My office phone rang on a September afternoon. “I don’t want to alarm you,” the supervisor from my sons’ after-school program said, “but Bryan fell off the monkey bars. I think he broke his wrist.” I wasn’t alarmed at first. It sounded similar to what had happened to my younger son, Kevin, at the school playground last year. He had fallen off the slide and broken his wrist, but his bones were so soft, it had been more of a bend than a break. Bryan was 9. His bones were still soft, too. “I called an ambulance,” she said. “It’s pulling up now.” An ambulance? Why would he need an ambulance, I wondered, cradling the phone between my shoulder and neck so I could stuff my briefcase with papers. “Well, don’t let it leave until I get there,” I said. “I’m on my way.” When I arrived at school, I learned the paramedics had refused to wait. Bryan’s vital signs were waning. “He fell pretty far,” the school attendant said, her voice cracking. “He was nearly unconscious.” I suddenly felt dizzy, like I was the one who had fallen off the monkey bars.
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), nearly 200,000 children are treated annually in emergency rooms for injuries sustained on playgrounds. Fifteen to 20 of these children die each year, the CPSC reports. Playgrounds are children’s havens, where they can run and jump, howl and shout, and do what they do best — be children. But many of our nation’s playgrounds are unsafe and in need of repair, according to the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG), in a national survey recently released. The groups’ study of 1,037 public playgrounds in 36 states and Washington, D.C. found a variety of safety hazards, including excessively high climbers and slides (many with unsafe falling surfaces), inadequately spaced swings, play equipment with gaps and protrusions that pose entanglement or entrapment risks, and chipping or cracked paint. Seventy-five percent of the playgrounds surveyed nationally lacked adequate surfacing, and more than 50 percent of climbers and slides exceed safe heights. These two elements are particularly critical, safety experts say, as 80 percent of all playground injuries result from falls. “The longer the fall, obviously the greater the impact to a child, and if the fall is onto an unacceptable surface, the greater the injury is going to be,” says Susan Craine, a consumer advocate with the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), a state and local consumer advocacy organization that works in collaboration with USPIRG. NYPIRG conducted a similar survey in June, assessing 44 New York City public playgrounds against eight potential safety hazards: (1) unsafe surfacing, (2) inadequate fall zones, (3) unsafe equipment height, (4) potential toxins, (5) collision risks, (6) head entrapment risks, (7) clothing entanglement risks, and (8) hazardous play equipment. NYPIRG’s findings echoed that of USPIRG, with all but two of the 44 surveyed playgrounds containing one or more potential hazards. Twelve of the playgrounds —two of which are located in Manhattan and three in Queens — contain five of the eight identified hazards (see accompanying box). NYPIRG’s complete report is available on its website at www.nypirg.org. “We unfortunately weren’t surprised by the findings,” says Mike Klein, senior policy director for New Yorkers for Parks (NY4P), a local independent advocacy organization that serves as a watchdog for the people of New York and their parks and playgrounds. “Budget cuts have been brutal in recent years, contributing to the deterioration of New York City parks and playgrounds. But PIRG and CFA initiate so many wonderful actions, such as this survey and other issues they collaborate on,” Klein says. “It’s important for parents to know that the number of playground injuries is actually higher than the 200,000,” says Donna Thompson, Ph.D., founder of the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS), established in 1995 under a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and located at the University of Northern Iowa. “Over 200,000 children are taken to emergency rooms, but the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons thinks the number of children injured on playgrounds is more like 500,000 a year.” A public resource for playground safety and injury prevention information, NPPS completed a two-year study in April 2000, which assessed the safety of 3,052 playgrounds in all 50 states. NPPS awarded U.S. playgrounds, on average, a grade of ‘C’, determining: “America’s children are at potential risk while at play.” Despite the findings, safety experts say that playgrounds can be built safely. State and local government must take ownership of the situation, but concerned parents play a key role as well, Thompson advises. “As a group, parents make up one