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How Safe Are Child Care Playgrounds?: A Progress Report
By Donna Thompson, Ph.D., Susand D. Hudson, Ph.D., and Heather M. Olsen, M.A.

A major portion of a child’s day is spent in play. Children develop, physically, emotionally, socially, and intellectually through play. To help facilitate these play experiences, whether indoors or outdoors, the play environment will contain playground equipment. Children explore themselves and the environment through this equipment. In recent years, however, a fundamental question has arisen: “How safe are the playgrounds in which children play?”

In the public arenas of child care centers and schools, playground injuries are the leading cause of injury (Briss, Sacks, Addiss & O’Neill, 1994; U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, 1995). Because playgrounds are one of the major educational and recreational environments that all children are exposed to during their developmental years, it is critical that adults create SAFE playgrounds. Considering that every year over 200,000 children receive emergency department care for playground-related injuries, with nearly one-third classified as severe (Mack, Hudson & Thompson, 1997) and that the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons indicates that the number of playground injuries may be as high as 500,000, it’s clear that America’s playgrounds are not safe enough.

The Report Card
In April 2000, The National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) released the results of the largest nationwide survey of child care, school, and park playgrounds ever. Of the 3052 playgrounds assessed, 1163 (38%) were child care playgrounds.

NPPS sought to replicate this study in the spring of 2003 by revisiting the sites identified in the 2000 report. Again all 50 states were visited and 38 percent were child care centers. Overall, many states significantly increased their safety rating as the nation improved its grade by moving from a C to a C+. However, in the child care sector, the grade C+ remained the same from the earlier survey. Table 1 shows the results of the grade comparison from the 2000 and 2004 studies.

 Table 1:Grade Comparison by Year

 

 2000

 2004

 A's = 0

 A's = 2

 B's = 23

 B's = 25

 C's = 22

 C's = 20

 D's = 5

 D's = 3

While the data indicates slight improvement, it is clear that more progress needs to be made in improving playground safety. Maintaining C+ playgrounds is not good enough. All children deserve to be playing on Grade A playgrounds. How can this be achieved? Perhaps by looking at the different components that contribute to a SAFE playground, a better picture of what needs to be done can emerge.

What is SAFE?
The National Program for Playground Safety believes that there are four areas that encompass the safety of children on a playground. First, the playground must have adequate supervision. Within this concept are two observable components. First, the playground must be designed so that a supervisor can observe children on the equipment and second, there must be supervisors on the playground when children are present.

Age-appropriate design is the second element of the SAFE model. This means that the equipment must be designed for the ages of the children who will use it. Presently, equipment is designed for children ages 2-5 or 5-12.

The third area of consideration is fall surfacing. Since 70 percent of injuries that occur on playgrounds are related to falls to the surface, it is critical that suitable fall surfacing materials be present. In addition, it is important that loose fill materials such as sand, pea gravel, rubber, and wood products be at the adequate depth to maintain cushioning characteristics.

Finally, it is important that the equipment and the surfacing be regularly maintained. For example, the equipment must be repaired so spaces that can entangle, string or entrap heads are not allowed to develop. How did the child care playgrounds measure up regarding Supervision, Age appropriateness, Fall surfacing and Equipment and surfacing maintenance? Let’s look at each of those areas individually.

S = Supervision
Supervision of children on the playground is extremely important since it is estimated that over 40 percent of the injuries that children sustain on playgrounds are related to a lack of or inappropriate supervision. Table 2 presents the grade for child care centers concerning supervision.

Table 2: Report Card on Supervision on Child care Playgrounds

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Overall Grade

 

 

 

 2000 = B-

 2004 = C

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Supervision Component

 

 

 

 2000 - %

 2004 - %

 2000 - Grade

 2004 - Grade

 Adults present when children are present  on the playground

 

 

 

 93

 84

 A-

 B-

 Children are easily viewed on equipment

 

 

 

 96

 89

 A

 B+

 Children can be easily viewed in crawl spaces

 

 

 

 89

 72

 B+

 C-

 Supervision rules are posted

 

 

 

 6

 3

 F

 F

It appears from looking at Table 2 that work needs to be done in terms of observation and design of playgrounds for supervision.

