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SAFE Playgrounds: Recognizing Risk Factors
By Susan Hudson, Ph.D., Donna Thompson, Ph.D., Cynthia Cechota, and Mick Mack, Ph.D.

Molly is an energetic and curious four-year-old. Like other children her age, she likes to explore her outdoor environment in creative ways. Thus, the two playground supervisors on duty should not have been surprised when Molly decided to try out the new eight-foot horizontal ladder placed in the child care center for the older kids. They both looked up in time to see Molly falling through the bars onto the hard surface below. The result – a broken arm, a badly bruised body, and emotional scars Molly will carry with her for the rest of her life.

Does this farfetched story sound as though it could never happen in you child care center or school? Thing again. It is estimated that a child is hurt on a playground every 2½ minutes in the United States – over 200,000 children a year are rushed to the emergency room for an injury sustained on one of America's playgrounds (Hudson, Thompson, & Mack, 1997). Even more shocking is that another 17 children die every year as a result of their playground injuries (Mack, Hudson, & Thompson, 1997). Hundreds of others walk away with scraped knees, black eyes, and bleeding elbows – injuries not serious enough for an emergency room visit, but serious to the child, parents, and caregivers nonetheless.  

How can caregivers and other concerned adults prevent serious playground injuries? Avoiding playgrounds is definitely not the answer. Outdoor play environments offer children the opportunity to develop their physical, emotional, social and intellectual skills. The essential nature of play has been well documented (Parten, 1932; Labrinowitz, 1980; Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Colbert, 1997; Morrison, 1997). Through play, a child tests, explores, and interacts with his or her environment. Thus, playgrounds are as important to the children of the 1990s as they were to the children of the 1890s. The answer is to design playgrounds that enhance a child's development while limiting the risk factors that lead to injury.

Before proceeding, a few terms should be explained. Many people fear that, in a move to make playgrounds safe, the fun factor of play is removed. They feel that children's growth and development depend upon their ability to take risks. However, it is important to note that the term "risk" can be confused with "challenge." Risk is defined as the chance of injury, damage, or loss; dangerous chance; hazard (Random House, 1978, p. 151). Children should be encouraged to challenge themselves on playgrounds, but challenging should not result in injury. How can a safer environment be arranged?

Although playground safety can be a complex issue, the National Action Plan for the Prevention of Playground Injuries (Thompson & Hudson, 1996) has identified four major elements of playground risk that together account for nearly every playground injury or death. By understanding the role each of these risk factors contributes to playground safety, one can help design safer playgrounds for America's children.

 Risk #1: Improper Supervision
Many times, children are sent to the playground without active supervision. In schools as well as child care centers, some adults act as if the equipment will supervise the children for them. However, a playground without active supervision is an unsafe playground. Why? Over half of all playground injuries are self-inflicted. This means that kids run into and trip over objects just by being kids. True, it is often difficult to prevent children from hurting themselves in normal play, but a watchful eye and a gentle warning could save them from a scraped knee, black eye, or broken leg. In addition, if an injury does occur, a child will receive first aid much faster on a properly supervised playground than if the play area is poorly supervised or unsupervised.


Supervisors can also help children make appropriate choices. In Molly's case, one of the supervisors present should have talked to Molly about why trying to get onto an eight-foot ladder was inappropriate. A broken arm is a hard way to learn that lesson.


Injuries also occur when kids interact with each other – interaction can lead to collisions and fighting. Again, alert supervisors can give children "the eye" or place themselves in close proximity to the situation. It is important to understand that when children are outside on the playground, they are naturally releasing pent-up energy. Screaming, jumping, running, and rolling are all acceptable forms of behavior on the playground. However, hitting, biting, and kicking are not.


The key purpose of active supervision is to ensure safety and to focus on injury prevention. Some simple things you can do to become an active supervisor are listed later on in this article.


Supervision requires the individual to be able to see and move through the playground area. Thus, some physical design considerations for supervision include separation of equipment, open sight lines, and zones for play.


Separation of Equipment. It is important to divide the playground area into sections appropriate for different ages of children. Play equipment for children ages two to five is developmentally different from equipment designed for children ages five to 12. The mixing of the two types of equipment means that the supervisor will have a difficult time guiding children to use the equipment appropriate for their developmental age level.


