Better Playground Safety

A child begins his mobile life with constant accidents. Allowed to face certain challenges, he learns how to confront difficulties and keep injuries from reoccurring. Safety is part of a learning process which cannot be achieved by simply purchasing new playground equipment.

The pursuit of safe playgrounds has ushered in an era where the act of play has given way to guidelines and regulations. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), has provided the framework for manufacturers to produce standardized equipment. The result of these efforts is an oversimplified structure that kids soon grow tired of. With boredom comes restlessness, fighting, and the pursuit to challenge "safe" equipment in unexpected ways.

Injuries related to playground equipment are collected by CPSC from hospitals across America. In 1999, it is estimated that over 156,000 injuries occurred on public, playground equipment. Nearly 80% of these injuries were due to falls to the surface below the equipment. Where injuries occurred, 79% of public playgrounds had protective surfacing and 74% of the equipment was reported to be in "good" condition. Certainly there are measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of an injury, but they clearly do not prevent the majority of injuries from occurring.

Here are some suggestions for dealing with injury risks that have a far greater effect:

  • Provide play events that settle into the landscape and are not exclusively elevated. Children can have as much fun on the ground as they have six feet off the ground.
  • Locate elevated structures away from the rest of the playspace so that it does not encumber circulation. Make sure that there is adequate physical and visual access for adults.
  • When recurrent injuries occur, have the flexibility to alter the landscape or equipment. Show children the method of your alteration which hopefully will not be hindered by prior commercial installations.
  • Enrich the play area with a diversity of activities to avoid risky behavior due to boredom. Events should not be limited to physical challenges but also include activities that exercise a child's imagination and develops social and problem solving skills.
  • Allow children to explore their boundaries by letting them confront challenges at their own pace with guidance that instructs rather than places limitations. Intervene at a point when the child begins breaking established rules that are based on an a prior assessment of risk.
  • Keep the play area clear of toy debris by providing storage that is accessible to children. Encourage a sense of ownership by asking children to clean-up after themselves.

Designing Playspaces

In a playspace, a child can engage himself in a multitude of free-play activities. A playspace can occur anywhere and at anytime. But when a child's environment is altered by urban development and other modern constraints, his play activities become limited to specialized areas we recognize as playgrounds. Although a playground can never become a replacement for making sand castles on a beach or walking through the woods, it needs to at least provide some of the experiences encountered outside a fenced perimeter.

Even in Hawaii where a natural environment abounds, children are constrained to institutional forms of play. Public schools and city parks do very little to engage kids in more than the most mundane physical activities. The typical layout of a playground is the presence of one or two composite structures that only a child under the age of five may find challenging. Fighting, boredom, and reckless behavior on the play yard is often a result of a short-sighted vision of how to design an outdoor playspace. (see Hawaii Playgrounds)

As people begin discarding playground catalogs and start acknowledging their own intuition as well as a plethora of research in child development, a new image of playgrounds is beginning to emerge. These playspaces have a greater reliance upon landscaping than on equipment. They are evolving spaces which adjust to the interests of kids. They are also investments of dedication and concern rather than investments of scarce funding.

The following are some of the guiding principles used when designing an enriched play environment:

Access and Circulation - Is there adequate room for children to move with ease and engage in play events without excess obstruction or crowding?

Diversity of Play - Can children find a wide range of group and independent activities to capture their immediate and future attention?

Play Challenges - Are features used in the play space appropriate for the age group it is intended for? Is there a wide range of challenges for children with varied abilities?

Multiplicity of Function - Do the features in the play space lend themselves to a variety of uses?

Attraction - Do children find the entire play space inviting? Is there sufficient attention to natural materials and green spaces?

Protective Measures - Are children visually accessible? Are potential injuries considered & adequately addressed?

Longevity - Will the play space last and what maintenance schedule can be applied that will realistically be followed?