It’s a Jungle Gym Out There

We explore why playgrounds are an essential part of growing up, while highlighting 10 signs that a playground isn’t safe

Falls to the ground cause 70 percent of playground injuries, according to the National Safety Council. Changing the playground surface helps greatly, but there also must be a change in attitude about playground design, says National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) director Donna Thompson, PhD.

“We want to reduce the risk and increase the challenge of our playgrounds,” Thompson says. “Challenging equipment encourages kids to use and develop their skills.” Unfortunately, “challenge” often is created by building equipment higher off the ground. “It isn’t the height that challenges children, but height does put them at increased risk [for injury],” says Thompson.

Instead of simply raising equipment, designers are beginning to creatively manipulate it: increasing the length of a horizontal ladder or angling a 12-inch-high balance beam. In general, the NPPS recommends that equipment be no taller than 6 feet for preschoolers and 8 feet for school-age children.

Designs for All Children

Parents need to select playgrounds that fit their child’s development. Some areas are designed for preschoolers (ages 2 to 5) and others are for older kids. Many playgrounds post signs describing age guidelines and proper use. And parents should adhere to the rules, Thompson says.

Until the 1990s, one group of children found its playground needs overlooked. Children with disabilities were sidelined at play areas that were inaccessible to wheelchairs or by equipment that couldn’t accommodate their varied physical abilities. But it doesn’t have to be that way, says playground expert Jean Schappet.

“I was the owner of a play equipment manufacturing company founded in the late 1970s,” Schappet says. ‘We discovered that if you designed playground equipment for various abilities, it was advantageous for all children.”

Today, Schappet is creative director of Boundless Playgrounds, a nonprofit that collaborates with communities and play equipment producers to support the developmental need of all children to play. Rubberized mats and raised sand tables for digging are two changes that allow wheelchair-bound children to participate.

“Children need to play,” Schappet says. “They’re not just blowing off steam. They are literally…formulating how the world works. Play is learning.”

Danger Zone: 10 Signs That a Playground Isn’t Safe

  1. Dirt, grass or cement surrounds playground equipment. Safe surfaces include wood chips, sand, pea gravel or rubberized mats. Loose fill material should be 12 inches deep.
  2. The area is crowded with equipment. Most stationary equipment needs a six-foot “safe zone” in all directions.
  3. Guardrails and ladder rungs are improperly spaced. Openings should be smaller than 3.5 inches or larger than 9 inches to prevent trapping children.
  4. Guardrails are missing. Guardrails should surround all elevated platforms and be at least 29 inches high for preschool-age children and 38 inches for school-age children.
  5. Concrete footings are exposed. Children can easily trip on footings, tree roots and rocks.
  6. Equipment has sharp edges and dangerous hardware. For example, “S” hooks should be completely closed and bolts should not protrude.
  7. Preschoolers play on elementary school equipment. Stay within age-appropriate play areas.
  8. Equipment is rundown. Contact the school principal or park director to report a maintenance problem.
  9. Children wear hooded sweatshirts or clothes with drawstrings. These items can get caught on equipment.
  10. Adults aren’t watching. Always supervise children on a playground and keep moving to maintain visual contact with them.

Source: National Safety Council,

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