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When The Playground Gets Complicated

May 19, 2016

playground with judge gavel on it


At the playground, it’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt. Over 200,000 playground-related injuries are treated in emergency rooms every year. Fifteen child fatalities occur annually due to faulty playground equipment. The most common causes of these injuries are falls, accounting for almost 80%. These figures are too big to be ignored, and their consequences too alarming to shrug off.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued guidelines for playground safety, which several states have used as a springboard for their own legislations. These regulations are in place not only to shield our children from harm, but also to protect against the legal ramifications of being in unsafe play spaces.

Obsolete equipment, out!

Arguably one of the biggest fines issued by the CPSC over unsafe playground equipment belongs to McDonald’s. From the 1970s to the 80s, the fast-food chain had Big Mac jungle gyms as kiddie features in their restaurants. These jungle gyms were deemed both unsafe and obsolete by the commission after more than 400 children suffered from broken bones, skull fractures, concussions, and other injuries while playing on them.

The hamburger conglomerate paid around $4 million in fines, was required to report injuries as they occur, and pledged another $5 million towards a safety campaign. McDonald’s also conformed to the CPSC’s requirements of surfacing materials with better shock absorbency, as well as safer measurements for their play areas.  

Monkey see, monkey do

Monkey bars have become a staple in so many playgrounds all over the world that even athletic adults use them for their own training. Climbing equipments (like those at McDonald’s pre-CPSC investigations) make up 40% of playground-related injuries that safety experts highly recommend their removal from play spaces altogether. Aside from adult supervision, play equipment with platforms must have guard rails, and the tops of slides should have a bar that enables kids to sit before sliding down.

Sculptural appeal or safety?

There is a current trend on sculptural equipment which kids and adults alike find irresistible. Sadly, they are usually little more than attractive nuisances. Hard-edged geometrical installations, those with smooth no-friction surfaces or are surrounded by water, and other structures that are not meant for climbing definitely do not qualify as play equipment. No matter how tempting these sculptures are for climbing, unless they meet playground standards by the CPSC and other federal safety boards, they have no place in a play area. Remember that the manufacturing of faulty playground equipment or those that do not meet safety standards can have a maximum fine of $10,000 in states like Michigan.

Traditional materials vs tried-and-tested alternatives

Sand, wood chips, grass, or packed earth are all time-honored playground infill. For a long time, it was believed that loose-fill materials are effective at absorbing shock and cushioning falls, as long as 12 inches of them cover the playground floor of 8-foot high equipment.

Unfortunately, sand, packed earth, soil, grass, and wood chips can become weather-beaten and lose their capacity to cushion a fall in a very short period of time. They can also harbor broken glass, sharp stones, and other debris which can harm. Consider rubber rubber mulch,it is the most  commonly used surface since it provides the most shock absorption, and will never degrade or break down. Many playgrounds (like the White House’s) and day care centers swear by rubber mulch because of its superior shock absorbency and easy maintenance.

While the CPSC regulations are targeted at child care facilities and public outdoor play areas, it is a good idea to use it even for your own playground project at home. After all, state-sanctioned safety guidelines can protect you and your kids from injury, expenses, potential lawsuits, and other consequences that can take the fun out of playtime.