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Understanding the Risks on the Playground

playground safety

Happy Summer! Here’s some reminders about risks on the playground and how to keep playground play safe for your kiddos.

Keeping kids safe is every parent’s primary goal, but is there such a thing as being too safe? On the surface, the idea of eliminating all potential risks on the playground seems to be a good one. In the eyes of many parents, a risk-free playground is an ideal proposition. The findings of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission seem to support the concept, reporting that an average of 12 kids die and another 200,000 are injured in playground incidents each year. What parents may not realize, though, is that there is a very real difference between risks and hazards.

playground safety

Recognizing Playground Hazards

When parents are informed about the common hazards on a playground, they’re better equipped to protect their kids from injury. The first and most prevalent is improper playground surfacing.

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A safe playground has at least nine inches of wood chips to cushion the ground in the event of a fall. The covering should extend past the boundaries of play zones so that kids who jump or fall from high surfaces are protected. In addition to a lack of protective cushioning, be aware of the risk of compression. Wood chips and organic fill material are suitable materials for cushioning, provided that they have not become compacted by heavy traffic. Make sure that wood chips or other fill materials are still loose, and that they are at least nine inches thick. Anything that’s compressed or has a height of less than nine inches may not protect against falls adequately, and can become a serious playground hazard.

A 2005 Robson Forensics study into the case of Jared Neff details a situation in which a six-year-old boy was severely injured on an unsafe playground. The study found gross negligence of maintenance and improper structural installation as the cause of the injury. Protective material that was intended to provide a cushion from falls had eroded away, exposing a stone base. The young boy suffered a traumatic brain injury when he fell from a structure that was installed in such a manner that it was actually too high to meet the Consumer Product Safety Commission guidelines.

Another common safety issue on playgrounds is a simple lack of structural maintenance. Chains and hooks that have rusted can have less structural integrity. Splintered and cracked wooden structures can lacerate or puncture a child’s skin. A quick visual survey of a playground may not be enough to determine the quality of the structures or the maintenance of the equipment. It’s advised that parents carefully examine all structures for signs of degradation or neglect before kids play on them. One safety hazard that parents seldom stop to think about is the one presented by the possibility of head entrapment. Openings and slats that are wide enough for a child to fit his head through may not always be so accommodating when he attempts to extricate himself. Make sure that all openings are either too small for your child to fit his head through at all, or large enough that he can easily remove himself. If a structural opening would touch your child’s head at all if he were to try to move through it, direct him away from the structure.

Separating Hazards from Risks

Because ensuring safety is so important, many parents will instinctively flee from any playground that seems to present a risk to kids’ safety. What many don’t realize is that excessive safety features, especially those that eliminate even the slightest perception of risk, can actually have some dangerous implications. Kids who don’t feel challenged are more likely to invent their own games of risk, some of which can be quite hazardous. The perception of risk is important to kids, who need to conquer such situations in order to feel empowered and confident, according to psychology professor Ellen Sandseter from Queen Maud University in Norway. Studies conducted by Norwegian researchers indicated that kids who never climb structures are more likely to develop a fear of heights in adulthood.

Temple University professors also assert that kids who aren’t allowed to test their limits never learn to take healthy risks. The trick is to create the illusion of risk without presenting kids with hazardous structures. Municipal initiatives in Tennessee, Massachusetts and Utah are all moving towards playground equipment that encourages risk-taking behavior while ensuring physical safety. The Peltzman hypothesis posits that when humans believe they’re in an environment that appears safer than it actually is, they’re more likely to engage in dangerous behavior. Rather than trying to remove all elements of risk from your child’s playground activities, encourage healthy and safe risks over daredevil stunts.

Guest post by Isabella Harris from

Copyright 2015 Safe Ride 4 Kids. All rights reserved. You may not publish, broadcast, rewrite or redistribute this material without permission. You are welcome to link to Safe Ride 4 Kids or share on social media.

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