Of the 121 playgrounds observed in the 2004 survey where children were playing on the playground, 84 percent of those playgrounds had adult supervisors present. That is very good. However, room for improvement remains since it is important that children be supervised all of the time. While the number of children present at each playground was not recorded, the number of supervisors present was reported. Half of the time there were two adults present while 29 percent of the time there was one supervisor watching the children. Most of the time, there appears to be adequate supervision on the child care playgrounds. NPPS recommends that two supervisors always be present. If a child is injured or some other crisis occurs, one supervisor can maintain control of the children while the other attends to the emergency situation.

The survey also attempted to determine whether or not the adults appeared to be actively supervising the children. Of those observed, most (86%) appeared to be watching the children carefully, whereas some (30%) seemed as though they were not paying attention as carefully as they should be. The latter group of individuals may have been putting children at risk.

Another concern was whether or not the children could be easily viewed on the playground. Was the equipment designed in a fashion so that the children could be easily monitored? It was not easy to view the children in only 11 percent of the playgrounds. This suggests that the design of the equipment is facilitating supervision.

If the design caused a supervision problem, what precluded observation of the children? There were two items that drew our attention. One concern was blind spots and the other was enclosed spaces that had openings. Interestingly enough, 100 percent of the playgrounds where children were not easily viewed had blind spots. This would suggest that in order to make playgrounds more supervisable, the design must not have blind spots and must have enclosed spaces such as tube slides that have some type of opening so that it can be seen if children are inside of them. Finally, few child care centers did have signage indicating the age of children for whom the equipment was designed. In some respects this is not as necessary as at parks unless the playground is accessible to the community when the center is not functioning. However, when the standard for play equipment for children under two is published, this consideration will be crucial to placing children in the proper outdoor learning environment.

All in all, the supervision of the playgrounds at child care centers is adequate but needs improvement. Child care specialists have a reputation for providing good supervision and especially caring for their clients. Hopefully, that aspect can receive more attention in the future to improve the safety of the children in the outdoor environment.
 
A = Age-Appropriate Design
The next component of safety examined was age-appropriate design (Table 3). Most playground equipment areas at child-care programs were designed for children from 2-5. Some centers provided equipment for children ages 5-12. However, there was no clear separation of play areas in 74 percent of the playground equipment provided for children ages 2-12. This is a discouraging increase (51%) from 2000. When playground equipment for differing age groups isn’t distinctly separated, younger children are likely to play on equipment that is too big for them, which may result in injuries. This is a problem that should be immediately corrected.

Child care providers need to purchase equipment that is appropriate for the development of their children. At this point in time, there is equipment manufactured for children ages 2-5 and 5-12. No, this overlap is not a mistake. Children go to child care centers and to elementary school at age five. In addition, it is important for child care givers to take pre-school children to equipment designed for children ages 2-5 in park settings, as well.

 Table 3: Report Card on Age-Appropriate Design on Child Care Playgrounds

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Overall Grade

 

 

 

 2000 = C

 2004 = C

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Age-Appropriate Design Component

 

 

 

 2000 - %

 2004 - %

 2000 – Grade

 2004 – Grade

 Separate play areas present

 

 

 

 49%

 26%

 F

 F

 Signage for age group provided

 

 

 

 6%

 5%

 F

 F

 Platforms provide for change of directions

 

 

 

 92%

 87%

 A-

 B+

 Guardrails are present on elevated platforms higher than 3 feet

 

 

 

 92%

 87%

 A-

 B+

 Equipment pieces are designed to prevent children from climbing outside of structures

 

 

 

 74%

 80%

 C

 B-

 Equipment pieces are designed to discourage children from climbing on supporting structures

 

 

 

 79%

 80%

 C+

 B-

Signage regarding the age appropriateness of playground equipment is still problematic. While signage would clarify the differences in design for children ages 2-5 and 5-12, it would also indicate that the equipment is inappropriate for children under two. Again, it should be noted that the current playground equipment is not appropriate for that age level, a fact particularly important to owners’ of public centers or centers available to other constituents after hours.

