A new study by the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) rates the safety of playgrounds in 27 states according to criteria such as supervision, age-appropriate design, fall surfacing, and equipment maintenance. Overall, the study gave America’s playgrounds a grade of C-minus, suggesting much room for improvement.

According to the study—the largest ever of its kind—Delaware topped all states with a grade of B. The study found that none of Delaware’s playgrounds predated 1980. Florida received the worst marks, with a grade of D; 24 percent of Florida’s playgrounds were built before 1980, and the state needs to work on supervision of all playground areas, the report said.

Overall, the U.S. received a failing grade in the following areas: posting of playground rules; having separate play areas for children ages 2-5 and 5-12; posting of signs for age-appropriateness of equipment; providing an appropriate depth of loose fill to guard against falls; and being free of broken parts, rust, or splinters.

The group’s criteria for playground safety include:

Supervision

• Adults present: Children should always be supervised when playing on equipment, whether in school, at child care or preschools, or visiting the park play areas.

• Easily viewed

• Crawl spaces: There should be no openings between 3 1/2 to 9 inches on any equipment. Such a space could trap a child’s head. Even if a child enters a space feet first, the head should be able to clear the opening. Watch openings between platforms, spaces on climbers where the distance between rungs might be less than 9 inches, and openings on the top of a slide. Those intervals must be filled in or eliminated.

• Rules posted

Design

• Has separate age-appropriate areas: Because children are developmentally different, school-age equipment does not fit preschool children (ages 2-5) and preschool equipment is too small for school children (ages 5-12). The areas for the age groups described should be separated and provided with appropriately designed equipment.

• Provides signage for appropriate age group

• Provides change of directions to get on or off structure

• Has guardrails: Guardrails or other protective barriers should be on all platforms. The choice of protection depends on the age level of the children who will use the equipment and the height of the platform. For platforms for preschoolers, guardrails and protective barriers should be at least 29 inches high; for school-aged children, guardrails and protective barriers should be at least 38 inches high.

• Prevents climbing outside the structure

• Prevents climbing on supporting structure

Fall surfacing

• Provides approrpiate surfacing: Improper surfacing is the leading cause of playground injuries, accounting for more than 70 percent of incidents involving children falling on playgrounds. Hard surfaces such as asphalt, blacktop, concrete, grass, packed dirt, or rocks are not acceptable. Alternatives include hardwood fiber/mulch, pea gravel, and sand. Other options include rubber tiles, mats, or poured surfaces.

• Six-foot use zone has appropriate surfacing: The total “fall zone” space is dependent on the type of equipment at the playground, but in general, the surface should extend a minimum of 6 feet in all directions from the edge of stationary playground equipment. For slides higher than 4 feet, adults should take the entrance height of the slide and add 4 feet to determine the distance that the surfacing should extend from the end of the slide. The fall zone at the exit of the slide should extend a minimum of 6 feet from the end of the slide for slides 4 feet or less in height. Swings should have a fall zone that is two times the height of the pivot or swing hanger in front and in the back of the swing seats. For example, if the hanger pivot height is ten feet, the fall zone must be 20 feet in front of and 20 feet in back of the swing seat. The fall zone should extend 6 feet to the side of the support structure.

• Provides appropriate depth of loose fill: Surfaces should be maintained to a depth proportionate to the height of the equipment, but a 12-inch depth is a good guideline for equipment up to 8 feet in height. A manufacturer should provide test results to indicate appropriate depth of their material proportionate to the height of the equipment.

• Concrete footings covered

• Free of foreign objects

Equipment maintenance

• Free of broken parts, missing parts, protruding bolts, noticable gaps, head entrapments, rust, splinters, cracks, or holes

Hazards such as protruding bolts and nuts should be eliminated. These items can catch children’s clothing, potentially causing strangulation, punctures or other serious injury. Reduce bolts to extend no more than two threads beyond the face of the nut. Open S-hooks should be closed metal to metal. Climbing ropes should be anchored on both ends.

Periodical checks should be made of all playgrounds. All equipment should be stable in the ground. All parts should be securely fastened and no footings should be exposed. There should be no worn-out parts or missing parts such as rungs or railings. Materials such as metal, plastic, and wood need care to see that they are smooth and have not deteriorated. Surfaces need to be maintained to proper depths and be free from sharp objects.

NPPS was established in 1995 by the University of Northern Iowa through a grant from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to address the growing concern for playground safety. According to the organization’s statistics, more than 200,000 children—or two children every five minutes—are injured on playgrounds each year.

Copies of the NPPS report cards for each state, as well as the U.S. as a whole, are available in PDF format at http://www.uni.edu/playground/report.html.

Links:

National Program for Playground Safety, University of Northern Iowa School for Health, Physical Education, and Leisure Services, Cedar Falls, IA 50614-0618; phone (800) 554-PLAY, fax (319) 273-2416, eMail playground-safety@uni.edu, web http://www.uni.edu/playground/.