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Playgrounds are a magnet for children. They give kids a chance to interact with others their age, to explore, and to test the laws of gravity. Unfortunately, many playgrounds are still not as safe as they should be. CBS This Morning Health and Medical Correspondent Dr. Emily Senay reports on how to protect your children from playground perils.

Each year, more than 200,000 children under the age of 14 require emergency care for injuries associated with playground equipment. Ranging from bad cuts and bruises to broken bones and concussions, those injuries have led to a tremendous number of lawsuits over the years.

The high incidence of playground injury has prompted organizations like the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Consumer Federation of America, and the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons either to make recommendations for safer playgrounds or to develop campaigns to educate the public about playground perils.

Just about anyone over the age of 25 will remember playing on steel monkey bars, zipping down huge metal sliding boards, or jumping out of metal springs enclosed in wired fences. Never mind that some of these surfaces were extremely hot on scorching summer days. Or that when we jumped from the swings we nearly jumped into the fence. Who knew that our sliding boards should have a protective surface at the end to cushion our fall? Well, the hidden dangers of the playground have caught up to many cities, thanks to parents and advocacy groups who have sued over playground injuries.

To stem the rising tide of injuries, the Consumer Product Safety Commission developed and issued its "Handbook for Public Playground Safety." However, it has taken nearly 15 years for these guidelines to have an impact on the world of play.

Since the handbook is only a list of recommendations, some municipalities took their time making the necessary modifications. As the number of lawsuits has risen, so has compliance with the safety guidelines.

But according to Dr. Seymour Gold, a playground safety expert from the University of California at Davis, there are still many parks in this country that are not up to current standards -- especially in inner city neighborhoods.

According to information compiled by the National Program for Playground Safety (800-554-PLAY), between 9 and 17 children die each year in playground equipment-related accidents. Strangulation accounts for 47 percent of these deaths; falls cause 31 percent of the fatalitis.

Public facilities account for nearly 70 percent of all playground equipment injuries, slightly fewer than 150,000 injuries each year.

Most injuries are associated with swings, climbers, and slides, in descending order of danger. Severe injuries such as fracture, internal injury, concussion, dislocation, amputation, or crushing, are involved in approximately 35 percent of all injuries.

Other common playground hazards include impact by swings and other moving equipment, colliding with stationary equipment, and contact with protrusions, pinch points, sharp edges, and hot surfaces.

It is impossible to prevent every playground injury. But proper equipment and supervised play may stop some of the more serious accidents from occurring. Here's what to look for:

Protective surfaces:

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, almost 60 percent of all injuries are caused by falls to the ground. Therefore, protective surfacing under and around all playground equipment is the most critical safety factor on playgrounds. No longer are asphalt and grass acceptable ground surfaces. These days, playgrounds must be equipped with protective shock absorbing ground cover to soften the impact of almost any fall.

Acceptable ground covers include the "mat wedge," wood chips, wood mulch, shredded rubber tires, fine sand, or medium gravel. These surfaces constitute what is called the "fall zone." This area should extend no less than six feet around the perimeter of each play structure. So, for example, if there is a sliding board that stands alone, there should be six feet of fall zone -- made of one of the appropriate ground surfaces -- on all four sides of the slide.

Equipment design:

First and foremost, a safe playground should not have equipment that is weathered. There should be no hint of corrosion or peeling paint. If there are metal structures, all of them should be painted and galvanized or otherwise treated to prevent rust.

There should be no sharp points, corners, or edges on any components of playground equipment that could cut or puncture a child's skin. Equipment these days is modular in some instances, and all edges are rounded and smooth. Caps or plugs that cannot be easily removed should cover the exposed ends of all tubing not resting on the ground or otherwise covered.

Anything that could pinch or crush a child's hand, skin, or clothing should not be part of the playground. Shearing points can catch clothing and cause a strangulation hazard. For this reason, it is recommended that no child be allowed to play in jackets and sweaters with hoods or drawstring ties.

Head entrapment is a big concern, especially for younger children whose curiosity can get the best of them. Generally, any opening presents an entrapment hazard if the distance between the inside space is greater than 3.5 inches and less than nine inches. With horizontal ladders, spacing should be great enough or small enough not o cause an entrapment hazard. Rungs should be no more than 12 inches apart for preschool-age children, and no more than 15 inches apart for school-age children. Check the spacing of all open play structures, including backyard play equipment. All of these precautions should be considered before you install a play space for your kids.

Swings:

You will not find swings in many parks these days because of the obvious impact injuries that can occur. If swings are present on the playground, they should meet the following recommended guidelines:

  1. A swing should be free of entanglement hazards. Many swings will have hooked chains that could catch a child's clothing if not properly closed. One test to make sure the chain is not likely to hook or pinch your child is to see if you can fit a dime into the gap. If you can slip the dime in, the links are a hazard.
  2. Seats must be designed to accommodate only one user at a time. Swings should move on a single axis with a minimum of two feet between each swing. Wood and metal seats are not recommended; lightweight rubber plastic seats are preferred. Seats should have smoothly finished, rounded edges.
  3. Tot swings should be single axis rubber full-bucket seats to provide support on all sides of the child.

Age-appropriate equipment height:

You may have noticed that monkey bars aren't around anymore. That's because the structures were dangerously high off the ground. In many cases, little ones were getting seriously hurt on this equipment. Keep in mind: kids under age six lack both the motor and cognitive skills to break a fall with their arms, so they are more likely to suffer head injuries ranging from cuts and bruises to skull fractures and concussions.

Safe playgrounds will contain equipment clearly designed with specific age groups in mind. The rule of thumb these days for toddlers is that all raised platforms and walkways more than 20 inches above the ground should have guardrails and protective barriers. For school-age kids, rails, and barriers are needed if structures are 30 inches above the ground.

There are also structures that younger children should not be allowed to enter on their own. For example, the overhead horizontal ladder and the overhead hanging rings. Generally, children under the age of four are not strong enough to support their weight and navigate through this structure. Kids younger than that age should not be allowed to hang out there.

Above all, parents should pay attention at the playground. They should inspect the play area for broken glass, debris, or worn play structures. If the playground near you is not up to par, contact your local parks and recreation office and register your complaint.

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