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Where Danger Lurks: Evaluating New and Existing Playground Equipment
By Sue Reily

More than 200,000 children under age 15 were treated at hospital emergency rooms in 2000 for injuries related to playground equipment. Are children safe when they play on your playground? Use the following checklist to find out.

Playground Safety Checklist
Look for the following safety features when purchasing playground equipment or when evaluating the safety of existing equipment. Check off all those that are met. Fix, replace, or remove unsafe equipment and surfaces.

Playground Surface…

  • is hardwood fiber/mulch, sand, pea gravel, or approved synthetic/rubber tiles or mats.
  • is at least 12 inches deep and is not compacted. Rubber mats should be installed using manufacturer’s instructions
  • is free from standing water and debris
  • is free from trip hazards such as sudden changes in surface elevations, tree roots, or rocks.
All Equipment…
  • is age appropriate.
  • is free of sharp edges or protrusions that might impale or cut a child if he or she should fall against the hazard (e.g., bolt ends that extend more than two threads beyond the face of the nut).
  • is free of moving components that could pinch or crush a child’s finger (e.g., check suspension bridges, track rides, and seesaws).
  • is free of protrusions that could catch strings or items of clothing worn around a child’s neck (e.g., gaps between components and open “S” type hooks).
  • is free of trip hazards such as exposed concrete footings.
  • is free from missing or worn-out components. No signs of fatigue, deterioration, or loosening exist.
  • four feet or lessin height have a minimum fall zone of six feet.
  • four feet or lessin height have an exit not more than 11 inches off the ground.
  • four feet or greaterin height have a minimum fall zone equal to the height of the slide plus four feet (e.g., 10 feet for a six-foot-high slide).
  • four feet or greaterin height have an exit eight to 15 inches off the ground.
  • have a maximum 30-degree incline to ensure a safe sliding speed.
  • have platforms at least as wide as the slide; with length at least 15 inches for preschoolers and 22 inches for school-age children.
  • are free from gaps between the platform and the top of the sliding surface.
  • include a bar or panel at the top for children to hold on to as they sit down and begin to slide.
  • have a fall zone equal to two times the height of the swing hanger (in front and behind) and six feet to the sides.
  • have hangers which are placed slightly wider than the swing seat to limit side-to-side motion.
  • which are unidirectional (i.e., traditional swings) are placed at least 30 inches from the support structure and at least two feet apart.
  • are hung no more than two to a bay.
  • have seats made of lightweight, impact-absorbing materials such as rubber or plastic, and are not large enough to hold more than one child at a time.
  • for toddlers (i.e., bucket-type) support the child on all sides.
Climbing and Stationary Equipment
  • have a minimum six-foot fall zone.
  • have stairs or are built in such a way that children can descend as easily as they ascend.
  • have steps and stairs which are spaced evenly.
  • have more than nine inches between steps and stairways used by preschoolers; for older children, more than 12 inches. This helps prevent entrapment.
  • have handrails and climbing bars which measure one to 1-1/4 inches in diameter.
  • have more than nine inches between adjacent rungs of horizontal overhead ladders so that a child’s head cannot become entrapped.
  • have rungs which are not more than 15 inches apart.
  • have overhead rungs with a diameter between one and five inches.
  • have guardrails on platforms and elevated surfaces that are more than 20 inches high when intended for use by preschoolers.
  • have guardrails on platforms and elevated surfaces that are more than 30 inches high when intended for use by school-age children.
  • have guardrails on elevated surfaces beginning 23 inches above the platform for preschoolers and 26 inches above the platform for school-age children. The upper part of the rail should be 29 inches high for preschoolers.
Equipment should be spaced…
  • so that fall zones for equipment more than 24 inches high do not overlap.
  • with a minimum 12 feet between any two play structures.
  • away from other equipment if swings or other moving structures.
  • so that structures for infants/toddlers, preschoolers, and older children are separated.
Equipment to Avoid
Some types of equipment are so dangerous that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends they not be used on public playgrounds. Eliminate the following from your playground:
  • Heavy swings such as animal figure swings and multiple occupancy/glider type swings.
  • Free swinging ropes that may fray or form a loop.
  • Swinging exercise rings and trapeze bars. These are considered athletic equipment and are not recommended for public playgrounds. Overhead hanging rings that have a short amount of chain and are intended for use as a ring trek (generally four to eight rings) are allowed.
Playground Supervision Tips
While it is important to buy and maintain safe playground equipment, there are other things that you can do to help prevent playground injuries. It is estimated that more than 40 percent of all playground injuries are directly related to lack of supervision in some way.
  • Teach children the proper use of equipment (e.g., always use handrails).
  • Teach children playground etiquette (e.g., no pushing).
  • Set limits for the number of children that can use a piece of equipment at the same time (e.g., no more than one child on the slide ladder at one time).
  • Teach children to stay a safe distance from moving equipment (e.g., never walk in front of or behind moving swings).
Sue Reily is a freelance writer from Dayton, Ohio.