While the grade for the provision of change of direction on platforms is above average, it did decrease. That suggests that the equipment may be older or that care in observing that feature when purchasing new equipment is not being noticed.

The grade for the provision of guardrails also declined. Although the decrease was not great, the point is that guardrails do prevent children from falling to the surface. Since falls to the surface are responsible for a great number of injuries that children sustain on playgrounds, it would be good that caregivers attended to this situation promptly.

On the positive side, the assessors did observe that more equipment at child care centers is being provided that prevents children from climbing on the outside of it. As such, it suggests that children are less likely to climb on equipment in a manner in which it is not designed. The result should be that children are being prevented from falling from inappropriate places. It also indicates that child care personnel are being more careful in the selection of equipment.

Lastly, the equipment being selected is that which discourages children from climbing on support structures. The grade for that item increased from C+ to B-. Although the change was small, it is important to provide equipment that is less likely to cause children to be injured by inappropriate use.

While the overall grade did not change, we would challenge child care givers to increase their attention to age appropriateness so that children are provided with equipment that meets their physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development.

F = Fall Surfacing
As mentioned above, inappropriate fall surfacing or the lack of appropriate surfacing is seen as being responsible for 70 percent of the injuries that children sustain on playgrounds. When preschool children fall, they tend to sustain head injuries. That is why it is important that child care givers never allow asphalt, cement, dirt, or grass under or around playground equipment. Suitable surfaces that may be used include loose-fill products such as sand, gravel, wood products, rubber products, or non-organic products such as rubber tiles or poured-in-place products. The following table provides the report card for fall surfacing

 Table 4: Report Card on Fall Surfacing on Child Care Programs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Overall Grade

 

 

 

 2000 = C

 2004 = C+

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Fall Surfacing Component

 

 

 

 2000 - %

 2004 - %

 2000 – Grade

 2004 – Grade

 Suitable materials provided

 

 

 

 71%

 73%

 C-

 C-

 Height of equipment 8 feet

 

 

 

 NA

 99%

 NA

 A

 Appropriate depth of loose fill

 

 

 

 44%

 9%

 F

 F

 Six foot use zone has appropriate surfacing material

 

 

 

 62%

 53%

 D-

 F

 Concrete footings are covered

 

 

 

 89%

 95%

 B+

 A

 Surface is free of foreign objects

 

 

 

 89%

 81%

 B+

 B-

Proper surfacing under and around playground equipment is determined by four factors: 1) suitable surfacing materials, 2) height of the equipment, 3) depth of loose-fill surface materials, and 4) placement of suitable materials at the adequate depth in the playground use zone.

In relation to the first factor, suitable materials provided, child care centers are about the same in the provision of suitable surfacing under and around playground equipment. Since surfacing is such an important factor, it is critical that major attention be paid to this situation. Suitable surfacing is available and its provision will not only prevent an injury, but a lawsuit that may follow if this situation is ignored. Better than 95 percent of the child care centers used loose-fill surfacing materials and, pea gravel, wood chips, or wood fiber and unitary surfaces of the rubber mats or poured in place materials. However, regardless of whether it is loose-fill or unitary, suitable surfaces need to be used 100 percent of the time.

What is the height of equipment on child care playgrounds? Child-care programs received an A in this section, but please note the caution that follows. Since some child care centers care for children ages 2-12, it is noted that 99.7 percent have equipment that is eight feet high or less. On the other hand, 85 percent have equipment that is six feet high or less. We recommend that equipment for children ages 2-5 be six feet or less since children are twice as likely to be injured from a fall over six feet in height.