Open Sight Lines. Open sight lines refer to the existence of angles for visual access of the entire playground area. Sigh lines must occur through equipment and through natural vegetation. Further, sigh lines should allow visual access to all points of a play structure form at least two directions at any one point of observation on a play site (Bowers, 1988, p. 42). Essentially, the ability to respond to emergencies is dependent upon "…the ability of the supervisor to approach the structure and get to all the events to provide assistance" suing the routes implied by the sight lines (Bruya & Wood, 1997).


Zones for Play. Play sites should also be divided into zones for different activity types. Two types of zones the designer should pay attention to are activity zones and use zones.


Activity zones describe the type of play behavior children might carry out in a given space with the equipment provided. Examples of activity zones include areas for social/dramatic play, fine motor play, gross motor play, and quiet play.


Use zones refer to the surfaces under and around equipment pieces onto which a child falling or exiting form equipment would be expected to land. These areas generally extend six feet in all directions, except for swings and slides. For a description of the exact use zones for equipment consult the CPSC Handbook for Public Playground Safety(1997, pp. 6, 24, 28).



Risk #2: Age-Appropriate Design

We now know that when it comes to play equipment, one size does not fit all. Play structures must be designed differently for toddlers, children ages two to five, and children ages five to 12. Why? Because kids have different developmental skills at these age levels, including physical emotional, social, and intellectual. Yes, children need challenges to develop their skills, but these challenges must be appropriate for their age levels.


Almost 25 percent of playground injuries occur on or from equipment (Bruya & Wood, 1997). Remember Molly and her encounter with the playground equipment at the beginning of this article? Four-year-olds have not yet developed the upper-body strength needed to master an eight-foot overhead ladder successfully. They simply may not e able to make it all the way across without falling. In addition, they do not yet have the ability to understand that they may not be able to travel the full length of the ladder.


Equipment selection must be done according to the size of the intended users, developmental needs of children, and physical layout of the area. Size of equipment refers to its height, width, and bulk. The height of the equipment includes the overall distance from the top of the equipment piece to the surface. It also includes space between various components such as steps and platforms. Since 70 percent of reported playground injuries involve falls to surfaces, the height of the equipment becomes a critical factor in designing a sage playground (Mack, Hudson, & Thompson, 1997). Experts suggest that equipment for preschool children be no taller than the children can reach. The maximum height for most equipment designed for school-age children is eight feet (Thompson & Hudson, 1996).


Width of platforms should also allow children to make decisions about how to get on and off equipment safely. A child standing on top of a six-foot slide should have sufficient room to turn around and climb back down the ladder, if he or she decides not to slide down the chute.


Bulk is the relationship between the thickness of the material and the grip size of a child's hand. All handrails, rungs, and other components children can grasp should be between one and 1½ inches in diameter.


Developmental needs of children are also a factor in age-appropriate design. Children grow and develop in stages. The thinking ability of a three-year-old is much different from the thinking ability of a seven-year-old. In addition, preschoolers are physically smaller than school-aged children. It is important to consider the developmental needs and abilities of children when planning and designing age-appropriate playgrounds. These needs and abilities include:


·        Physical (i.e., strength, grip, height, and weight)

·        Emotional (i.e., risk-taking and exploration

·        Social (i.e., cooperation, sharing, accepting)

·        Intellectual (i.e., decision-making, inquisitiveness, and creativity)

·        Accessibility (i.e., mobility)


Physical Layout. The physical layout of the playground pieces can also limit or enhance the play value and safety of outdoor play environments. An interconnected play area is one in which children move easily through the play structure using alternate routes of travel (Bowers, 1988, p. 42). Shaw 91976) investigated interconnection between play structure parts. As a result of his study, he determined that overall use patterns decreased for separate play modules when compared to the "unified" play space. By unifying or interconnecting playground elements, overall complexity can be increased.


What is age-appropriate for kids ages two to five? Trust yourself to make some common-sense judgments as shown below.


Age-Appropriate Equipment for Ages 2-5

·        Crawl areas close to the ground

·        Low platforms such as ramps and ladders

·        Ramps with attachments for grasping

·        Low tables for sand, water, and manipulative materials

·        Tricycle paths with various textures

·        Sand areas with covers

·        Short slides no taller than four feet


What is developmentally appropriate equipment for school-age kids in the five to 12 age group? The suggestions below give you an idea of what to look for.


