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.