How Safe is Safe Enough for Playground Surfaces?

Do we really have to re-surface every playground in America because they aren’t safe enough?

Tim Gill, author of the blog “Rethinking fdbiynbyea
Childhood,
”  and Bernard Spiegel, granddaddy of the idea of “beneficial risk,” and Jay Beckwith, the venerated playground guru, are just some of the big names in the “play” world alerting us to potentially over-the-top new playground surface standards.

The American Society for Testing and Materials will vote on these standards as soon as March 4 — Wednesday! — and so we have to register our thoughts, very soon.  The rationale is that new surfacing will cut down on head injuries. But from Britain (which often follows our lead), Gill is begging us to debate the issue in public before deciding if such sweeping changes are really necessary.

The idea that suddenly we need to resurface all the playgrounds in America does strike me as strange. Children are not dying right and left on playgrounds. In fact, (here I’m quoting Gill):

“Accident figures from the CDC suggest that in the decade 1990-2000, there was on average a single child fatality each year as a result of falls in American public playgrounds. By contrast, almost 1100 child vehicle passengers under 15 died in a single year…[and] around 700 children under 14 drown each year…

Studies also show that playground accidents rarely result in permanent brain injury. A 2004 World Health Organization review quotes two relevant studies. One states that 1.7% of school playground equipment-related injuries were concussions, and another suggests that fewer than 1% of the injuries in US daycare centers were concussions from playground falls…These figures raise serious questions about whether, given the overall goal of tackling child injuries, scarce taxpayer dollars are best spent on resurfacing playgrounds.”

Two questions need to be answered: How much would the new surfacing cost to implement, and how cost-effective is it compared to other safety measures, like, say, hiring more park workers, so parents feel safe dropping their kids off? Or simply saving the funds for when and if we really need them?

I contacted the ASTM and got a letter back that said, “ASTM invites all interested parties to participate in the development of industry standards.”

Generally, the “interested parties” seems to encompass only people in the playground industry. But I’d warrant that any of us with kids, or who pay taxes, are “interested parties,” too.

So if you would like to ask the ASTM to rethink its new standards, or postpone its vote until more voices can be heard, you can drop a note to the men in charge: Harvey C Voris (hvoris@paramountfitness.com) and/or George Sushinky, Chairman of the ASTM Subcommittee on Playground Surfacing (gsushinsky@gmail.com). – L

"If it saves just one child a year..." then what? We should do it, no matter what "it" is?

“If it saves just one child…” then what?  Should we do “it,” no matter what “it” is?

 

 

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41 Responses to How Safe is Safe Enough for Playground Surfaces?

  1. Tim Gill March 1, 2015 at 1:07 pm #

    Thanks for this post Lenore. As my post says, this is a complex issue. All me – and many others – are asking for is a proper review, before taking a decision that could see hundreds of millions of taxpayers dollars being spent, and quite possibly playgrounds being closed or equipment being removed.

  2. BL March 1, 2015 at 1:39 pm #

    Probably the safest thing is plain old-fashioned dirt and grass rather than some artificial surface. But then they’ll get dirty and grass-stained.

  3. lollipoplover March 1, 2015 at 1:42 pm #

    This type of logic is like saying we need to carpet every indoor room over hardwood floors to prevent slips and falls among children. Yet carpet traps in dirt and allergens and is known to aggravate (and possibly cause) allergies and asthma. I’d take a one time fall over a chronic medical condition any day. And haven’t some of these surfaces been shown to contain carcinogens?

    This article on playgrounds and “loose play” reminded me of free range kids. Better yet, let the kids help design the playgrounds. You can have the safest design in the world but it won’t do any good if there are no kids playing.

    http://www.philly.com/philly/gallery/20150227_Changing_Skyline__Redesigning_playgrounds_to_promote__quot_loose_play_quot__-_think_pop-up_play_spaces.html?viewGallery=y

  4. Sarah J March 1, 2015 at 1:48 pm #

    Kids getting badly hurt at playgrounds, that’s usually caused by freak accidents and you can only do so much to prevent them. I’m wondering why playground safety has become such a big deal to people. Unlike child kidnappings, a kid getting severely injured at a playground doesn’t usually get put all over the news. And there are plenty of places where kids get hurt more frequently, so why no extra freakouts with those?