Developmentally Appropriate Equipment for Ages 5-12

·        Rope or chain climbers on angles

·        Climbing pieces

·        Horizontal bars

·        Cooperative pieces such as tire swings, merry-go-rounds, and see-saws

·        Slides and sliding poles

·        Open spaces to run and play ball

·        Semi-enclosed structures to promote fantasy play and socializing

·        If swings are present, make sure they are far enough from other equipment


 Risk #3: Falls to Hard Surfaces

Over 140,000 children are injured each year due to the presence of hard surfacing underneath and around play equipment. Dirt and grass are inappropriate surfaces because they are compacted; they provide no cushioning for a child's body. Falling on e foot onto concrete or tow feet onto asphalt can result in a concussion (Hudson, Thompson, Mack, & Cechota, 1997).


Molly's fall from an eight-foot ladder onto a hard surface is the equivalent of a child hitting a brick wall while traveling 30 miles per hour (Ward, 1997). What type of surfacing can reduce serious injury from falls off equipment? Begin by putting 12 inches of uncompressed, loose-fill material such as wood mulch, double-shredded tree bark, uniform wood chips, shredded rubber, fine sand, coarse sand, or pea gravel around and under play structures.


If these loose-fill surfaces become compacted with use and lack of maintenance, they too will not provide the necessary cushion to prevent serious injury. All surfacing under and around each piece of equipment must be checked regularly. For example, the surfacing at high-traffic areas like slide entries and exits tends to become displaced. The areas under swings and climbers are also major problem sites. These areas must be checked, raked, or refilled on a daily basis.


Hazard areas do not exist only underneath the play structure; they extend a minimum of six feet around the play equipment in all directions. Therefore, the entire fall zone must be covered with at least 12 inches of appropriate loose-fill material. Swings have a greater fall zone, extending two times the height of the structure, both in front and behind. If a swing structure is seven feet high, the fall zone must extend 14 feet in front of the swing and 14 in back of the swing. The fall zone must also extend six feet on each side of the swing. Remember, grass will not cushion a child's fall to the surface.


Certain surfacing materials such as pea gravel are not recommended for young children because they tend to put various object their mouths. Ground rubber products and some wood products may also be inappropriate for the same reason. On the other hand, the manipulative nature of sand makes it appropriate for young users and can help enhance the overall play value of the playground.


Risk #4: Little or No Equipment Maintenance
Does you car change its own oil, check its own fluid level, or rotate its own tires? Probably not. Like a car, a playground cannot maintain itself. And yet, once a playground is installed, many times it is forgotten. That is, until a child is injured and a lawsuit is filed against the owner, city, or child care center – a grim and expensive reminder of negligence. The following three areas have been identified by the Consumer Product Safety Commission as major hazard areas.


Protrusion and Entanglement Hazards. Nearly 50 percent of all playground fatalities are caused by strangulation from ropes, clothing, or strings on clothing. Loose items can become entangled on protrusions or v-openings (Mack, Hudson, & Thompson, 1997). Look for exposed bolts on play structures and potential v-openings, especially at the tops of slides; that may catch a string or clothing. Protrusions can cause other serious injuries. Bolts should be recessed and have protective caps. Rope equipment should be anchored at both ends to prevent a loop or noose from forming. Children should not be allowed to play on equipment while wearing loose clothing and strings.


Entrapment Openings. If children can fit through an opening, expect them to try to go through it. If the opening is between 3½ inches and nine inches, it may allow the child's body, but not his or her head, to pass through it, causing strangulation. Openings on play structures should be less than 3½ inches wide or more than nine inches wide to lessen the risk of head entrapment and strangulation.


Pinching, Crushing, and Shearing Hazards. Playground equipment should not contain sharp edges or points that can cut or break open the skin. Moving equipment such as suspension bridges, track rides, merry-go-rounds, seesaws, and some swings should be checked to make sure no movable parts or mechanisms can pinch or crush a child's finger. Remember, any small opening is an invitation for a child to place a finger inside, and it's up to adults to make sure that finger isn't hurt. Other general maintenance concerns that can be hazards to children include broken, worn, or missing parts; rust or deterioration; exposed concrete footings; and open S-hooks on swings.


Putting SAFE Into Playgrounds
Knowing and understanding the factors that put our children at risk on playgrounds are only part of the responsibility of caregivers and teachers. The other part is to put this knowledge into action. Be an advocate for play environments designed for safety. Remember, by paying attention to proper supervision, age-appropriate design, safe surfacing, and a system of ongoing maintenance, you can help make America's playgrounds safe for all children.


