Playgrounds are essential components of parks, schools, camps and anywhere children gather to play. By design, playgrounds encourage children to grow physically, mentally and socially through creative play and calculated risk-taking. This places a great responsibility on the adults who design and maintain them. Any organization that owns or operates a playground should routinely check for and repair any unsafe playground features or conditions. These tips can help in identifying hazards and maintaining safe playgrounds.
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According to the National Safety Council, the most common playground injuries are due to falls. The most common causes of fatal injuries are strangulation due to becoming trapped in play structures. Following is a list of the most common scenarios that could lead to these types of injuries. For a comprehensive assessment of your own facilities, contact your risk manager or a certified professional to help you maintain a safe playground.
Identifying and mitigating common playground hazards
Playground surfacing often presents hazards to children at play. Owners should maintain playgrounds in accordance with National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) and American Society for Testing and Materials (ATSM) standards. These standards define the proper type and depth of surfacing for different structure heights (wood chips, rubber pellets, pea gravel, etc.)
Common locations of unsafe conditions include underneath swings and the exit of slides. When surfacing material is displaced, a child could fall directly onto hard ground. Sand, dirt or concrete should never be present under or around play structures as well. An effective way to prevent displacement is by regularly raking the material back into place and placing rubber mats in these areas. You should promptly decommission any play structure on top of improper surfacing until the surfacing is brought up to standard.
Play features must be placed at an appropriate distance from each other to reduce the chance of a child falling or being thrown from one play-feature and striking a component of another. Spacing is typically six feet with nothing in-between, though some structures that are tall or involve rotating or swinging equipment require larger non-overlapping use zones. Finally, there should be adequate space along a swing’s path, which is typically twice the height of the swing both in front and back. Take down any swings that do not have proper surfacing, as this could lead to children being flung onto the ground without proper surfacing.
The entrance to slides is another critical area to consider. Protrusions that stick out from the structure or gaps in between the platform and the slide-chute can lead to children’s clothing getting entangled. This presents a serious risk of strangulation, which is a leading cause of playground deaths. A best practice is to immediately decommission and repair the slide if you notice any protrusion or gap in the slide-entrance area.
Gaps in the S-hooks that attach swings to their chains can also become worn-down overtime, leading to another entanglement hazard. For example, if a child jumps off the swing as it swings forward, clothing can get stuck on the hook and cause them to fall. Over time, the metal-on-metal contact can also cause the hooks to become thin and weak, increasing the risk of breaking while under stress.
Playground owners or maintainers should also routinely check for small-diameter protrusions from structures. Impact with these protrusions can be fatal and should be taken extremely seriously by any playground managers.
Finally, gaps in between railings, adjacent platforms or play features can present risks of trapping or strangling a child. Furthermore, fingers and limbs can get stuck in smaller gaps, causing breaks or dislocations. Specialized devices can be used for testing these gaps, though all testing should be done by a professional.
Identifying and mitigating common playground hazards are crucial to maintaining safe playgrounds. The risks discussed above are just a few of the many areas where unsafe conditions are commonly found on playgrounds. If you or your organization are responsible for maintaining a playground, you should regularly inspect and maintain it, following all manufacturer’s recommendations. If unsafe conditions are found, consult a Certified Playground Safety Inspector. It is vital that we provide the safest environment for the children in our care to play, grow and have fun.