. The NPPS is expected to release the results of an analysis of all 50 states in several weeks. And, according to the latest data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), each year playground-related injuries account for nearly one-quarter million emergency room visits.

Teetering Between Safety and Fun

Although playgrounds like the one described above may be state of the art with their soft surfaces and other safety touches, design alone can't guarantee safety. Experts say that more adult supervision is needed to lower injury rates, as well. "Manufacturers can't create a completely injury-proof play system," says John Preston, chief engineer for children's products at CPSC until last year.

In fact, building a totally safe piece of equipment isn't just impossible, it's unrealistic as well. "Safety is a paramount concern," says Mike Hayward, director of Little Tikes Commercial Play Systems, one of the largest manufacturers of playground equipment in the United States. "But if the equipment does not hold sufficient challenge for kids, they'll simply find the challenge elsewhere -- usually by climbing a nearby fence or tree."

So playground planners have to walk a fine line -- offering sufficient stimulation and fun for kids, while keeping the likelihood of injuries down. "We want kids on playgrounds," says Laura Tosi, MD, chairwoman of pediatric orthopedic surgery at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "We don't want them seeking adventure elsewhere."

Surface Matters

A prerequisite for a successful playground, it seems, is something to climb on -- and what goes up must come down. More than 70% of equipment-related injuries treated in emergency rooms in 1998 were the result of falls, according to the CPSC. Swings lead the way for kids ages 0 to 4, according to the NPPS, closely followed by climbers -- which can be anything from old-style monkey bars to modern, elevated bridges and curlicue towers. Climbing equipment caused the most injuries for kids ages 5 to 14.

That's where the new playground surfaces come into play, literally. "It's not so much the distance kids fall, it's what they land on that's crucial," explains Tosi. A fall to a hard surface -- such as packed dirt (whose shock absorption changes with the seasons) or concrete -- is more likely to cause a serious head injury, the most frequent cause of playground deaths, say experts. In fact, "surface covering is the single biggest factor that determines the severity of a playground injury," says Tosi. As a result, many manufacturers now offer soft surfacing materials such as mulch, wood chips, or rubber-like materials to accompany the new play systems.

Keeping Close Watch

Efforts have also been made to keep kids closer to the ground. According to voluntary CPSC guidelines (established in 1991 and updated in 1997), the maximum height of climbers has been set at 84 inches for school-aged children and 60 inches for preschoolers. It's also suggested that ladders have steps instead of rungs, promoting greater stability. And, of course, the guidelines offer a list of other simple corrections that can save children from injury -- nuts and bolts that are smooth and inset, so children can't scrape themselves or catch their clothing, for instance.

Unfortunately, many playgrounds across the country still have a long way to go. To help increase awareness of playground safety issues, the National Program for Playground Safety has declared the week of April 24 through the 28th as Playground Safety Week. It's a good time to have a look at your local playground equipment. But don't stop there, say playground safety advocates. Make sure you keep an equally sharp eye on the children themselves -- particularly those who like to climb.

What to Look for -- or Avoid -- in a Playground

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the following tips can help prevent injuries:

  • Avoid playgrounds that have asphalt, concrete, hard-packed dirt, or grass surfaces. Safe surfaces have at least 12 inches of wood chips, mulch, sand, or pea-sized gravel, or are made of safety-tested, rubber-like materials.
  • Don't allow your child on equipment with open "S" hooks or protruding bolt ends. Check for bolts that project outward horizontally, particularly from the top of a slide, since the drawstring from a hooded sweatshirt or coat can easily catch on a piece of equipment and cause a child to strangle.
  • Steer children to equipment under 4 feet high if they are less than 5 years old.
  • Avoid any equipment with openings that could entrap a child's head. To prevent a child from going through feet first and getting his or her head stuck, minimum spacing between bars should be less than 3.5 inches or greater than 9 inches.
  • Swing seats should be made of plastic or rubber; avoid hard materials like metal or wood.
  • Be sure you can clearly see your children on the playground -- and that your children can also see you.

Eileen Garred is a senior editor at Child magazine and a former reporter for Time magazine. She lives in New York and is the mother of one child.