Do playground safety standards make a difference in reducing injuries and enhancing child development?
In an article published in the December 2005 issue of Today's Playground, the author of the present article reviewed complications in interpreting and applying state and national playground safety regulations, guidelines, and standards. These complications included inconsistencies between state and national standards, growing scope, and complexity of standards, restrictions on innovation and creativity, need for multi-disciplinary research, balancing the emphasis on chronological age with developmental appropriateness, the impact of standards on school recess and interpretation and misinterpretation of standards by consumers and courts. The present paper includes a historical overview of standards, responds to the prevailing issues of whether playground safety standards are effective in reducing injuries on playgrounds, and addresses the need for standards to be addressed to the documented nature and scope of children's injuries and to their broad developmental needs. Finally, possible directions for integrating playground equipment and natural habitats and gardens are offered as a means for enhancing outdoor learning and child development.
History of Playground Safety Guidelines and Standards
The American playground movement of the early 1900s was initiated and formalized by leaders in major American cities concerned with children playing in the streets, ostensibly being subjected to criminal influences and hazardous conditions. The Playground Association of America, later to become the National Recreation Association and, eventually, the National Recreation and Park Association, was a leader in this movement. Designers and manufacturers developed and marketed mammoth steel structures and before mid-century, playground equipment had been installed throughout America in community parks and schools.
*The terms, "standards" and "guidelines" may be used interchangeably in this paper. As early as 1917 playground leaders recognized the hazards of playgrounds in American cities (see Mero, E. B. 1908, Frost, 1992, Chap. 8). "The schoolyards of many of our cities are a disgrace to the systems to which they belong... The school trustees apparently finish the school building and forget all about the playground... I suppose that the surfacing must have been chosen by the janitor” (Curtis, 1917, pp. 121-123).
Well before mid-century, playground specialists recognized that playgrounds were extremely hazardous and generally unfit for children's play. In general, playgrounds consisted of extremely tall swings and slides, open base merry-go-rounds, giant strides, and jungle gyms, all installed over the hard-packed earth, rocks, and as maintenance became an issue, asphalt, concrete and packed aggregate. Over time, designers began to modify basic equipment, unwittingly introducing even greater hazards. For example, heavy animal seat swings that impacted children, sometimes resulting in fatalities; merry-go-rounds that bounced as they rotated, containing shearing mechanisms that lacerated arms and legs; tall, narrow slides over asphalt with little protection from falls, climbers with steel bars in the fall areas, etc.
Such concerns by playground leaders resulted in the first formal effort to develop standards for playground apparatus by the National Recreation Association (NRA) Committee on Standards in Playground Apparatus in 1931. Even during this early period leaders were aware of hazards that continue to be deliberated in 2006: excessive heights, hard surfacing, excessive crowding on equipment, moving parts that impact children and lack of maintenance and supervision (NRA, 1931).
The next attempt to develop national safety standards was undertaken by the Committee on Accident Prevention of the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1969. Their proposed voluntary standard dealt with proper assembly and installation, obstructions, exposed bolts, the durability of materials, testing procedures, swing seats and surface finishes. The legislation was not proposed and the effort was abandoned in 1971. In 1972, two separate actions, intended to result in mandatory standards, were initiated. First, the United States Food and Drug Administrators' (FDA) Bureau of Product Safety (BPS) published a report, “Public Playground Equipment” (BPS, 1972) revealing a dismal picture of playground hazards and injuries. At that time playground equipment was ranked eighth on the Consumer Product Safety list.
The FDA then requested that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) support a study of public playground equipment by W. H. McConnell (1973) and the University of Iowa's College of Medicine. This study utilized research by the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, the National Safety Council and the CPSC (Frost, 1992, p. 201). The final report influenced studies on anthropometric data by the University of Michigan and on playground surfaces by the Franklin Testing Institute. Similar to trends seen today, some schools, concerned by the reports, removed equipment from playgrounds rather than correct deficiencies and hazards (Frost, 1992, p. 201).
