Playground Safety
By Karen Sokal-Gutierrez
Children are naturally drawn to active play, especially outdoors. Your infant flaps his arms and legs with delight when you take him out of his stroller to crawl on the grass. Your toddler climbs up the slide ladder and zooms down the slide over and over again. And your preschooler proudly announces to the entire playground that she can pump her legs to soar on the swings.

Active play allows children to explore their environment, develop muscle strength and coordination, and gain self-confidence. But, too often, children play in unsafe environments—at home and public playgrounds—that lead to serious injuries. Each year, approximately 200,000 children are treated in doctors' offices or hospitals for serious injuries from playgrounds, and 15-20 children die from their injuries.

Most playground injuries are from falls from climbing equipment, slides, and swings to the ground underneath. Other injuries result from tripping, equipment tipping over, collisions with swings, head entrapment in openings, entanglement of clothing on equipment, and wounds from protrusions, pinch points, and sharp edges.

Although you've heard the common expression, 'Accidents will happen…' most playground injuries are, in fact, preventable. A national survey of playgrounds found that 80% lacked adequate protective surfacing, almost one-half of climbing equipment was too high for safety, and one-third had openings that could cause strangulation. The National Recreation and Park Association has identified 12 key safety features for parents to check in your home play areas, child care, school, and public playgrounds:

1. Use appropriate protective surfacing under equipment: The surface under playground equipment should be soft enough to cushion a fall. Pavement, concrete, hard-packed dirt, grass, and carpeting are not safe. Safe surfacing materials include approved rubber surfacing; and wood chips, wood mulch, sand, or pea gravel approximately 9-12 inches deep.

2. Ensure adequate use zones around equipment: Since children run around and fall off equipment, there should be a safe 'use zone' extending at least six feet around climbers. For swings, this distance should be twice the height of the swing beam. The use zone should be covered with protective surfacing and be free of other equipment and toys.

3. Remove protrusions and entanglement hazards: Bolts, rods and hooks can puncture a child's skin or eyes, and entangle clothes causing strangulation. Make sure S-hooks on swings are closed and protruding bolts are cut or capped. Also, don't let children play in jackets with hood drawstrings.

4. Remove entrapment hazards: Young children often try to slide feet first through openings in railings or platforms. If the opening is unsafe, the child's body will pass through but his head (which is slightly wider) will get entrapped, causing strangulation. Make sure openings are less than 3.5' (so the child's body can't fit through) or greater than 9' (so his head will pass through).

5. Ensure adequate space around each piece of equipment: Generally, play equipment should be spaced at least 12 feet apart. When planning a playground, locate moving equipment such as swings away from the traffic pattern to avoid collisions.

6. Remove trip hazards: Children run between different parts of the play area and can easily trip and fall. Make sure concrete footings are at least 12' below the ground; and eliminate tree roots and large rocks.

7. Use age-appropriate equipment: The abilities and play needs of young children change as they grow and develop. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has separate safety standards for preschool-age children (2-5 years), and school-age children (5-12 years). Make sure toddlers don't play on preschool equipment such as 5-foot high slides (The general rule is that a safe height for a child to climb to is her age in feet, e.g., 1 ½ feet high for a 1 ½- year- old). Likewise, make sure preschoolers don't play on school-age equipment such as climbers over 5 ½ feet, overhead ladders, and sliding poles.

8. Remove pinch, shear, and crush points: Check equipment with moving parts, such as seesaws and merry-go-rounds, to ensure that children can't catch their fingers in the mechanism. Smooth out sharp edges, points, and corners on metal and wood equipment.

9. Use guardrails and safety barriers: Children can fall from platforms, ramps, and bridgeways. For preschoolers, make sure surfaces over 20" high have guardrails, and surfaces over 30" high have safety barriers.

10. Remove dangerous equipment: Make sure your playground doesn't have equipment found to be too hazardous for young children: heavy swings with animal figures, multiple-occupancy gliders, free-swinging rope swings, swinging exercise rings and trapeze bars, and trampolines.

11. Follow a schedule for inspection and maintenance: Over time, with use and weather, play areas can develop hazards. Maintain playgrounds on a daily basis by raking the surfacing and removing broken glass, fallen branches, and animal excrement. On a weekly, monthly, quarterly and/or annual basis, replace the surfacing, as needed, and repair unsafe equipment such as unstable supports, loose hardware, splintering wood, rusted metal chains, and broken rails or steps.

12. Supervise and reinforce safety rules with children at all times: No matter how safely designed a play area may be, young children are safe only when they're constantly supervised by responsible adults. Stand or sit in a spot where you can always see your child. Know your child's abilities and be at his side on more challenging equipment to reinforce safety and intervene quickly if necessary to prevent an injury.

When you take the proper precautions, active play can be safe and fun.