According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), each year more than 200,000 children visit hospital emergency rooms with injuries sustained while playing on playground equipment. Six states have fully adopted the CPSC’s guidelines for playground safety, while 15 have incorporated at least a portion of the guidelines into their regulations for child care programs or schools.
Though enforcement of these policies is still lax, there’s a trend toward more regulation in playground safety, says Susan Hudson, Education Director for the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS), a nonprofit organization that acts as a clearinghouse for playground safety information. The standards seem to be encouraging improvements – a study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health showed a 22% decrease in playground injuries after the state adopted the CPSC’s guidelines as a requirement in licensed child care programs.
For early childhood educators, the message is clear: If you haven’t already thought about the safety of your playground structures, now’s the time to start. Besides state regulations for child care programs and schools, your professional organization may require a certain standard of playground safety. For example, new accreditation standards through the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) include the recommendation that a playground be checked by a Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CSPI) as part of its “emerging practice criteria”. This guideline is not yet enforced in order to achieve or maintain accreditation, but is likely to be in the future.
Safety First: Tips for Inspecting Your Playground
When looking for an inspector, make sure you find one who has experience—and one who understands early childhood education, says Susan Hudson. “The CPSC guidelines do talk about the fact that you should have separate areas for 2–5 year olds and 5–12 year olds, but there are a lot of things you find in a child care playground that are not covered by either set of guidelines.” Playhouses are one example. Since they aren’t covered specifically in the CPSC guidelines, nor in the guidelines set forth by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), some inspectors may say they aren’t appropriate for useeven though they are a common and in most cases, safe element in an early childhood playground. And while Certified Playground Safety Inspectors are specially trained to look for hazards the average person might miss, like metal fatigue, Hudson says that worrying about metal fatigue may be putting the cart before the horse: “The majority of child care centers across the United States do not have large composite playground equipment. They’ve bought home playground equipment and stuck it in the play yard. Before you even start talking about metal fatigue you’ve got to consider whether you’ve got appropriate equipment or not.”
CPSI’s are trained and certified through the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA), which maintains a registry of inspectors. To find a CPSI, you can contact the
NRPA (visit www.nrpa.org or call 703.858.0784), or ask the manufacturer of your playground equipment for recommendations. Professional inspection can be costlyfrom a few hundred dollars up to $1000 or more for an inspection, depending on factors like the playground’s size and the inspector’s travel distance—but David Spease, an Elk Grove, CA-based landscape architect and Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI) who sits on the executive committee of the National Playground Safety Institute (NPSI), says that schools and child care programs in one area can group together for a reduced price schedule. After the initial inspection, Spease recommends check-ups once a year.
Another option may be to do the inspectionor the follow-up inspectionsyourself. The National Program for Playground Safety produces a variety of playground safety evaluation tools, including two assessment kits—one for schools, one for child care programs—that contain a manual and a step-by-step CD-ROM. You can obtain a copy of the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Handbook for Public Playground Safety by calling 800-638-2772, or download it online at: http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/325.pdf. If you follow the guidelines carefully, you should be able to ensure that your play area is safe, but pay careful attention to your state’s requirements to make sure self-inspection is allowed.
Once your playground equipment is up to code—and unless it falls victim to vandalism or a natural disaster—you can expect it to last a good long while without needing major retrofitting. You’ll need to replace about 1/3 of your ground covering every two to three years, but otherwise, maintenance usually consists of relatively minor changes, like replacing bolts and moving parts, says David Spease.
Even if your state doesn’t enforce playground safety guidelines yet, keeping playgrounds as close to the CPSC’s guidelines as possible could help protect your center in the case of a lawsuit and could shield you from rising insurance costs. And, of course, it’ll help keep the kids in your care safer—the worthiest goal of all.
Meagan Francis is the mother of three young sons and has written about parenting and education for a variety of magazines, including Parenting, BabyTalk, Brain, Child, and Natural Family Online.
Is Your Playground Safe?
The CPSC has identified twelve things to keep in mind as you plan or inspect your outdoor play area:
1. There should be at least 12 inches of a soft material like mulch, sand, or shredded tires, or a mat designed specifically for playground use, under and around play equipment.
2. Make sure the ground cover extends at least six feet in all directions from play equipment. For swings, the surfacing should extend twice the height of the suspending bar in both directions.
3. Play structures more than 30 inches high should be spaced at least 9 feet apart.
4. Replace or cover open “S” hooks, protruding bolts, and other dangerous hardware.
5. Any open space should measure less than 3.5 inches or more than 9 inches so that it can’t trap a child’s head.
6. Look for sharp points or edges that could cut a child.
7. Inspect the ground for tripping hazards like tree stumps, exposed concrete footings, and rocks.
8. Elevated surfaces, like platforms and ramps, should have guardrails to prevent falls. For preschool children, there should be a guardrail on any surface that’s higher than 20 inches.
9. Playgrounds should be age-appropriate. Preschool-aged children should have a separate play area from kids aged 5 and up.
10. Check for moving parts that could pinch or crush a child’s finger.
11. Be sure playgrounds are set up in a way that enables teachers and staff to supervise children easily.
12. Inspect equipment and surfacing regularly to make sure it’s in good condition.