What about the depth? Even though, child care centers are providing suitable materials, they are not providing enough depth of those materials. In fact, in the report card, that area has worsened. It is imperative to the safety of children that greater attention be focused on this element. Lack of adequate depth means that the cushioning characteristic of the suitable materials is non-existent. The depth of the surfacing should be proportionate to the height of the equipment. As a matter of fact, eight percent of the playgrounds surveyed had no surfacing at all.

Last, but not least, the suitable material at the appropriate depth needs to be in the proper place under and around the equipment. This placement is known as the use zone. Child care programs have worsened in this category (Table 4) and the lack of attention here is truly placing children at risk. Not only is the surfacing not thick enough, it is not in the place where children are likely to fall. 46 percent of the time surfacing was not in the use zone for stationary equipment, 49 percent of the time surfacing was not in the use zone for slides, and 66 percent of the time surfacing was not in the use zone for swings. Considering that children see surfacing and assume that the area is safe, child care programs are giving children a false sense of security.

On the bright side, child care programs are doing an excellent job of covering concrete footings so that children cannot fall on them. However, the study showed that far too many of these play areas were littered with foreign objects, which created potential hazards.

E = Equipment and Surfacing Maintenance
The last component of the report card dealt with equipment maintenance. Unfortunately, this was another area that child care centers seem to be doing a worse job than in 2000 (Table 5).

 Table 5: Report Card on Equipment Maintenance on Child Care Playgrounds

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Overall Grade

 

 

 

 2000 = B

 2004 = C+

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Equipment Maintenance Components

 

 

 

 2000 - %

 2004 - %

 2000 – Grade

 2004 – Grade

 Equipment is free of broken parts

 

 

 

 85%

 86%

 B

 B

 Equipment is free of missing parts

 

 

 

 85%

 90%

 B

 A-

 Equipment is free of protruding bolts

 

 

 

 83%

 83%

 B-

 B-

 Equipment is free of noticeable gaps

 

 

 

 75%

 65%

 C

 D

 Equipment is free of head entrapments 

 

 

 

 81%

 71%

 B-

 C-

 Equipment is free of rust

 

 

 

 79%

 74%

 C+

 C

 Equipment is free of splinters

 

 

 

 80%

 71%

 B-

 C-

 Equipment is free of cracks/holes

 

 

 

 95%

 96%

 A

 A

Without routine inspection and repair, any equipment will fall into disrepair and pose a hazard to children using the equipment. It appears that maintenance of metal and wooden equipment is insufficient in comparison to plastic equipment. Part of this problem lies in the fact that wood and metal equipment tend to be older than plastic. Proportionately, metal equipment installed prior to 1991 had more rust present than equipment installed after 1991. A similar finding was seen with wooden equipment. More plastic equipment has been installed since 1994 than before that time.

Having said that, it is good to see that most of the equipment is free from broken parts and free from protruding bolts. Both can pose a problem in relation to injuries to eyes and cuts. However, room for improvement continues to exist. When broken parts or missing parts were observed, owners failed to rope off the area to prevent children from being injured over 90 percent of the time.

Grades also declined from 2000 in regards to the appearance of noticeable gaps and spaces in the equipment where children’s heads could be potentially trapped due to inappropriate installation or aging equipment. The older the equipment, the more gaps are liable to be present. This is an area that deserves immediate attention as both of those situations have the potential to cause death and severe disability. In addition, the frequency of rust and splinters on playground equipment also rose in the last four years. Again, the older the equipment, the more likely these conditions are to exist.

Child care center equipment did, however, manage to receive an A with in terms of being free of cracks and holes. That is probably because there is more new equipment in child care centers that is composed of plastic. Nevertheless, on the whole, the grade for the section has decreased from a B- to a C+. That suggests that equipment and surfacing maintenance needs attention.

