What's under your swing set?
Accidental injuries involving playground equipment send approximately 200,000 kids each year to the emergency room — and that's just in the United States, where the federal government published safety guidelines for playgrounds more than 25 years ago. Among toddlers ages five and under, the rate of playground accidents has doubled since that time. It's not that the guidelines don't set good standards; it's that an estimated 75 percent of the playgrounds in the country (studied in 2002) don't meet the guidelines.
Most injuries on the playground — 80 percent — result from falls. These injuries range from minor cuts and scrapes to serious head and spine trauma. A proper protective surface under the play equipment can make the difference between life and death.
Obviously, asphalt and concrete are lousy surfaces, but so are grass and soil. Ideally, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the ground should be covered with shredded rubber, hardwood mulch or fine sand, piled at least 12 inches deep and extending at least six feet in all directions from the equipment.
The federal guidelines also say playground equipment should be labeled to indicate any age restrictions or recommendations. Toddlers and their play equipment should be kept in a separate area, fenced off from equipment designed for bigger kids.
These guidelines are spelled out in more detail in the CPSC's Handbook for Public Playground Safety, which is free to download. In 1996, when North Carolina adopted the federal guidelines as state law covering playgrounds at child-care facilities, injuries there declined by 22 percent. Today, some or all of the CPSC guidelines are reflected in the state law of at least 15 states.