Magazine article Parks & Recreation

What Is the Minimum Standard of Care That the Playground Owner Must Provide?

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

What Is the Minimum Standard of Care That the Playground Owner Must Provide?

Article excerpt

Playgrounds are a fundamental part of any child's physical, intellectual, social, and emotional development. The public playground environment is a broad term that may be defined as an improved area designed, equipped, located, and set aside for children's play. It includes play equipment, protective surfacing, fencing, signs, internal routes, internal landforms, vegetation, and related structures. Unfortunately, more than 230,000 children are treated in U.S. emergency rooms each year from injuries associated with the playground environment, according to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. Therefore, playgrounds must be made a safe haven for America's children.

The preponderance of public playground accidents is caused by poor equipment layout, improper equipment, inappropriate protective surfacing, poor installation, and poor maintenance. There exist many theories as to why there are so many injuries: from the very young user who walks in front of a moving swing to an aggressive older child who slides down a slide upside down and backwards, to the playground owner who lacks the knowledge to prevent unreasonable risk of harm to the curious and probing child.

The courts have ruled that the type of visitor or status of the user determines these legal duties. The courts have divided visitors into three fixed classes: invitee, licensee, and trespasser. When a playground owner (city or school agency) invites the public into a playground environment the child (visitor) accepting the invitation is considered an invitee. That invitation is established when an agency sets aside a public area with playground equipment and refers to the area as a playground. The law requires the playground owner to provide the highest duty of care to a child (invitee) and must exercise due care to prevent unreasonable risk of harm to the child from playground equipment and other playground site hazards. The law also recognizes that children do not have the cognitive ability to recognize hazards such as improper surfacing materials or head entrapment hazards. Specifically, the duties, required by the owner to the invited child, can be divided into four areas.


To provide an adequate and proper playground environment that will permit the child, based on their anthropometrics and limited cognitive ability, to develop and play safely.

Site Location of Playground Environment

The mere sight of a colorful playground can invite or attract a child. The owner has a duty to locate the playground in an area that permits safe travel to and from the playground by the user. A safe site would include a location isolated from vehicles of any kind, roads, streams, railroad tracks, cliffs and the like. The playground should also be isolated from charcoal grills and activity centers such as baseball fields. A fence/barrier surrounding the playground is also necessary to prevent vehicular intrusion as well as other participants' intrusions. Fences (ASTM F 20049) also serve to contain the user and to funnel children into and out of the playground through designated safe locations.

Age Appropriate Separation of Playground Areas

The playground must be designed to permit children to develop gradually and exercise their skills by providing a series of graduated challenges. The challenges must be appropriate for each age related ability and must be ones that the child can perceive and choose to undertake. Preschool (2-5) and school age (5-12) children differ dramatically in their physical size, physical ability, cognitive, and social skills. Thus the owner has a duty to establish separate and distinct age appropriate playground areas. To accommodate these differences, the owner must also select age appropriate equipment for these separate areas. The intended age appropriate group should be obvious from the design, scale, and layout of the playground environment.

Site Location of Equipment

The playground owner has a duty to locate playground equipment in separate areas to avoid overcrowding in any one area and to facilitate safe circulation routes within the playground environment. …

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