During the same period as the Iowa Study, the Playground Equipment Manufacturers' Association was working with the National Recreation and Park Association to develop a proposed mandatory playground safety standard to be circulated for review by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In 1974, Elayne Butwinick, a member of this group, submitted a petition including extensive accident/injury data to the CPSC requesting they begin proceedings to formalize a safety standard. Her petition was later endorsed by the Americans for Democratic Action and the Consumers Union. A second petition, by Theodore Sweeney, was submitted in support of the Butwinick petition. In 1974 the CPSC extended a call for proposals in the Federal Register to develop a standard for home and public playground equipment. A contract was granted to NRPA, the only bidder. A committee of citizens and industry representatives prepared a report, “Proposed Safety Standards for Playground Equipment” (NRPA 1976).
The controversy resulting from the proposed standard—manufacturers were concerned about retooling, designers about stifling creativity, CPSC about rationale and validity—resulted in the CPSC contracting with the National Bureau of Standards to conduct technical work for rewriting the proposed standard. The NBS submitted two reports in 1978 and one in 1979. The CPSC published the final reports in two handbooks in 1981, intended as playground safety guidelines rather than mandatory standards. These were incorporated into one handbook during the first revision and have been revised periodically. In 1993, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) published a standard for public playground equipment to provide greater technical detail and to complement the CPSC handbook. By the present time (2006), a growing number of states have passed mandatory playground safety regulations for public playgrounds, most based on CPSC guidelines All 50 states have had state safety regulations for child care center playgrounds for many years, only a few referring to CPSC.
The initial meeting of the organizational committee for developing the ASTM standard, held in 1988, was attended by 45 people including 23 representing playground equipment manufacturers and the others representing such groups as ASTM, CPSC, NRPA, toy manufacturers, universities, and consultants. The total membership in January 2006, was 142 voting members or 181 voting and non-voting members.
ASTM was initially formed of volunteers representing the manufacturing industry, consultants, and representatives of various professions such as architecture, engineering, education, and child development. These volunteers worked without compensation, some for many years, to develop a range of standards affecting playgrounds including both public and home playgrounds, playground surfacing, and standards for various age groups.
Do Playground Safety Standards Make a Difference?
Over time a number of issues were raised concerning consequences of the CPSC guidelines and the ASTM standards. This paper addresses outcomes and apparent misconceptions about the viability and effectiveness of playground safety guidelines and standards. Although controlled research is limited, several strands of evidence over a long time span conclude that establishing and enforcing safety guidelines and standards reduces child injuries and fatalities. These strands include anecdotal evidence, case studies, controlled studies and experience of long-term playground professionals.
CPSC data show that about 90 percent of serious injuries and about 70 percent of all injuries result from falling onto hard surfaces (Tinsworth and Kramer, 1990). Perhaps the most compelling anecdotal evidence that installing resilient surfacing under and around playground equipment reduces serious injuries and fatalities was seen in Los Angeles more than a half-century ago where 11 deaths were recorded on school playgrounds from falls onto hard surfaces between 1931 and 1952 (Butwinick, 1974). In a single school year of 180 school days "...one child in every 225 suffered a serious injury—a fractured skull, a shattered leg, a dislocated shoulder or a broken arm (Brashear, 1952).”
Following a series of committee meetings involving both parent and professional groups, the Los Angeles school system installed rubber surfacing under and around playground equipment. No additional fatalities were recorded and the incidence of fractures declined from 1.25 per school in 1951 to 0.47 in 1965 (Butwinick, 1974). This early account clearly demonstrated that resilient surfacing was effective in preventing playground injuries and fatalities from falls on playgrounds.
Case studies concluding that CPSC guidelines and ASTM standards were violated in the large majority of serious injuries leading to litigation are the second strand of evidence. A study of 82 playground injuries/fatalities resulting in lawsuits in 28 states were drawn from interrogatories, productions, depositions, interviews with children and parents, injury reports and on-site inspections (Frost, 1996). Ninety-three percent of the injuries were directly linked to conditions violating CPSC and ASTM. The most common violations in order of frequency, most to least, were hard surface material, sharing mechanisms, protrusions, and maintenance. Violations resulting in three or fewer cases were entrapment areas, un-shaded bare metal, and loose ropes.
A second case study of 190 injuries/fatalities resulting in litigation in 37 states and the District of Columbia (Frost & Sweeney, 1996) employing the same methodology as the first, concluded that 94 percent of the injuries involved violations of CPSC and ASTM standards. Falling onto hard surfaces under and around equipment (asphalt, concrete, hard packed earth) was the most common cause of injuries accounting for 53 percent of the injuries, followed by protrusions, sharing mechanisms, and head entrapment violations, with a wide range of other violations accounting for fewer than five violations each.
