There is no child that has not experienced the thrill of a trip to the local playground. They provide numerous playthings and equipment that many children simply do not have access to in their own back yards, providing children of all ages with new and exciting methods of play. When parents take their children to public playgrounds, there is an expectation that all equipment and play areas are designed for maximum safety and fun. This expectation is an important one, and can result in serious financial ramifications if the provided equipment does not meet these standards.
Playgrounds Can Be Dangerous
Public playgrounds are designed to provide children with a safe environment for play. However, according to the National Recreation and Park Association, each year there are more than 200,000 children that are injured due to playground accidents, and another 15 who die as a result of injuries sustained while playing in a park. The sad truth is, many of these injuries could have been avoided altogether through the use of playground inspections.
The equipment on a playground is designed for long-term use, but, like any other machine or man-made creation, parts break down over time. The only way to make sure that playgrounds remain safe for the millions of children that play on them each year is to make sure any and all issues are noticed and rectified within a timely manner.
Playground Regulations, Laws, and Best Practices
Certified playground inspectors are trained to notice and address a wide range of issues that can affect the safety of a playground. Additionally, these inspectors are aware of the various laws and best practices governing playground and play equipment. Even though there are only a handful of states that have enacted regulations for playgrounds, there are other laws that must be followed to ensure safety and compliance.
One of these laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act, provides standards that should be followed by all public playgrounds. These standards include having proper access to the entrance of the play area that is at least 60 inches in width, with a slope that is no higher than 1:20. Additionally, any areas that have a slope of 6% or higher must have handrails and landing areas for added safety.
The ADA also sets requirements for transfer platforms, steps, connecting ramps, and other means of access that allow children with disabilities to have a means of enjoying playground equipment. Failure to meet these requirements can lead to lawsuits, especially if a child is injured as a result of not complying with these regulations.
Playground Inspections Are Required by Federal Law
As of January 1, 2000, federal laws were enacted that required all playgrounds to undergo safety inspections. This law also included provisions that any new playground constructions must be inspected by a Certified Playground Safety Instructor before they can be opened for public use. Additionally, this law included regulations that must be followed by all playground owners and operators, including:
- Proper training of all personnel involved with designing, installing, and maintaining playgrounds.
- Any areas that are cited by playground inspectors as not being in compliance must be altered to meet the safety standards and regulations.
While these laws are not actively enforced (unless they relate to the ADA requirements), they are used in cases that result in civil suits due to a child being injured. The costs associated with these types of lawsuits can be astronomical, making it important to follow proper inspection requirements.
Playground Inspections Are Key
A proper playground inspection that is completed by a Certified Inspector is paramount in protecting children who rely on playgrounds for their play and exercise. The damage that can result to a child due to uninspected equipment can be astronomical, which is why any person who runs a playground for public access needs to ensure that they have this inspection completed.
When discussing playground inspections, it is important to remember that there are two important types. Certified playground inspections are those that are carried out by professional inspectors that are trained to verify that all equipment meets the recommended safety requirements. These inspectors can also provide feedback for new equipment to make sure that the overall design is safe for play. However, maintenance inspections are also an important part of keeping playgrounds safe. Proper maintenance inspections allow potential problems to be noticed and corrected before they result in any injuries. These inspections include a thorough inspection of all equipment, surfaces, and play areas to ensure that there are no damaged or weakening areas.
In order to fully understand the importance of playground inspections in protecting our children, we have compiled a comprehensive list of 50 benefits that are associated with properly inspected playgrounds. These inspections play a key role in providing the protection and safety that parents expect for their children when they visit parks and playgrounds.
Playground Injuries Are Entirely Too Common
1. As mentioned, there are more than 200,000 injuries that result in emergency room visits each year. It is believed that this number is actually much higher, as many minor playground injuries go unreported.
2. The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission completed a study of over 2,690 reported incidents that occurred due to playground equipment covering the years of 2001 - 2008. 44% of the injuries that were reported occurred due to falls.
3. 23% of the reported injuries during this time period were the result of equipment problems, including design flaws, improper assembly, broken equipment, and tipping over.
4. Still other injuries were the result of a child becoming trapped in the playground equipment, or running into equipment or other children. Entrapment issues included head entrapment on the equipment due to entrances that were too small, and guardrails that were not spaced properly.
5. The CPSC found a few different playground factors that resulted in the death of a child.
6. Falls from faulty or improperly anchored equipment were the most common cause of death. This was due to the sudden shifting or tilting of the equipment that was not properly anchored into the ground as per manufacturer’s recommendations.
