Are We Safe Yet? A Twenty-Five Year Look at Playground Safety

Article excerpt

Playgrounds have always been an integral part of the recreation movement. In fact, the origin of the public recreation movement has been traced to the creation of a "sand box" at the Boston Parameter Church in the late 1800s. Today, thousands of playgrounds are found throughout the United States. For purposes of this article, playgrounds are defined as designated areas where stationary and manipulative equipment are located to facilitate a child's physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development.

However, the development of playgrounds has not been without problems. In the early 1970s, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission first alerted the public to the growing problems of injuries related to children playing on our nation's playgrounds (U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 1975). As reported by Bowers, in 1974, approximately 118,000 persons in the United States received hospital emergency room treatment for injuries related to playground equipment (1979). More than three fourths of the reported injuries involved children under 10 years of age. Today, that number has dramatically risen to more than 200,000 a year (Mack, Hudson, & Thompson, 1997). This article will look at the issues and problems surrounding playground safety in America and the role that Leisure Today and members of the American Association for Leisure and Recreation (AALR) have played in striving to make playgrounds safe for America's children.

Playground Safety Issues

Two members of the AALR Committee on Play have identified four major elements that interact to create safe playground environments. The four elements--age appropriate design, surfacing, supervision, and maintenance--are shown in figure 1 (Thompson & Hudson, 1996).


Age Appropriate Design. In 1979, Bowers wrote, "Could it be that the design of traditional play equipment is inappropriate for the natural play of children? What are the alternatives? Should we redesign the play, ground or the child?" (p.43). He went on to state that since we should not change the natural play of children, we should redesign the playground. Among the ideas that Bowers postulated were (1) designing playgrounds that accommodated children of differing ages, physical sizes, and abilities and (2) providing safe distances between one level to the next on equipment. Beckwith (1985) also stated the challenges of design as being "the development of design criteria of extraordinary subtlety and complexity. The environmental designer is challenged to provide appropriate play spaces for users ranging from infants to adults and having physical abilities from near immobility to above average athletic skill" (p. 68).

While the authors of Leisure Today were alerting the profession to the needs of age appropriate design, another group within AALR was formed to raise concern about playground safety. The Committee on Play, formed in 1983, is a loosely knit consortia whose members are dedicated to children and their rights to play. Among their goals have been (1) evaluating playgrounds and suggesting improvements, (2) determining design criteria for playgrounds, (g) determining function and purpose of play equipment, and (4) determining the use of durable, economical, and safe materials. In 1985, 1986, and 1988-89, the committee conducted three different surveys about the state of the nation's playgrounds. In all three surveys (schools, community parks, and preschool) it was found that a "one size fits all" mentality has been present in playground design. As one of the early members of the Committee on Play has written, "playgrounds still tend to be hazardous and inappropriate for the developmental needs of children" (Worthman, 1996, p. 9).

In order to produce age appropriate playgrounds, health, physical education and recreation professionals need to heed the information that has been produced in Leisure Today and the four publications of the Committee on Play. …