In both studies, improper supervision or lack of supervision was claimed by plaintiffs in most cases but it was rarely possible to determine whether negligent supervision was indeed a contributing cause. In falls, for example, supervisors are not commonly held to the obligation of catching children when they fall or preventing them from falling while falling onto concrete at the base of a climber or having one’s head entrapped in equipment would signal clear, specific violations of standards, representing compelling evidence in litigation. The specific obligations of supervisors are not addressed in CPSC and ASTM. Quality of supervision is commonly assessed using limited or inconsistent guidelines of professional organizations and/or state regulations.
A controlled study by Howard, et al (2005) was facilitated by the removal of playground equipment from 136 elementary schools in Toronto, Canada, prompted by changes to Canadian Standards Association (CSA) standards for playground equipment. The equipment in 86 of these schools (intervention schools) was replaced with safer equipment based on expert inspection using the CSA standard. Another 225 schools whose equipment did not require replacement (non-intervention schools) served as a control group for injury rates during the study. The injury rate in the intervention schools decreased from 2.61 per 1,999 students per month before the unsafe equipment was removed to 1.68 after removal. In nonintervention schools, injury rates increased from 1.44 to 1.81 during the study period. The researchers concluded that the CSA standards (which are very similar to ASTM standards) were an effective tool in identifying hazardous playground equipment.
A compelling analysis of existing literature on the effects of playground safety standards was written by Benjamin Barton, professor of Law at the University of Tennessee (Barton, 2006). Addressing the issues of relative contributions of tort reform and safety standards on innovations and improvements in playground design, he concluded that standards and concern for safety triggered and sustained the current playground revolution. His arguments for change are summed up in this conclusion: "The old playgrounds were unfun deathtraps that have been gratefully replaced by immensely amusing, and safer playgrounds."
National surveys of playgrounds (Weintraub & Cassidy, 2002; Olsen, Hudson, & Thompson, 2004) are yet another body of evidence used in assessing the contributions of safety standards. These surveys address the degree of compliance with standards but are not designed to address the cause or scope of injuries. Overall, the surveys conclude that compliance has improved over time but a puzzling statistic remains: CPSC injury data reveal that scope of injuries increased from about 117,000 during 1974 (Frost, 1992) to about 247,000 in 2001 (Weintraub & Cassidy, 2002). Several factors may contribute to this dilemma - a possible increase in reporting injuries, growing number of playgrounds, growing number of preschool children playing on equipment designed for school-age children, excessive heights of equipment and declining fitness levels of children. Each of these factors begs in-depth exploration.
Research on the effects of standards continues to accumulate, but carefully controlled studies are still needed. The National Electronic Injury Surveillance System and other studies typically report playground injury data in a generic form, not sufficiently specific to precisely identify the equipment, describe surfacing characteristics, or provide measurements attendant to injuries. For example, injuries may be recorded for swings but may not identify the specific elements of the swing implicated in the injury. Injury data are collected for generic types such as climbers or "jungle gyms" but may not distinguish between the many types of climbers or "jungle gyms" existing on playgrounds. Measurements are typically not available for fall heights and type and condition of surfacing are not recorded.
Collecting and reporting injury data addressed to the specific equipment and language used in the standards would allow standards developers to identify precise offending elements and characteristics of playground equipment contributing to or causing injuries and take steps to correct them. The scope and expense of such an effort by CPSC or other organization could be managed by limiting sample size. Focusing on collecting data addressed specifically to the language and recommendations of the playground safety standards could result in meaningful data for improving the standards and reducing child injuries.
Developmental Value of Outdoor Play Environments
Despite growing recognition that much work remains to be done in formulating sound, practical, minimal standards and in correlating state and national standards, available evidence indicates that contemporary playgrounds are not only safer than old "traditional" asphalt and steel environments but they are also better addressed to children's developmental needs. Comprehensive research supporting this latter conclusion is contained in The Developmental Benefits of Playgrounds (Frost, et al, 2005). Consider the growing array of equipment choices designed to enhance motor activity as well as make-believe or dramatic play, construction activities, and organized games - many types of slides, climbers, swings, forts, playhouses, sand, and water equipment, trike tracks, construction materials, storage facilities, etc. Child development centers for preschool children continue to have, overall, the most developmentally and academically appropriate options and schools and community parks invite the most criticism for their common "cookie cutter" collections of superstructures and swings. Over the past quarter-century life of national playground safety standards, playground equipment companies have enriched their talent base to include a range of well-trained professionals—engineers, architects, child development specialists—capable of creating play materials and equipment to match standards addressed to children's developmental needs and to reduce injuries.
