Playgrounds provide an effective combination of physical challenges and exciting adventure that offer a timeless addition to any childcare setting or community. Outdoor play provides activity and excitement for young children and allows for physical activity and exploration.
For children, priorities are simple. The early years of a child’s life may be carefree, as they seek nothing more than their next smile-inspiring activity. They crave guidance, but also may independently engulf themselves in activities using modest toys. Future architects build elaborate castles with blocks, while artists-in-training create crayon mural masterpieces.
For caregivers, however, priorities are more complex as young children need support, encouragement, challenges, direction, and safety in outdoor play. Caregivers should ensure children under their supervision are provided necessities, such as safety and challenging obstacles to overcome, alongside the endless amusement that makes kids, kids.
Knowing the Risks
It is a fact—many children prioritize fun over safety. Young children live in the moment and become so engaged in their play they may not see dangers. Even if a danger is recognized, young children may lack an understanding of risks to make safe decisions.
The common presence of playgrounds in neighborhoods, schools and childcare centers make them prime locations for injury to young children. Each year, more than 200,000 children aged 14 years and younger are treated in emergency rooms for playground-related injuries.
Identifying the Hazards
It is important for curious children to explore and engage in safe and appropriate risk taking activities. Caregivers can limit potentially dangerous situations and avoid unnecessary risks with a watchful eye. Supervision is essential, but supervision alone cannot prevent all playground injuries.
Advocacy organizations have dedicated time and resources to the identification of common hazards, effective solutions, and a certification program for aspiring playground inspectors. Increasingly rigorous inspector certification programs and national safety education campaigns have shed light on the surprising number of potentially life-threatening conditions and construction defects found on many playgrounds.
In a report known as “The Dirty Dozen,” the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) identifies the 12 most common playground hazards and presents realistic solutions for caregivers to ensure children are playing on the safest playgrounds possible.
These 12 playground hazards are: improper protective surfacing; inadequate use zone; protrusion and entanglement hazards; entrapments in opening; insufficient spacing; lack of maintenance; crush, shearing, and sharp edge hazards; trip hazards; lack of supervision, age-appropriate activities; platforms without guard rails; trip hazards; and equipment not recommended for public playgrounds.
Some of the most common questions pertaining to “The Dirty Dozen” include:
RISK: Does the playground have adequate protective surfacing and use zones?
SOLUTION: Ensure each use zone, the area under and around playground equipment where a child might fall, is surfaced with appropriate and approved resilient materials and extends at least six feet in every direction from the edge of stationary play equipment.
Concrete footings of equipment must be properly installed below ground level and covered with the resilient surface material. Appropriate surfacing materials include engineered wood fiber, wood chips, sand/pea gravel, synthetic/rubber tiles, shredded rubber, mats, and poured-in-place rubber.
Maintain an adequate depth of surfacing in relation to the equipment’s fall heights. Contact the surfacing supplier for recommended depths.
RISK: Does the equipment have dangerous protrusions or entanglement hazards?
SOLUTION: Ensure that bolt ends do not extend more than two threads beyond the face of the nut, “S” hooks are closed, and ropes are tightly secured at both ends. Look for sharp protrusions, identify potential “crush points,” and make sure children are not wearing excessively loose clothing, hanging jewelry, or drawstrings of any kind.
RISK: Are there entrapment risks in equipment openings?
SOLUTION: Ensure no openings measure between 3.5-9 inches. Pay special attention to the tops of slides, distance between climber parts, and openings between platforms.
RISK: Does the playground have trip hazards?
SOLUTION: Remove or block access to the most common trip hazards, such as concrete footings, abrupt changes in surface elevations, tree roots, tree stumps, and rocks.
RISK: Is the equipment age-appropriate?
SOLUTION: The following equipment is not recommended for children in preschool or younger:
- free-standing arch climbers
- free-standing flexible climbers, chain and cable walks
- fulcrum see-saws, log rolls, track rides and vertical sliding poles
Preschool children are more at risk for falls. Platforms elevated more than 20 inches need guardrails, and those elevated more than 30 inches need protective barriers.
Supervision and consistent maintenance are keys to ensuring safety on any playground. It is important to keep a watchful eye on children at play and ensure that staff is well-trained and knowledgeable about maintenance needs.
Maintaining the Excitement of Challenges and Danger
Children need to feel they are accomplishing goals and overcoming obstacles. This sense of accomplishment will aid their development by teaching them to learn from mistakes and showing them they can overcome some challenges on their own. While playground safety is critical, children should not be overly sheltered to the extent that their emotional, social, and physical developments are hindered.
Dedicated caregivers with the help of resources like “The Dirty Dozen” can find the balance between playground safety and challenging excitement to accelerate and enhance a child’s development.
Playground Safety Manager
National Recreation and Park Association
To access a complete copy of “The Dirty Dozen,” please visit www.NRPA.org. Printed copies for individual use can be downloaded as a pdf file. View the online video of “The Dirty Dozen” also on the NRPA website.
National Program for Playground Safety, www.playgroundsafety.org