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The Hidden Dangers of Playground Structures

Learn to spot playground safety red flags

Erin Newmark was gone less than 10 minutes when she got a call from her sons’ sitters. Her three boys had been playing on the backyard playset when 5-year-old Owen lost his grip while swinging on the monkey bars and fell to the hard ground below, landing on his arm. X-rays in the emergency room revealed that Owen broke his arm in two places.  

Owen is part of a growing statistic. According to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 200,000 children are treated in emergency rooms each year for playground-related injuries: broken bones, fractures, contusions, even concussions. The study showed monkey bars, climbing equipment and swings are the biggest culprits.

That doesn’t surprise Sharon Evans, the trauma injury preven- tion coordinator with Cook Children’s Health Care System in Fort Worth. Of the average 150–200 playground-related injuries Cook Children’s sees each year, about 65 percent are connected to monkey bars or playground gyms.

But most medical professionals and even the study’s authors aren’t advocating that kids stay away from play structures. Instead, they recommend taking steps to minimize risks of injury.

WHAT’S ON THE SURFACE COUNTS

In Texas, any playground equipment installed using public funds must comply with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) guidelines. As a result, most public playgrounds now have safer surfacing — one of the most important factors in reducing injuries.

“You want a shock-absorbing surface that will take an impact if kids fall,” says Marissa Rodriguez, the injury prevention coordinator at Children’s Health in Dallas. The CPSC recommends loose fill such as wood chips, shredded rubber or pea gravel, which should go about a foot deep, or rubber mats and tiles.

“The problem is, where the kids play — around the slides and monkey bars — the surfacing gets scraped away,” Evans says. After speaking with local schools, Evans learned that maintenance only comes out around one to two times per year to inspect the grounds and re-spread the fill material. The same is often true for public playgrounds. Safety experts advise checking areas where kids are most likely to fall and ensuring the fill is the appropriate depth.

Studies show that a lack of adult supervision plays a role in 40 percent of playground-related injuries.

Parents should make sure their kids are not using equipment inappropriately, such as climbing on top of monkey bars or on the outside of tube slides, Rodriguez says.

Blind spots are another hazard.

“You should be able to see everything,” says Dr. Sandra McClintic, a certified outdoor play inspector in Argyle. “If there are places on the playground where you cannot see your child, then you need to be up and moving around to make sure you know where your child is [at all times].”

ONE SET DOES NOT FIT ALL AGES

While play is essential to the social and intellectual development of all kids, a toddler and a school-age child don’t share the same gross motor skills. The National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) rec- ommends that play sets have separate areas for children ages 2–5 and ages 5–12. Areas for the youngest tots should have crawl spaces, low platforms and smaller steps. Ramps need places to grasp and slides should be no taller than 4 feet.

Areas appropriate for children ages 5–12 can include more challenging equipment, such as monkey bars and taller slides.

Active supervision is crucial for guiding kids to use age-appropriate equipment, Rodriguez says. “Kids cannot perceive the dangers as well as an adult can because their brains are not developed enough to know what’s dangerous for them.”