of the most vocal constituencies about parks issues,” says Klein, who suggests parents and concerned caregivers take part in the process by evaluating their neighborhood playgrounds. An evaluation form outlining the eight potential hazards used by CAF/PIRG is available on CFA’s website (www.consumerfed.org/Survey2002.pdf). The NPPS website also has a blank playground report card that assesses playground supervision and age-appropriate design of play apparatus, in addition to equipment and fall hazards (www.uni.edu/playground/report/blank_report.html). Craine says the first step in getting repairs made is to find out who maintains the playground. The next step involves putting pressure on local officials. “Basically, parents need to lobby,” says Craine, stressing that parents should also take the initiative to call the playground operator themselves. “Don’t be afraid to be relentless,” Craine adds. “You can’t just call once and expect that it’s going to be fixed.” “With such a big problem, there has to be a huge shift in attitude before people will be willing to invest the time and money to make the necessary changes,” Dr. Thompson says. “If adults took care of their golf courses in the same manner they take care of playgrounds, there would be a great boo and cry.” Many changes take place because residents get involved, says Klein, who encourages parents to contact New Yorkers for Parks directly if they need assistance in initiating repairs (see www.ny4p.org or call 212-838-9410). “If contact is made via a local parent group or civic organization, it makes the actual process much easier. But if parents are unable to find a group, we’ll pair them up with other parents in their neighborhood.” “We have to remember that playgrounds are outdoor learning environments,” Dr. Thompson says. “We’re trying to raise awareness, and hope the adults will be willing to repair the playgrounds, so that children can go and do what they do best, and that’s play.”
Resources: —New Yorkers for Parks: www.ny4p.org —NYPIRG: www.nypirg.org —USPIRG: www.uspirg.org —Consumer Federation of America: www.consumerfed.org —National Program for Playground Safety: www.uni.edu/playground —Consumer Product Safety Commission: www.cpsc.gov
Playground Safety Survey
NYPIRG’s June 2002 Playground Safety Survey assessed conditions at 44 New York City playgrounds, including sites in each of the five boroughs. Each location was evaluated on the following eight potential hazards: (1) Unsafe Surface – any sort of hard surface like concrete, asphalt, grass or soil. Also, loose fill surface such as sand, wood chips or shredded tires is unsafe if it is less than 9 inches in depth; (2) Inadequate Fall Zones –unsafe surfacing or equipment, or other obstacles that children might fall on that (a) extend six feet from the perimeter of the equipment, or (b) nine feet between two pieces of adjacent equipment that exceed 30 inches in height, or (c) six feet from the perimeter of the support structure of swings on each side as well as twice the height of the pivot point in the front and back of the swings; (3) Toxic Playground Risk – (a) peeling, cracking or chipping paint on any equipment surface (could be lead paint), or (b) playground equipment made of wood other than redwood or cedar wood (could be pressure treated); (4) Unsafe Equipment Height – (a) climbers or (b) slides that exceed six feet in height, or (c) swings with the height of the pivot point/swing beam higher than eight feet; (5) Unsafe Swings – (a) swing seats made of hard, rigid material, or (b) swing structures attached to other play equipment, or (c) more than two swing seats per bay or section, or (d) infant/tot swings suspended in the same section as regular seats, or (e) swing seats closer than 24 inches, or (f) swing seats closer than 30 inches to any adjacent support structure; (6) Head Entrapment – any opening with an interior dimension between 3.5 and 9 inches; (7) Clothing Entanglement – open “S’ hooks, gaps, protrusions or equipment components that may act as catch points; (8) Dangerous Equipment — (a) chain or cable walks, or (b) multiple occupancy swings/gliders, or (c) animal swings, or (d) swinging exercise rings/trapeze bars, or (e) rope swings, or (f) individual climbing ropes. Playgrounds received one point for each type of hazard they contained, with a scale of 0-8. Some playgrounds contained more than one type of the same hazard. That is not reflected in their “hazard score”. According to the report, just two of the 44 surveyed playgrounds contained none of these eight hazards: Mullaly Parks Three and Four, both located in the Bronx. NYPIRG found 12 of the 44 surveyed playgrounds contained five or more of the eight potential hazards. NYPIRG’s complete report can be viewed at: http://www.nypirg.org/consumer/playground/playground444.html.