Playgrounds and outdoor play equipment offer kids fresh air, friends, and exercise. So it's important for parents to make sure that faulty equipment, improper surfaces, and careless behavior don't ruin the fun.
Each year, more than 200,000 kids are treated in hospital ERs for playground-related injuries. Many of these accidents can be prevented with the proper supervision.
And teaching kids how to play safely is important: If they know the rules of the playground, they're less likely to get hurt.
Adult supervision can help prevent injuries by making sure kids properly use playground equipment and don't engage in unsafe behavior around it. If an injury does occur, an adult can assist the child and administer any needed first aid right away.
Kids should always have adult supervision on the playground. Young kids (and sometimes older ones) can't always gauge distances properly and aren't capable of foreseeing dangerous situations by themselves. Older kids like to test their limits on the playground, so it's important for an adult to be there to keep them in check.
Before you visit a playground, check to make sure that play areas are designed to allow an adult to clearly see kids while they're playing on all the equipment.
Playground Design Safety
The most important factors in evaluating the safety of any playground are proper surface, design and spacing, and equipment inspection and maintenance.
A proper playground surface is one of the most important factors in reducing injuries — and the severity of injuries — that occur when kids fall from equipment. The surface under the playground equipment should be soft enough and thick enough to soften the impact of a child's fall.
Here are some things to consider:
- Concrete, asphalt, and blacktop are unsafe and unacceptable. Grass, soil, and packed-earth surfaces are also unsafe because weather and wear can reduce their capacities to cushion a child's fall.
- The playground surface should be free of standing water and debris that could cause kids to trip and fall, such as rocks, tree stumps, and tree roots.
- There should be no dangerous materials, like broken glass or twisted metal.
- The surfaces may be loosely filled with materials like wood chips, mulch, sand, pea gravel, or shredded rubber. Wood chips containing chromated copper arsenate (CCA) treatment are not recommended since the material can pose a potential health hazard.
- Surfacing mats made of safety-tested rubber or rubber-like materials are also safe.
- Rubber mats allow the best access for people in wheelchairs.
- Loose-fill surface materials 12 inches deep should be used for equipment up to 8 feet high. The material should not be packed down because this will reduce any cushioning effect.
- No surfacing materials are considered safe if the combined height of playground and the child (standing on the highest platform) is higher than 12 feet.
- The cushioned surface should extend at least 6 feet past the equipment. Additional coverage may be needed, depending on how high a slide is or how long a swing is.
- If there is loose-fill over a hard surface (like asphalt or concrete), there should be 3-6 inches of loose-fill like gravel, a layer of geotextile cloth, a layer of loose-fill surfacing material, and then impact mats under the playground equipment.
Keep in mind that even proper surfacing can't prevent all injuries. Also, the greater the height of the equipment, the more likely kids may get injured if they fall from it.
Design and Spacing
Playground equipment should be designed for three different age groups: infants and toddlers under 2, 2- to 5-year-olds (preschoolers), and 5- to 12-year-olds (school-age kids).
In the safest playgrounds, play areas for younger children are separated from those meant for older kids and signs clearly designate each area to prevent confusion.
Younger children should not play on equipment designed for older kids because the equipment sizes and proportions won't be right for small kids, and this can lead to injury. Likewise, older kids shouldn't play on equipment designed for younger ones. Smaller equipment and spaces can cause problems for bigger kids.
Here are some things to check for to ensure the equipment is designed and spaced to be safe:
- Guardrails and protective barriers should be in place for elevated surfaces, including platforms and ramps.
- Play structures more than 30 inches high should be spaced at least 9 feet apart.
- Swings, seesaws, and other equipment with moving parts should be located in an area separate from the rest of the playground.
- Swings should be limited to two per bay.
- Tot swings with full bucket seats should have their own bay.
- Swings should be spaced at least 24 inches apart and 30 inches between a swing and the support frame.
- Be sure there are no spaces that could trap a child's head, arm, or any other body part. All openings on equipment (for example, rungs on a ladder or bars on a guardrail) should measure less than 3½ inches or they should be wider than 9 inches.
- Climbing nets should have openings that are either too small to allow a child's body through or large enough to prevent entrapment of the head. Net perimeters which are 17-18 inches pose entrapment hazards.