Recommendations Based on the Report Card
Based on the findings from this report card, the National Program for Playground Safety makes the following recommendations:

Supervision
The results of this section suggest that manufacturers need to pay attention to sight lines especially in relation to crawl spaces and blind spots when they develop playground equipment and composite structures.

Further, owners/operators of playground areas should provide signage indicating the importance of supervision and other behaviors that the wish to encourage on playgrounds.

Age-Appropriate Design
All new playground areas designed for children ages 2-12 should have two distinct areas: one for ages 2-5 and the other for ages 5-12. In addition, composite structures that provide for mixed aged use (ages 2-12) should not be purchased.

All playgrounds should have signage or labels directing adults to equipment designed for the appropriateness of the development of the children.

Fall Surfacing
Suitable surfacing materials need to be purchased and maintained at the appropriate depth proportionate to that height of the equipment.
 
Surfacing materials must be in the appropriate use zone so that the falls of children can be absorbed by the appropriate thickness of suitable surfacing.

Equipment and Surfacing Maintenance
Child care personnel need to form a maintenance policy and place a person in charge of dealing with maintenance on a regular basis.

Areas that need special attention in relation to maintenance include noticeable gaps and spaces that may be head entrapments.

In conclusion, while the child care playgrounds grade was maintained at a C+, we contend that all children deserve an “A” playground for the sake of safety. In addition, children should be able to assume that the play area in which they play is safe so that children can go out and to what they do best and that is play.

Actions for Early Childhood Educators
Now, what can early childhood educators do to improve the playground environment for children? There are four areas in which teachers can influence the safety of the playground: Supervision, Age-Appropriate Design, Fall Surfacing and Equipment and Surfacing Maintenance.

First, child care directors can develop a supervision plan that includes training their teachers to supervise on the playground. Encourage them to move around the playground and observe the movements of the children. Supervision is more than watching; it is paying attention to the way children play and only intervening when needed.

Second, be sure that children are allowed to play on play equipment appropriately designed for their age group. At this point, equipment is manufactured for preschool children ages 2-5. Do not allow children younger than two to play on equipment designed for older children.

Third, it is critical that child care directors place suitable surfacing under and around playground equipment. In addition, consider placing unitary surfacing in shaded areas where children, ages 0-2, are playing. It does not make sense to have those children trying to learn to walk out the door onto cement. A more forgiving surface such as rubber mats or poured-in-place materials would be more appropriate.

Fourth, child care directors need to make maintenance plans and assign individuals to check both the equipment and surfacing on a regular basis. That timeline is determined on the frequency and numbers of children who use the area.

Lastly, plan ahead by using a planning process to decide on the purpose of the play area and then decide what equipment to purchase based on curricular needs. Make the area an outdoor learning environment, even though it may be also be used for free play. NPPS has pamphlets and other products such as a planning video and a supervision kit to help with the process.

By following those suggestions, child caregivers can be proactive in making the play environment safe for children. In addition, the playground can be transformed into an outdoor learning environment. Thus, it can become safe and satisfying for the children.

Donna Thompson, Ph.D., Director; Susan D. Hudson, Ph.D., Education 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).

References
Briss, P.A., Sacks, J.J., Addiss, D.G. & O’Neill, J. (1995). Injuries from falls on playgrounds: Effects of day care center regulation and enforcement. Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine, 149, 906-911.

Hudson, S., Mack, M. & Thompson, D. (2000).How safe are America’s playgrounds? A national profile of child care, school and park playgrounds. Cedar Falls, IA: National Program for Playground Safety.

Hudson, S., Olsen, & Thompson, D. (2004).How safe are America’s playgrounds. A progress report. Cedar Falls, IA.: National Program for Playground Safety.

Mack, M., Hudson, S., & Thompson. D. (December, 1997). An analysis of playground surface injuries. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. 68 (4) 368-372.

U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment (1995). Risks to children in school. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. (1997). Handbook for Public Playground Safety, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.