Are new playground designs taking the fun out?
Connie Cass of the Associated Press recently raised an intriguing issue about modern playground equipment. In a story published in the Richmond Times Dispatch on July 20, Cass said that there is a widespread feeling among students of child play that “somewhere along the line, playground designs took a wrong turn.” (7)
Cass quotes Joe Frost, a University of Texas professor, who studies children’s play.
“What is lacking on most American playgrounds, are the materials, the spaces and the equipment for other forms of play: make believe, organized games, creative play with things like sand and water, nature areas and gardens, and building materials and people around who know how to involve children in those things,” (8) Frost said.
Cass observed that because of safety concerns, there are no more 12-foot tall metal slides, bulking jungle gyms, kid-powered merry-go-rounds, seesaws and the like.
No doubt, she says, playgrounds are now safer, but are the new versions “sterile designs that do not challenge today’s youngsters?” (9)
Still, even after all the safety advances of the past 20 years, 200,000 children annually are injured on playgrounds, she says.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission, responding to a petition several years ago, developed “guidelines” which have been adopted by manufacturers.
The most important change, Cass noted, was eliminating concrete or asphalt surfaces and replacing them with mulch, sand or rubber matting.
John Preston, a children’s product engineer now retired from CPSC, told Cass that “the sad fact, though, is that injuries really haven’t come down significantly. Whether that’s because there are many more playgrounds in use today and more children using them, I don’t know.” (10)
CPSC sets guidelines warning against sharp edges, moving parts that can pinch, and ropes that can pose an entanglement risk.
Cass speculates that all the new safety changes may have caused a trend that could have contributed to more injuries–that of younger and younger children playing on the equipment. Some of the newer designs that are meant for children 5 to 12 are very attractive to the under-5 group, she said. (Children under age 4 account for one-third of playground injuries, she added.)
Indeed, CPSC staff recently conducted an in-depth study of playground injuries to children under 2 years of age. The study, for the period October 2000 to September 2001, showed that an estimated 8,250 children under 2 were treated in emergency rooms for playground injuries. The vast majority of the children were from 12 to 23 months of age–barely toddlers.
Falls accounted for most of the injuries, with impact injury coming in second. The third most common injury was from children going down a slide, and getting a leg or foot twisted. Slides were involved in about half the playground equipment injuries. The type of injuries included lacerations, contusions and abrasions, and 30 percent were fractures, sprains and strains.
One wonders where adult caregivers were when 1 and 2 year olds were sliding down playground slides and falling off of playground equipment.
Some are pushing CPSC to amend the guidelines to put an eight-foot limit on playground equipment to avoid injuries from falls. But John Preston, who said he struggled with the issue, wondered that if the equipment is too low, kids might forego the playground and “go climb a tree and fall out of the tree.” (11)
(7) “Child’s Play is now safer; but has fun fallen out of it?” Connie Cass, Associated Press, Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 20, 2003.
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