- Playground equipment with moving parts — like seesaws and merry-go-rounds — should be checked for pinch points that could pinch or crush a child's finger or hand.
Maintenance and Inspection
Whether your kids play on a home or public playground, it's important for you to take a general look at the equipment to make sure that it is clean and well maintained.
- There should be no broken equipment.
- Wooden equipment should not be cracking or splintering.
- Metal equipment should not be rusted.
- The fence surrounding a public playground should be in good condition to prevent kids from running into surrounding traffic.
- Surface materials on the playground should be maintained regularly so that the surfacing is loosely packed and covers all appropriate areas — especially the fall zones surrounding playground equipment.
- Playground equipment should be made of durable materials that won't fall apart or worn down too much by the weather.
Check for objects (like hardware, S-shaped hooks, bolts, and sharp or unfinished edges) that stick out on equipment and could cut a child or cause clothing to become entangled.
All hardware on equipment should be secure, with no loose or broken parts. Plastic and wood should show no signs of weakening, and there should not be any splintered or rusted surfaces.
If the local playground has a sandbox, check for hazardous debris such as sharp sticks or broken glass, and be sure that the sand is free of bugs. Sandboxes should be covered overnight to prevent contamination from animals, such as cats.
Help keep your playground clean and safe by picking up trash, using the equipment properly, and reporting any problems to the city, town, or county parks department, school, or other organization that is responsible for the upkeep of the playground.
If a part seems broken, loose, or in need of other maintenance, designate it as off-limits immediately and report the problem to the appropriate authorities.
Teaching Kids About Playground Safety
Safe playground equipment and adult supervision are extremely important, but it's only half of the equation: Kids must know how to be safe and act responsibly at the playground.
Teach your kids to:
- Never push or roughhouse while on jungle gyms, slides, seesaws, swings, and other equipment.
- Use equipment properly — slide feet first, don't climb outside guardrails, no standing on swings, etc.
- Always check to make sure no other kids are in the way if they're going to jump off equipment or slide, and land on both feet with their knees slightly bent.
- Leave bikes, backpacks, and bags away from the equipment and the play area so that no one trips over them.
- Always wear a helmet while bike riding, but take it off while on playground equipment.
- Never use playground equipment that's wet because moisture makes the surfaces slippery.
- Check playground equipment in the summertime. It can become uncomfortably or even dangerously hot, especially metal slides, handrails, and steps. So use good judgment — if the equipment feels hot to the touch, it's probably not safe or fun to play on. Contact burns can occur within seconds.
- Wear clothes that do not have drawstrings or cords. Drawstrings, purses, and necklaces could get caught on equipment and accidentally strangle a child.
- Wear sunscreen when playing outside even on cloudy days to protect against sunburn.
Safe Equipment Guidelines
Because swings, slides, and climbing equipment are so different from one another, each requires a different set of safety considerations. And some kinds of equipment are not safe for playgrounds, no matter how careful kids are.
Swings are the most frequent source of childhood injuries from moving equipment on a playground. But a few simple precautions can help keep kids safely swinging in the breeze:
- Swings should be made of soft material such as rubber or plastic, not wood or metal.
- Kids should always sit in the swing, not stand or kneel. They should hold on tightly with both hands while swinging, and when finished swinging, stop the swing completely before getting off.
- Children should stay a safe distance from other kids on swings, being careful not to run or walk in front of or in back of moving swings.
- Kids should never ride with more than one child to a swing. Swings are designed to safely hold only one person.
Because seesaw use requires cooperation between kids, they're generally not recommended for preschoolers unless the seesaw has a spring-centering device to prevent abrupt contact with the ground. Regardless of design, both seesaws and merry-go-rounds should be approached with caution.
Other safety tips to keep in mind:
- Seesaw seats are like swings: one child per seat. A child who is too light to seesaw with a partner should find a different partner — not add another child to his or her side of the seesaw.
- Kids should always sit facing one another, not turned around.
- Teach kids to hold on tightly with both hands while on a seesaw, not to touch the ground or push off with their hands, and to keep feet to the sides, out from underneath the seesaw.
- Kids should stand back from a seesaw when it's in use. They should never stand beneath a raised seesaw, stand and rock in the middle, or try to climb onto it while it's in motion.