Susan Hudson, Ph.D., project associate; Donna Thompson, Ph.D., project director; Cynthia Cechota, project assistant; and Mick Mack, Ph.D., project coordinator, are staff members with the National Program for Playground Safety, a national information clearinghouse located at the University of Northern Iowa and funded through a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and prevention, Atlanta, GA. For further information contact the program office at 800-554-PLAY.


How to Be an Active Supervisor

  •  Before children are allowed on the playground, check the area for broken glass, pop tops, nails, and big sticks. Also, check equipment for vandalism and excessive wear and tear.

  • Check the play area for blind spots (areas that are hidden from your view) and make sure you walk around that area often.

  •  Wear a fanny pack filled with a first aid kit, including band aids, tissues for runny noses, and rubber gloves to protect you from blood-borne pathogens.

  • If possible, carry a pager, cellular phone, or walkie-talkie in workable condition.

  • Stroll through the play area watching for potential accidents. DO NOT remain stationary. Move randomly throughout the area. DO NOT find a comfortable spot to chat with other supervisors.

  • Communicate with the kids respectfully when necessary, but don't get in the way of their creative play


Bredekamp, S. & Copple, C. (Eds.) (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs. (Rev. Ed.) Washington, DC: NAEYC.


Bowers, L. (1988). Playground design: A scientific approach. In L.D. Bruya (Ed.) Play spaces for children: A new beginning. (pp. 22-48). Reston, VA: AAHPERD.


Bruya, L. & Wood, G. (1997). Why provide supervision on the playgrounds. In S. Hudson & D. Thompson (Eds.) Playground Safety Handbook (pp. 38-48). Cedar Falls, IA: National Program for Playground Safety.


Colbert, J. (1997). Brain development research can influence early childhood curriculum. Earlychildhood NEWS, 9 (5): 22.


Hudson, S.D. Thompson, D., & Mack, M.G. (1997). Are we safe yet? A twenty-five year look at playground safety. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 68 (9): 32-34.


Hudson, S.D., Thompson, D., Mack, M., & Cechota, C. (October, 1997). Playing it SAFE: Can playgrounds be hazardous to children's health? Our Children, National PTA, 23 (2), 32-33.


Labrinowitz, E. (1980). The Piaget primer. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.


Mack, M.G., Hudson, S., & Thompson, D. (1997). A descriptive analysis of children's playground injuries in the United States 1990-1994. Injury Prevention: Journal of the International Society for Child and Adolescent Injury Prevention, 3, 100-103.


Morrison, G.S. (1997). Fundamentals of early childhood education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.


Parten, M.D. (1932). Social participation among preschool children. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 27, 243-269. In Rogets, C.S. & Sawyers, J. (1988). Play in the lives of children. Washington, DC: NAEYC.


Shaw, L.G. (1976). The playground: The child's center learning space. (MH 20743-034A1). Gainesville, FL: The bureau of Research, College of Architecture, University of Florida.


The Random House Dictionary (7th ed.) (1978). New York, NY: Ballantine Books.


Thompson, D. & Hudson, S. (1996). National Action Plan for the Prevention of Playground Injuries. Cedar Falls, IA: National Program for Playground Safety.


United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (1997). Handbook for public playground safety. Washington, DC.


Ward, A. (1987). Are playground injuries inevitable? The Journal of Physician and Sports Medicine, 15 (4), 162-168.


Frost, J.L. (1992). Play and playscapes. Albany, NY: Delmar Publishers.


Frost, J.L. & Sweeney, T. (1996). Cause and prevention of playground injuries and litigation: Case studies. Wheaton, MD: ACEI.


Hudson, S. & Thompson, D. (1997). Selected annotated bibliography about public playground safety. Cedar Falls, IA: National Program for Playground Safety.


The following brochures are available from the National Program for Playground Safety, located at the University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, Iowa, 50616.

Blueprint for Supervision
Supervision Means…
Age-Appropriate Design
to Surfaces
Equipment Maintenance
Parent Inspection Checklist
Planning a Play Area for Children


ABC's of Playground Supervision (1997). Cedar Falls, IA: National Program for Playground Safety.


America's Playgrounds – Make them Safe (1996). Cedar Falls, IA: National Program for Playground Safety.


Inspecting Playgrounds for Hazards (1992). Fair Oaks, CA: Information Exchange.


Sammy’s Playground Pointers (1997). Cedar Falls, IA: National Program for Playground Safety.