7. Some children were killed when their clothing or leashes became entangled with ropes and chains on the playground equipment. This is one area that requires vigilance by both playground inspectors, and parents. If there are any visible ropes or other materials that are tied to the equipment, it is important that these be removed prior to allowing children to play on them.
8. Other deaths were the result of equipment falling over and crushing a child, or complete failure that resulted in either the entire unit or a portion of it falling down during play.
9. A vast majority of the injuries and deaths could have been prevented by proper annual and maintenance inspections. This is a clear indication of the importance of carrying out inspections when they are needed or scheduled.
Safety Recommendations for Protection from Falls
10. There are specially designed surfaces that are recommended by the CPSC for use in playgrounds and under equipment to promote a safer playing environment. These include poured rubber, pea gravel, wood chips or engineered wood fiber, and synthetic tiling.
11. These surfaces protect children if they fall off equipment during play by providing additional padding. While it may not seem that there is much difference between the available surface types, this small change can have a huge impact on safety and injury prevention.
12. Proper playground inspections will ensure that playing areas are not surfaced with concrete, grass, or blacktop, which are not acceptable due to their propensity to cause more serious injuries. All of these surfaces are considerably harder than those that are recommended by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the ASTM.
13. Inspections also ensure that the recommended surfaces are the appropriate depth of around 12 inches, and extend at least 6 feet from equipment edges.
14. The CPSC also provides “zone use” guidelines that ensure that swings and slides have the appropriate amount of specialty surface material extending out in all directions that protect children who fall during play. Additionally, providing clearly marked areas around swing sets helps to prevent children from walking directly into another child that is swinging.
Protection from Entanglement, Cutting, and Impalement
15. It is especially important that playground equipment be free from hazards that can lead to strangulation, cuts, or impalement.
16. Playground equipment inspections ensure that there are no bolts that stick out more than two threads, which can easily snag clothing or strings, and cut children if the exposed edges are sharp.
17. “S” hooks, like those used to attach swing seats to a chain, that are not closed can cause cuts, and catch on clothing. This can result in strangulation, especially if the child is unable to disentangle themselves.
18. Any rungs or handholds should be even with the support structure to prevent damage to the eyes. A single rung that juts out past the support can result in serious eye injuries or even blindness if a child runs into it.
19. Any ropes that are used for climbing and other play should be anchored at both ends. An inspection will catch any damaged or loose ropes that have the potential of causing strangulation or other injuries that could result if a child is tangled in them. Proper maintenance inspections should also catch any areas that are beginning to fray, so they can be fixed before an accident occurs.
Entrapment Concerns for Enclosed Equipment
20. Inspectors are trained to locate potential entrapment issues caused by openings that are too small. There are many slides and climbing tubes that have smaller entrances that lead into a landing area, and the actual size of these openings is crucial to prevent children from climbing into an area that will not allow them to get their entire body and head through.
21. Playground safety guidelines dictate that all openings for enclosed play areas be larger than nine inches to protect children from being trapped. Any equipment that fails to meet these size guidelines should not be used in any public playground area.
22. Climbing rungs and safety guardrails should also follow these guidelines to ensure children cannot get their head caught between them. It is also important to ensure that fencing and enclosures with pointed tops provide ample space to prevent children from getting their heads caught between the slats.
23. There are specific guidelines in place for zones, or the areas between playground equipment, to make sure that children leaving one area of play are not injured by others who are using the equipment. This also eliminates the possibility of a child falling off of one piece of equipment and hitting or landing on another.
24. Equipment that is less than 30” high requires 6 feet of space that is covered with approved playground surfacing materials.
25. Equipment that measures more than 30” in height requires 9 feet of space. Swing sets and other equipment that move across large distances must not be close enough to another play area to overlap during play.
26. Proper certified inspections ensure that these guidelines are followed properly to provide safer play for all children on the playground.
Tripping Protection - Nature and Manmade Hazards
27. Tripping hazards can often be avoided with proper inspection of the grounds and areas around play equipment.
28. There should be no exposed concrete or uneven areas on the ground that will trip children. This includes areas of erosion, uneven ground, and sidewalks that lead directly to the play equipment.
29. Any exposed stumps, tree roots, or large rocks are often found during both certified and maintenance inspections.
Supervision is a Must
30. Lack of supervision and the inability to properly see children are responsible for nearly half of all playground injuries.
31. Children must be supervised while playing on playground equipment, which means that areas should be designed in a way that allows parents or caregivers to see children at all times. This line of sight should carry across different age appropriate areas to ensure that parents can properly monitor young children and older ones at the same time.
