My scariest playground experience happened in slow motion. As I watched my then-3-year-old preschool son from a distance, he wandered behind a bigger girl on a swing at Newcastle Beach Park. The collision was horrible to witness. Thankfully, his tears and my fear were the worst of it, as he escaped unhurt.

While our accident was unrelated to the safety of the equipment at the spectacular park, it illustrates an important point: Experts say that adult supervision is the best way to prevent playground injuries.

Each year, more than 200,000 children go to U.S. hospital emergency rooms with injuries related to playground equipment, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. In a study of public playgrounds cited by the National Center for Injury and Prevention Control, climbing equipment is the most common source of injury.

Gordon Naylor, M.D., a pediatrician at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Federal Way, says that while he sees fewer playground-related injuries than 20 years ago, not all playgrounds are created equal. Parents need to be aware that some park playgrounds may be outdated; meaning either the structure or the surfacing beneath the playground equipment may not meet current standards.

When building a new playground, many cities -- including Seattle -- follow Consumer Product Safety Commission guidelines that include appropriate distances between ladder rungs and surfacing materials. Cities also must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which does not permit sand under playground structures. Sand offers acceptable cushioning properties in a fall, but it is difficult for children or parents in wheelchairs or using other mobility assistance equipment to move through.

Pamela Alspaugh, senior landscape architect for the City of Seattle, acknowledges that not every city playground meets current standards, since those standards are frequently updated. She advises parents of preschoolers to consider the following factors when visiting a playground:

Elevated surfaces: How high is too high? There is no government standard for playground height, according to Alspaugh. Rather, the CPSC makes recommendations on how deep the playground surfacing should be underneath a platform of a given height. Parents should make sure there are guardrails along playground platforms and ramps. If there are not, or if there is a wide gap for a vertical sliding pole, it might be a good idea to be on the platform with the child. Also, keep an eye out for other children who might push a smaller child off of a platform.

The most shock-absorbing playground surfaces under a play structure are engineered wood fiber or "wood chips," or pea gravel (the CPSC recommends at least a 12-inch depth of these materials) or alternatively, safety-tested rubber material, such as that around the sandbox at Seattle's Green Lake playground area. Cement, asphalt, dirt and even grass are not acceptable underneath playground structures. Finally, the good surfacing material needs to extend at least 6 feet in all directions from the play equipment.

Swings: The safest playground swing is one made of a flexible material. Children should be taught to sit, not stand; to hold onto the chains with both hands; to give a wide berth around the front or back of someone else swinging; and to not jump off before the swing has stopped.

Equipment hardware: The spacing between playground ladder rungs or bars must be smaller than 31/2 inches or larger than 9 inches. Anything in between could result in a child's head becoming trapped. Check for sharp edges, particularly on metal features like slides. And make sure there are no open "S" hooks or protruding bolt ends that could either cut a child or catch on his or her clothing.

Play area: When choosing a playground, a parent or caregiver should consider the entire surrounding area. Are there adequate barriers to keep young children from darting into a street, parking lot or even a body of water such as a lake or wading pool?

Hilary Benson
lives in the Seattle area. Her work has appeared in ParentMap and Metropolitan Living magazine. She has also reported for KING-5 TV.

Playground safety resources


Originally published in the July, 2006 print edition of ParentMap.

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