Most of us recognize the importance of playgrounds. We remember our childhood and the hours we spent playing on them with fondness. Some of us may also remember injuries we incurred while playing. There are over 200,000 injuries that send children to the hospitals. About 90,000 of those injuries are serious, such as fractures, concussions and amputations. About 15 kids die from playground injuries every year. (USA Today, 7/29/09) Most of these injuries could have been prevented by quality maintenance and installation of the playground.
Playgrounds are expensive but they have great value. They are important in the growth of children as they learn to manipulate and move. Playing on the various pieces helps strengthen muscles and teach boundaries. In the process of taking risks, children learn their limits, both psychological and physical. How high I am willing or able to jump or climb? Play promotes cognitive development, social development, language development, physical fitness and health, learning and coping with trauma (Frost, 1997). Children learn to control their muscles and develop balance and the different movements found on a playground have been shown to cultivate various parts of the brain. Swinging, for example, has been shown to help in language development.
So, children get on a swing. They are not there because it develops their brain, muscles or balance. They are there for the sheer joy of feeling the wind in their face; the feeling of freedom one gets from the movement. They are there for fun. They might be there for the challenge, who has not jumped from a swing when it reaches its peak to see how far they can sail through the air? Some have even done back flips off them.
But wait, as you read this, many of you will be saying, “Yes, but that is not how you are supposed to play on a swing. You are not supposed to jump out of the swing.” That being true, do you know anyone who hasn’t jumped from a swing? It happens in seconds and even the best supervisor cannot stop it from happening and many times there is no supervisor.
With all of the above being true, we know that we cannot make playgrounds safe. The goal is to reduce the serious injuries without reducing the challenges or the fun. We can minimize the hazards. For example, most people today are aware that playgrounds need a fall absorbing surface. Seventy percent of the injuries that occur on playgrounds are caused by a fall to the surface. Sometimes it is from that jump from the swing, sometimes it is from not paying attention, and sometimes it is from over estimating their abilities. With proper surfaces, although the fall may hurt, it will not be catastrophic.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) have studied how children play and what creates the injuries. Using that, they have developed standards that can minimize the injuries that occur. In fact, one study showed that 90 % of the injuries that occurred in the last decade would have been avoided or minimized if the playgrounds had met the CPSC or ASTM standards (Frost, 1996; Frost & Sweeney, 1996). To meet safety standards, playgrounds have to be installed and maintained properly. In a study done about six years ago, each state was graded for how well they met the CPSC guidelines. Arkansas scored a C-.
Some examples from my Arkansas inspections reflect the truth in accident prevention through maintenance and appropriate playground development. I was called to a school district because a child had broken his arm. I was able to guess within minutes where the accident occurred. A swing chain had broken (a single new link had been used to fix it) and the rest of the chain was still rusty. Another child had broken a leg jumping from a swing when he hit the border of the fall absorbing surface, as it was not extended far enough. The border had become a target and the child had successfully hit it. At another playground, a child had to be rescued because his hood string had gotten caught in the crack at the top of the slide. The crack is not supposed to be there. And still another accident was on a parallel ladder that was not solidly in the ground and children shook the piece until a child trying to negotiate across the top fell, smashing her nose into her face on a grassy surface.
The National Recreation and Park Association has developed a course to help train people to evaluate playgrounds so that hazards can be identified and then repaired. In the course, the standards are not only identified, but the student learns why each standard exists and the type of injuries that may occur if the issue is not fixed. The course includes how to layout a playground and identify what pieces should be included in a primary playground (for children under 5 years old) and what pieces should be in an intermediate playground (for children 5-12 years old).
Each agency that has playgrounds should have at least one trained playground safety evaluator. It is a good idea to have an administrator trained. That person who makes purchasing decisions and talks to board members to convince and instruct about issues concerning playground expenses should be included in the certified employees. Of course, at least one maintenance person should be trained. They are the ones in the field and doing the actual work to make the playgrounds meet standards. Their understanding as to what needs to be done and why is important to create playground maintenance plans. Finally, if there is a person identified as the risk manager, that person should be certified in playground safety. Playgrounds should be an intricate part of the risk management plan and as a decision maker, should certainly have the knowledge that comes with taking the course.
The Arkansas Recreation and Park Association, in conjunction with the National Recreation and Park Association offers the playground safety certification course. The next course will be offered August 2-4, 2010 in Little Rock. Remember, children are an investment in the future, if we do not provide them safe places to play, they will find their own, perhaps unsafe places to play. Or they may choose not to be active and that, in itself, creates the ever-increasing new problems of obesity, childhood diabetes, and heart disease. Challenging playgrounds, regular recess, and opportunities to engage in free play are excellent means to combating obesity and heart disease in children (Frost, et al, 2004; Clements, 2005; Jarrett, 2003; Pellegrini, 1995).