Playgrounds Need to Be Age Appropriate
32. Playgrounds should be age appropriate by providing equipment that is designed for specific age ranges.
33. Preschool playgrounds and equipment should be separated from those made for children ages 5 - 12.
34. Playgrounds for younger children (ages 2 - 5) should not include free standing climbing areas, seesaws, rope ladders, or sliding rides or poles.
35. All equipment that is 20 inches or more in height should have guardrails to ensure that children cannot fall or be knocked off the platform.
36. Playground inspectors understand the dangers of inappropriate equipment for younger children, and will ensure that any problems are addressed before the park is ever opened to the public.
Playground Equipment Requires Strict Maintenance
37. Proper maintenance is key to providing safe play areas for children.
38. Inspections ensure that any maintenance issues are caught, and addressed before any children are injured.
39. Playground inspections also take note of any equipment that is damaged, or no longer stable. If any play equipment is determined to be unsafe, it will need to be removed from the playground, or repairs made to address the issue. Anyone running a playground or park that ignores damaged or faulty equipment is liable if anyone is injured while using them.
40. Maintaining playgrounds also requires making sure that surface materials are still at the recommended depth for maximum safety. Just a few inches’ difference in the depth of approved surface materials can make a drastic difference in the severity of injuries that may result.
41. Playground equipment can weaken over time, resulting in areas that bend or deteriorate. These areas can cause pinching and cuts or lacerations if not remedied in a timely manner. Additionally, maintenance inspections should be able to catch these types of breakdowns before they ever become a significant danger to children.
42. Wooden equipment can break down due to exposure to the weather, which can cause splintering or cracking in the wood. A child can easily get large splinters, become snagged on loose pieces of wood, or even fall through the damaged wood.
43. Guardrails can become loose due to children tugging and pushing on them. This can result in broken or separated bolts that can occur without warning.
Playground Inspections Catch Potential Hazards
44. Over time, playground equipment joints can loosen, or other areas can weaken. This leaves gaps that can crush or cut fingers and hands.
45. Playground equipment with moving parts, such as swings, merry-go-rounds, and seesaws should have guards in place to prevent children from getting their fingers or hands crushed or caught in them.
Some Equipment Should Not Be Used on Public Playgrounds
46. The CPSC has found that some types of equipment should not be available for public access playgrounds due to their increased risk of injury during play.
47. Overly large swings and rope swings are not recommended at all, as there has been at least one report of the overly large swing causing death due to its size.
48. Gliders and other types of multiple occupancy equipment result in more injuries, and allow for improper use. These include swinging gliders, and teeter-totter type equipment that are positioned too closely to each other.
49. Rings and trapeze bars should only be used on playgrounds if they have chains that are shorter than 7 inches. If this type of play equipment is used, it should only be added to playgrounds that are designed for older children. This type of equipment is always noted and measured during a certified inspection to ensure that children are safe when using them.
50. Playground inspectors can catch these hazards before they result in injury.
If you have decided to create a playground, or you already have one that you have built, you are already taking steps to provide a safe playing environment for children. However, your duty does not stop there. It is your job to make sure that all play equipment and areas are designed to meet all safety standards. Additionally, you must also maintain the play areas that you have created to ensure that children are safe, no matter when they choose to play on your playground. If any potential threats are reported to you by inspectors or concerned parents, you need to take the time to properly address them. Failure to do so can become very costly later on, and repeated offenses could result in the entire play area being torn down.
Playgrounds are created as a way of allowing children to have the space and equipment necessary for proper exercise and playtime. All certified inspections should occur prior to a facility being opened and annually, and maintenance inspections should be carried out monthly or bi-monthly at the minimum to ensure that all safety measures are addressed.
The increase in busy streets, smaller yard areas, and crime rates has left many children with very few safe areas to play in. Parents and caregivers now rely on the availability of public playgrounds to provide children with the safe, healthy playtime they need. Ensuring that playgrounds receive thorough certified inspections prior to opening for the public ensures that all equipment and play areas meet the requirements for safety. Additionally, frequent maintenance inspections ensure that these play areas remain safe for children of all ages.
If you are interested in becoming a Certified Playground Inspector, the National Recreation and Park Association provides training and certification courses. These courses provide detailed education on the numerous hazards that can cause injuries or result in death on our public playgrounds, and ensure that inspectors are held to the highest standards upon completion so that they can adequately protect any children that visit the playgrounds they inspect.
- Child Action Playground Safety Handout #45 - pdf
- CPSC Public Playground Safety Handbook - pdf
- NRPA Dirty Dozen 12 Playground Hazards - pdf
Find more about the author: Kristen Breedlove