Slides are safe if kids are careful when using them. Guidelines to keep in mind:
- Children should take one step at a time and hold onto the handrail when climbing the ladder to the top of the slide. They should not climb up the slide itself to get to the top.
- Kids should always slide down feet first and sitting up, never head first on their back or stomach.
- Only one child should be on the slide platform at a time, and kids shouldn't slide down in groups.
- Kids should always check that the bottom of the slide is clear before sliding down. When they reach the bottom, they should get off and move away from the end of the slide so it's clear for other kids to slide down.
Climbing Equipment Safety
Climbing equipment comes in many shapes and sizes — including rock climbing walls, arches, and vertical and horizontal ladders. It's generally more challenging for kids than other kinds of playground equipment.
Be sure your kids are aware of a safe way down in case they can't complete the climb. The highest rates of injuries on public playgrounds are associated with climbing equipment, which is dangerous if not designed or used properly. Adult supervision is especially important for younger kids.
Climbing equipment can be used safely if kids are taught to use both hands and to stay well behind the person in front of them and beware of swinging feet. When they drop from the bars, kids should be able to jump down without hitting the equipment on the way down. Remind kids to have their knees bent and land on both feet.
- Too many kids on the equipment at one time can be dangerous. Everyone should start on the same side of the equipment and move across it in the same direction.
- When climbing down, kids should watch for those climbing up; they should never race across or try to reach for bars that are too far ahead.
- Children younger than age 5 may not have the upper-body strength necessary for climbing and should only be allowed to climb on age-appropriate equipment. Preschoolers should only climb 5 feet high and school-age kids should only climb 7 feet high.
Track Ride Safety
Track rides are a form of upper-body equipment where kids hold on to a handle that slides along a track once they lift their feet. These rides require significant upper-body strength and are recommended for school-age kids and above.
- Track rides should not be included in play areas for toddlers and preschoolers.
- There should be no obstacles along the track path, especially in take-off and landing areas.
- If two track rides are next to each other, they should be spaced 4 feet apart, minimally.
- The handle should be between 64 inches and 78 inches from the surfacing.
- Nothing should be tied or attached to any part of the track ride.
- Rolling parts should be enclosed to avoid crush injuries.
Log Roll Safety
Log rolls require kids to grasp handles, then balance on top of the log as they spin it with their feet. This helps older kids to develop balance skills and increase strength.
- Log rolls are recommended for school aged-kids and above.
- All log rolls should have handholds to assist balance.
- The highest point of the log roll should be 18 inches above the protective surface.
Soft Contained Playgrounds
There are specific recommended safety checks for soft contained playgrounds:
- Make sure there are no tears or frays in the safety netting, cargo webbing, and ropes.
- The floor surface should be made of mats in good condition that are not torn and are placed tightly together.
- Look for the posted safety rules and size recommendations for the activity. Keep older kids away from areas designated for smaller children and vice versa.
- As in any other playground, kids should not wear clothing with loose strings, necklaces, or earrings.
- Many slides are contained in tubes, so a child going down will not see if there is anyone at the bottom of the slide. Kids should stay clear of the area at the bottom of slides and not climb up a slide.
More and more cities are opening spraygrounds, which are water playgrounds. At a sprayground, kids can spray each other with water cannons and get sprayed by dozens of water jets that squirt from different colored nozzles and hoses.
- Be sure to read posted signs for rules, age recommendations, and safety information. Often, no lifeguard is on duty.
- Protective footwear like water shoes with non-skid soles are a good idea to help prevent falls and other injuries. Remember to bring swimsuits, towels, sunscreen, and hats.
- Kids should not drink or inhale aerosols of water to minimize risk of water-borne illnesses.
Unsafe Playground Equipment
These types of equipment are not safe for playgrounds:
- animal figure swings
- glider swings that hold more than one child at a time
- swinging ropes that can fray, unravel, or form a noose (any kind of rope attached to play equipment poses a strangulation hazard, so never let your child tie jump ropes or leashes onto the equipment)
- exercise rings (as used in gymnastics) and trapeze bars
- monkey bars
Parents should not place plastic climbing equipment indoors. Even carpet does not give enough protection from falls. This type of equipment is intended for outdoor use on safe surfaces.
Play is an important part of kids' physical, social, intellectual, and emotional development. Following these safety tips will help your kids play as safely as possible.
Reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD
Date reviewed: July 2014
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