Flexibility and clarity of standards and expert, the scholarly enterprise is sorely needed. And, not be overlooked, is the need for consumers to understand that a wide array of options are available to transform insipid playgrounds into creative, challenging venues for children's learning and development. Growing recognition of the need for children of all ages to enjoy, appreciate, and learn from nature and the need to focus on the broad developmental needs of children—physical, social, cognitive, and affective—is sparking energy for integrating natural environments and playgrounds.
The wonders of special places comprised of various types of habitats can be integrated into the active enclaves of sand and water play forms, slides and trike tracks, jungle huts and special natural habitats. The Community Built Association www.community built.com, an organization of professionals concerned with creating structures, including playgrounds, transforms public places through collaboration with community volunteers. Some of the resulting playgrounds resemble the exciting adventure playgrounds of Europe which were never widely accepted in the United States.
The European Playground Safety Standard excludes adventure playgrounds since they "... are fenced, secured playgrounds, run and staffed according to the pedagogical principles that encourage children's development and often use self-built equipment” (1998, p. 5).
The staff of many of these playgrounds is certified play-workers, specifically trained to work on playgrounds. The anecdotal information and formal evidence about safety on adventure playgrounds is, in the main, positive. "The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents confirms that the accident record of adventure playgrounds is far better than that of other forms of provision” (Heseltine, 1998 in Brown, 2003).
Such conclusions lend authenticity to the views expressed to the present author by Swedish and Danish play-leaders and UK play-workers that safety is essentially a function of how children use playgrounds and the characteristics of the play site as a whole, rather than merely the engineering characteristics of the equipment.
Though many are reluctant to express self-serving views, play-workers are trained in children's developmental needs, children's patterns of behavior, site development, child protection, legal matters, and funding sources. Many are full-time workers, dedicated to organizing and managing playgrounds, and skilled in motivating children to learn and to engage in collaborative work (Brown, 2003).
Advocates of adventure playgrounds see play as free, informal, messy, noisy, unstructured, free, and fun—not formal, quiet, and adult controlled. The play area itself contains climbing structures, games spaces, construction materials, tools, gardens, animals, fire pits, water and dirt play areas created by the children themselves under the watchful eye of a skilled adult. American adults soundly rejected the handful of adventure playgrounds that emerged in several states during the 1960 and 1970s as unsightly, noisy, dirty, and hazardous. Those of us who were enthusiastic about the potential of such playgrounds search for ways to influence the integration of whatever adventure features we can into contemporary American playgrounds.
Integrating nature into outdoor playgrounds can broaden and enhance the total school curriculum for children of all ages and serve to counter the current destructive influences of high stakes testing. Through collaboration with an extremely competent and caring teacher (Danna Keyburn) with special nature expertise, the writer's principal playground research site of almost three decades, Redeemer Lutheran School in Austin, Texas, has combined manufactured playground equipment provided by GameTime, Little Tikes, BigToys, Grounds for Play, and Kidstruction with elaborate plant and animal habitats. The butterfly gardens were certified in 2004 by the National Wildlife Federation as a Schoolyard Habitat and the participating children were selected in 2005 as the Junior Master Gardeners Group of the Month by the National Master Gardener Program. The children's activities resulting in this recognition included growing fresh herbs for the Meals on Wheels Program, conducting the annual Community Garden Festival, raising and tagging Monarchs for Monarch Watch, creating both indoor and outdoor science laboratories and providing aesthetically pleasing, creative options on the playgrounds.
The three playground/nature environments at this school were created to accommodate various age (two to twelve-year-olds) and developmental levels, and are integrated with the school's physical education, recess periods and classroom science and literacy programs. As these integrated outdoor environments become increasingly functional, children are seen alternately selecting active play on playground equipment and exploring the wonders of the natural habitats.
