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Play SAFE: Tips for Parents to Remember When Taking Children to Playgrounds
By Susan D. Hudson, Ph.D., Donna Thompson, Ph.D., and Heather M. Olsen, M.A.

The sun is shining and the day is warm – what better time to take the kids out to the playground? However, if parents and other caregivers ignore some basic safe principles concerning playgrounds, a fun-filled day can easily turn dangerous or even deadly.

Each year over 200,000 children are injured seriously enough on playgrounds to seek emergency medical attention. In addition, an average of 17 children die simply because they are trying to do what children do best and that’s play. Simply put, children can get hurt when the play environment is not safe.

Unfortunately, the safety of America’s public playgrounds have recently been proven to be little better than average. According to a recent study by the National Program for Playground Safety, the nation’s public playgrounds received a grade of C+ for safety. The NPPS’s safety consultants visited all 50 states and viewed over 3,000 child care, school, and park playgrounds. Based on that study, NPPS has produced the following safety points for parents and caregivers to follow to keep children SAFE on playgrounds.

The first thing to remember is the meaning of SAFE. According to Dr. Donna Thompson, the Director of NPPS, each letter represents one area of safety in the playground environment. S stands for supervision, A represents age-appropriate design, F is a reminder about fall surfacing materials and E represents the maintenance of the equipment and surfacing.

S = Supervision

One needs to remember that equipment does not supervise children; caring adults do. It takes only a moment for a child to get into a dangerous situation. The most important thing adults can do when their children go to the playground is to go with them.

The job of the adult supervisor is to observe children’s play behavior and be near enough to the children to provide assistance when their derring-do begins to lead them into possible injury-producing situations. Much like the lifeguard at a pool, the playground supervisor needs to be alert to potential hazardous conditions, continuously scanning the environment, and must intervene only when it appears that the children’s play behaviors can lead to serious consequences.

Otherwise, adults need to let kids be kids and enjoy the exploration of the playground as long as the play equipment is appropriate to their developmental abilities – which lead us to the second element of SAFE, age appropriate design.

A = Age Appropriate Design

Adults need to understand that one size does not fit all! Playground equipment is designed for the developmental abilities of children ages 2-5 and 5-12. Parents who have children under the age of two should not be visiting the playground since the equipment is not designed for children ages 0-2. Putting the children on equipment that is not developmentally appropriate is similar to buying a pair of size 8 DD shoes and expecting a child to walk in them without tripping.

Too often, the researchers at NPPS have observed adults lifting children up to playground equipment that the child cannot reach or putting a young child on a lap and sliding down a slide. Neither activity is in the best interest of the child. The rule of thumb is if children cannot reach the piece of equipment on their own, then they should not be on it. If children are not comfortable, seated by themselves, sliding down a slide, then they should not be on the slide.

One word of caution needs to be made concerning public playgrounds. The NPPS study discovered that large composite structures found in parks and schools tend to be for mixed age groups over 70 percent of the time. That is, they will have low equipment (i.e. four-foot slides) for younger children and high equipment (i.e. eight-foot slides) for older children.

However, because of the linkage inherent in these structures, there is nothing to prevent the younger children from accessing the higher elements. A three year old is not a ten year old in terms of strength, reasoning ability, and physical development. Without, proper supervision (there’s the S element again), it is very easy for a child to get on to equipment that is not appropriate for his developmental abilities.

Many manufacturers are now labeling the equipment to inform the public about the suitable age group that should use the structure. In lieu of signage, remember that equipment for 2-5 year-olds should be no higher than six feet or as high as the child can reach.

F = Fall Surfacing

Height does matter, not for play value but for safety. Remember, the higher children are, the harder they fall. Children fall from equipment routinely enough that falls account for over 70 percent of all injuries. That is why it is so important to have a cushioned surface under and around playground equipment. This is an area of safety that adults need to pay attention to since the NPPS found that few public playgrounds (only 19 percent) have surfacing materials at the adequate depth to cushion falls. There are four things to look for to determine if a playground has safe surfacing.

Suitable Materials: The first thing to determine is whether or not the playground has the right kind of materials under the playground. Playground surfacing materials come in two types – loose-fill and unitary. Loose-fill materials are sand, pea gravel, wood products (chips and fiber), and rubber chips. The unitary materials take the form of rubber mats or are poured in place. Chances are that you will find suitable materials present since the NPPS study showed that 82 percent of all playgrounds are now using suitable materials.

Height of the Equipment: As mentioned previously, the height of the equipment for ages 2-5 should be no higher than six feet, for ages 5-12 the height limit should be eight feet. Why? Definitive studies show that equipment over six feet doubles the probability of injury from a fall.

Depth of the loose fill: The materials also need to be deep enough to absorb a fall. You will not be able to tell the needed depth of unitary surfacing. It should be assumed that the agency that owns the equipment checked the depth at the time of installation. However, with loose fill, a quick check can tell whether it is at a depth of nine to 12 inches. If the loose fill is not at least nine inches than it may not absorb the impact of the child falling from a height of six feet.

Use zone: Finally, to be effective, the materials need to be in the right place. This means it must protect the ground in a six-foot radius around stationary equipment. For slides, the surfacing should extend four feet plus the height of the slide in front of the slide chute. For swings, surface materials should extend the distance of twice the height of a swing beam front and back of the swing seat. Thus, if the swing beam is eight feet high the distance should be 16 feet in front and 16 feet in back. The NPPS study found that 71 percent of the time there was adequate surfacing within the six feet use zone which brings us to the last item of SAFE, equipment and surfacing maintenance.

E = Equipment and Surfacing Maintenance

One does not invest money for a car, only to use it without getting regular oil changes and tune-ups. Likewise, in order to ensure that the area is still safe for children to use, playground equipment and surfacing needs to be routinely inspected. Steel does rust, plastic does crack, and wood does splinter. Any and all of these things can lead to an unsafe play environment for children. In addition, old equipment may have loose bolts and nuts leading to gaps that can entangle strings or entrap heads. Both are life- threatening situations. The NPPS study showed that 30 percent of the equipment in the country had either gaps or entrapments present.

Adults need to check the equipment for openings that may be greater than three-and-a-half inches and less than nine. These openings are generally found between and under guardrails. A quick measuring device to use is a dollar bill. American money is six inches long. By folding a bill over at the number symbol (1), the bill is the length of three-and-a-half inches. If the folded dollar bill will go through the opening then one folded in half plus one full-length dollar bill must be able to go through. Otherwise a possible head entrapment is present.

Adults also need to make sure the temperature of the equipment is suitable for children to play on. It is extremely important that you do not put children on equipment that is hot enough to burn a child. Take your children to parks and places where adequate shade is available. And just like at a swimming pool, protect your child with sunscreen.

If you see unsafe conditions at the playground, you should report it immediately to the owner or operator of the playground. If adults take an active role in helping keep a watchful eye on community playgrounds, problems can be eliminated.

SAFE Playgrounds

Children and parents should have fun-filled days at the playgrounds without fear of injury. By remembering and practicing SAFE, adults who accompany children to play environments can help create happy memories. Working together, we can all help make America’s playgrounds SAFE for children.

Susan D. Hudson, Ph.D., Education Director; Donna Thompson, Ph.D., Director; and Heather M. Olsen, M.A., Project Coordinator. All are from The National Program for Playground Safety, University of Northern Iowa, School of HPELS, Cedar Falls, IA50614-0618. For further information, please visit www.playgroundsafety.org or call 800-554-PLAY(7529).