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Checking the Safety of Public Playgrounds

Learn how to check the safety of a playground, as well as how to make a dangerous playground safer.

Checking the Safety of Public Playgrounds

Public playgrounds can provide more variety and challenge than your backyard version, but you also have less control over safety there. When you spot something dangerous, you can do two things: Make that area off-limits for your child, and contact the owners or operators of the playground to have the problem corrected.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) offers these tips for checking the safety of a public playground:

  • Inspect the surface underneath the equipment. Ideally, it should be at least 12 inches of wood chips, mulch, sand, or pea gravel, or be covered with mats made of safety-tested rubber.
  • Check for potentially dangerous hardware, such as open “S” hooks or protruding bolt ends.
  • Make sure spaces that could trap children, such as openings in guardrails or between ladder rungs, measure less than three and a half inches or more than nine inches.
  • Check for sharp points or edges in equipment.
  • Look out for tripping hazards such as exposed concrete footings, tree stumps, and rocks.
  • Make sure elevated surfaces, like platforms and ramps, have guardrails to prevent falls.
  • Check playgrounds regularly to see that equipment and surfaces are in good condition.

There are no mandatory regulations with which all playgrounds must comply, but some state and local jurisdictions require playgrounds to meet CPSC guidelines as well as the technical standards devised by the American Society for Testing and Materials.

Gadget Guide

Because of numerous injuries, the CPSC recommends playgrounds not have heavy metal swings such as animal figures or gliders, on which more than one child can ride at a time. Also avoid free-swinging ropes (which can fray or form loops) and swinging exercise rings and trapeze bars designed as athletic equipment. Overhead rings with short chains that children use in progression to span a distance are okay.

Metal and Wood

If the equipment is metal, it should be painted or galvanized to prevent rusting. Otherwise, the structure can become weakened or develop sharp, broken edges. Parts used for climbing and gripping are safest if covered with slip-resistant material.

Check hot surfaces on metal equipment—such as steel decks, slides or steps—before you let your young child play on them. In direct sunlight, the temperatures can become high enough to cause contact burns. The CPSC knows of incidents in which kids suffered second- and third-degree burns on their hands, legs and buttocks because they unknowingly sat down on hot metal equipment. Young children are at particular risk because, unlike older children who pull away quickly from something hot, little ones may not react promptly.

Wooden equipment can deteriorate and become splintered. Bolts can loosen. If you notice these maintenance problems, report them to whomever is in charge of the playground.

Some of today's play equipment is made of space-age plastics that don't get as hot as metal and need less maintenance.

Moving Parts and Nets

Moving parts can pinch or crush a child's finger. Give special scrutiny to merry-go-rounds, seesaws, and suspension bridges. Exposed mechanisms, such as joints or springs, are prime places for injury. Moving parts should be kept lubricated.

Cargo nets are a popular component of some play equipment, but they pose risks if the holes are big enough to allow a child's head to get caught. A child's head can be trapped, risking strangulation, if the net's openings have a perimeter length (the sum of the length of the four sides) of between 17 and 28 inches. (The CPSC has reports of incidents on play equipment at fast-food restaurants where the nets had to be cut to release children's heads.) Before letting your child play, check to make sure the openings are too small for her head to go through or large enough that she can pull it back out easily.

Watch That Clothing!

Kids should never wear clothing with drawstrings. The strings can get caught on playground equipment—and other places—and strangle children. Also, avoid long scarves or necklaces and ponchos. Kids should remove bike helmets before climbing onto playground equipment. Not only can the strap get caught, the helmet itself can become trapped in an opening that the rest of the child's body has already gone through and possibly hang the child.

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