Much work remains to be done with respect to developing regulations, standards, and guidelines appropriate to the broad developmental needs of children. CPSC guidelines and ASTM standards focus on making playgrounds age appropriate but lend only limited support for enhancing their developmental value. Perhaps the most expertly crafted and practical work outlining and supporting developmental appropriate practices for children was formulated over several decades by committees of professionals under the auspices of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Copple & Bredekamp, 2006). Such comprehensively documented work on child development and individual differences is sorely needed for application by developers of playground safety guidelines, standards, and regulations.
In sum, the development and implementation of playground safety standards have contributed positively to safety and diversity of children's playground equipment. The available evidence supports the conclusion that contemporary playgrounds also offer extensive benefits for children's social, cognitive and physical development. The need to tailor safety standards to the nature of injuries and types of equipment and surfacing involved in injuries is limited by lack of detailed, comprehensive accident data collected to match the specific standards against which they are judged. The need to match playgrounds and playground equipment and materials to the broad developmental needs of children is currently feasible through reliance on the existing body of research on children's development and individual differences. The concept and functions of school, park and child development center playgrounds can be broadened and enriched through collaboration between skillful partners in industry and other professional groups. The creativity and genius of such diverse groups, acting together, can help to resolve the growing disassociation between children and nature, children and recess, children and creative, spontaneous play, and simultaneously reduce the unacceptable scope of serious playground injuries.
- Barton, B. H. (2006, forthcoming). “Tort Reform, Innovation, and Playground Design.” Florida Law Review. 57. April.
- Brashier, E. (1952). “But - Suppose She Falls.” Safety Education. 32, 1: 2, 24-26.
- Bredekamp, S. & Copple, C. Eds. (1997). “Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs.” Washington, D. C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
- Brown, F. (Ed.). (2003). Playwork: Theory and Practice. Philadelphia: Open University Press.
- Bureau of Product Safety. (1972). “Public Playground Safety.” Washington, DC: Food and Drug Administration.
- Butwinick, E. (1974). “Petition Requesting the Issuance of a Consumer Product Safety Standard for Public Playground Equipment.” Washington, D.C.: Consumer Product Safety Commission.
- Copple, C., & Bredekamp, S. (2006). “Basics of Developmentally Appropriate Practice.” Washington, D. C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
- Curtis, H. S. (1917). The Play Movement and Its Significance. Washington, D. C.: McGrath Publishing Co., and the National Recreation and Park Association.
- Frost, J. L. (1996). Cause and Prevention of Playground Injuries and Litigation: Case Studies. Wheaton, MD: Association for Childhood Education International.
- Frost, J. L. (1996). In Christiansen, M. L. (Ed.). Analysis of Playground Injuries and Litigation. Proceedings of the 1995International Conference. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University.
- Frost, J. L., Brown, P., Sutterby, J. A., & Thornton, C. D. (2004). The Developmental Benefits of Playgrounds. Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International.
- Frost, J. L. (1992). Play and Playscapes. Albany, NY: Delmar.
- Heseltine, P. (1998). Introductory presentation by RoSPA's playground safety officer to the ILAM training seminar "Inspecting Children's Playgrounds.” Liverpool.
- Howard, A. W., MacArthur, C., Willan, A., Rothman, L, Moses-McKeag, A., & MacPherson, A. K. (2005). “The Effect of Safer Playground Equipment on Playground Injury Rates Among School Children.” Canadian Medical Association Journal. May 24, 172 (11). Retrieved January 15, 2006, from www.cmaj.ca/cgi/content/full/172/11/1443
- McConnell, W. H. (1973). Public Playground Equipment. Iowa City, IA: College of Medicine, University of Iowa.
- Mero, E. B. (Ed.). (1908). American Playgrounds: Their Construction, Equipment, Maintenance, and Utility. Boston: American Gymnasia Co.
- National Recreation and Park Association. (1976). “Proposed Safety Standard for Public Playground Equipment.” Arlington VA: Consumer Product Safety Commission.
- National Recreation Association. (1931). “Report of Committee on Standards in Playground Apparatus,” (Bulletin 2170). New York: The Association.
- Olsen, H. Hudson, S., & Thompson, D. (2004). “Do Playgrounds Make the Grade?” National School Boards Journal. October.
- Weintraub, R., & Cassady, A. (2002). “Playing it Safe: The Sixth Nationwide Survey of Public Playgrounds.” Washington, D.C.: Consumer Federation of America.