What every parent should know about playground safety
The smack of a well-hit baseball. The gentle sound of a lawn sprinkler. Children laughing on a playground. Ah, the sweet sounds of summer!
Unfortunately, the laughter can quickly turn to tears because all to often, playsets are chock-full of safety hazards. According to the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA), more than 200,000 children are injured each year because the playgrounds they play on don’t meet current safety standards.
All across Middle Tennessee, children play on bright, colorful new playground equipment at public playgrounds, parks and in their own backyards. The slides, swings and other gear are a far cry from playgrounds of the past, but even with the advanced plastics and handcrafted, treated woods, the question remains: Is this equipment safe for your child? Statistics say it may not be, but how can you tell?
One local playground equipment specialty store in Cool Springs has developed a “Play It Safe!” checklist as a guide for parents. The checklist includes eight basic questions for parents to ask about their existing equipment or a playground set they are interested in purchasing.
Although the federal government has stringent guidelines regarding safety for commercial playground equipment, there are no national regulations for residential playground sets, so parents really need to advocate for their families. The “Play It Safe!” checklist includes the following questions parents should ask:
1. Are there overlapping play zones?
Swings, slides and other gear on a playground set should have their own unique play area or zone. This space should be an adequate distance apart from other equipment to make certain children do not fall or bump into each other when they are playing.
Children who swing, slide or use any feature on a playground should not be in danger of hitting or injuring another child playing in a nearby play zone. Swings should not be under monkey bars and slides should not be next to swings, ladders or other areas where children play.
According to the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA), for swings, the safe use zone is twice the height of the swing hanger in front of and behind the swing and six feet on either side of the swing support. The safe use zone for slides depends on the height of the slide. In general, the safe use zone equals the height of the slide plus an additional four feet. Bars and similar equipment should have six feet of clear space in every direction.
2. Where can fingers, hands and heads go?
Parents should check to make sure that there are no places where fingers and heads can get caught, trapped or twisted. For example, the slats for railings around decks should be positioned far enough apart to avoid catching fingers and close enough together so that a head cannot fit through. While playground nets have gained popularity, they can be a danger for head and finger entrapment, also. In addition, plastic grips are suggested instead of traditional chains on swings to give children a better grip and to help eliminate the chance that kids will get their fingers caught in twisted chain. Beware of moving parts that could pinch little fingers.
3. Are there protruding screws, bolts or other hardware?
There should be no screws or bolts sticking out from the playground set that could cut or injure a child. Look for smooth surfaces with recessed bolts on well-made equipment. Bolt caps, though they look nice, can fall or be pried off, posing a choking hazard for children and exposing a harsh, steel edge.
4. Is the ground around the playground level, smooth and soft?
The IPEMA states that falling is the number one cause of injuries on the playground. Because a child who falls on an inflexible surface (such as concrete or hard ground) can be seriously injured, look for soft material underneath and around playground equipment like wood chips or mulch that will help cushion falls. Parents should also work to eliminate areas that may cause a child to trip, such as tree roots, stumps or large stones. The best type of area for a playground is level and smooth.
5. Is the equipment anchored safely and with no sails?
Playground sets should be properly anchored to the ground for stability. Some manufacturers suggest using bolts or other hardware to help anchor equipment into the ground. Some “single tarp” roofs above a play deck can create a “sail effect” causing a playground set to lift up. A “triple-tier” design, which allows wind to pass through more easily, is recommended.
6. Can you see your kids when they play?
Parents may want to avoid “fort-style” decks that are totally enclosed since this design reduces the parents’ ability to see their children at play.
7. Is it right for the child?
The playground set should be designed with age-appropriate activities. Most reputable playground makers have accessories that let parents modify the set fairly affordably as children grow. Parents may want to consider separate areas for pre-school and school-age children so that each is able to play without interference from another group. This is key when considering how energetically bigger kids play, even around those much smaller than themselves.
8. Is the playground equipment third party tested?
While residential playground equipment is not governed by federal regulations, parents should check to make sure that the manufacturer adheres to the guidelines suggested by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) or the IPEMA.
While nothing can prevent all accidents, it’s worth taking extra precaution to help keep children safe. Playground equipment represents a major investment for every family. The cost can range from $500 to $7,500, so make sure that you get the safest equipment possible.
Daniel Strobel is a freelance writer.