    A few years back, I was riding the bus and looking out the window. Downtown the bus stops at a red light, right next to a playground. I’m looking at the playground with nostalgia, then realized that I hadn’t seen a playground with a merry-go-round in years. I feel sorry for kids today, modern playgrounds suck.

  5. Robin NZ March 1, 2015 at 2:33 pm #

    When visiting our grandparents as children, all of us kids were sent across the road to “go play on the playground”. Which was totally unsupervised, entirely on asphalt, had a wickedly high slide, merry go round, huge swings, etc. (not to mention all the other neighbourhood kids who we didn’t know). I never heard about one kid who got anything more than minor bruises as a result of being there. I feel so sorry for today’s regimented children who are not given the opportunity to learn anything about themselves, their environment or their capabilities so enter chronological adulthood with very few clues on how to live meaningful, independent lives.

  6. SOA March 1, 2015 at 2:33 pm #

    Like resurface to what? I agree that all playgrounds should have mulch or sand or the soft turf ground or rubber chips underneath to help with cushion but as long as it has one of those then I don’t see the problem.

    They are pretty strict standards like at our school the mulch has to be measured regularly and replaced when it gets too low since some gets washed away over time.

    Our home playground was on some pebbles rocky ground and it did injure several kids which I felt awful about. Nothing serious but did leave scars. My son got a nasty scar on his knee that is still there 3 almost 4 years later. And two other friends got lesser scrapes from it. So I jumped on my husband’s butt and made him put mulch out there. Now, we have not had another injury.

    So I don’t have a problem with saying it needs to have some kind of cushioning. But it does not all have to be uniform.

    I worked at a daycare that state standards required this soft gravel under the playgrounds and it was the worst thing because all the 1 year olds did was put the rocks in their mouths. Over and over and over. We would come in from outside and I would have to go around pulling rocks out of kids mouths. I think they might have been better off with soft grass out there. At least grass can be eaten without choking on it. Their playground was for only 1 year old so it was not like there was any high fall risk anyway. Everything was ground level on their playground.

  7. Andrew March 1, 2015 at 2:41 pm #

    I’m a little less concerned about this than I am about other issues brought up here. Other articles bring up situations where the child’s behavior changes (walk to school vs. bussed. Walk home from the bus stop or met by their parent. Play in the park vs. play on the xbox, etc) and I worry about the children’s physical and psychological development raised in this environment. If we bubble wrap them until they are 18 and then send them off, they’ll have few skills on how to navigate the real world.

    This is a little different. The kids won’t play any differently due to the type of playground surface. Kids will play. Kids will fall. Sometimes the kids will hurt themselves (or each other) even on the softest place surface. They may have fewer injuries with the more modern surface, but that is just the degree of the injury. A kid who sprains his arm falling of play equipment and a kid who breaks his arm gets the same message to be more careful.

    My only concern is that they don’t close existing play spaces that don’t meet the new requirements, and as long as new play spaces (or upgrades to existing play spaces) aren’t delayed due to added cost.

  8. K March 1, 2015 at 2:50 pm #

    The other issue to consider is whether covering playgrounds with, what often amounts to, ground auto tired and other synthetics is truly safer than sand, dirt, or grass. There is real debate on whether these are safe under turf fields, for example. The turf field companies assure us that they are safe, some other data conflict.

  9. bsolar March 1, 2015 at 4:41 pm #

    @BL, that might be the safest thing, but not necessarily the best. The whole point of “beneficial risk” is realising that children need to take risks when they play as part of their growth and trying to find the best balance so that a controlled, acceptable level of risk is offered. This acceptable level of risk should not be “zero or as low as possible”, it should be “low enough to be acceptable but high enough to be engaging and helpful in developing the child’s abilities”.

    The difficult part is accepting that this is important enough to offsets the occasional injury or even death which could have been prevented with a “zero risk” approach.

  10. Nicole March 1, 2015 at 4:58 pm #

    When I hear a proposal like this, my first thought is that somewhere, a very powerful conglomerate with a division that manufactures whatever this “safer” new surface is, stands to make a very large profit for no reason except they have really good lobbyists.

  11. Tim Gill March 1, 2015 at 5:13 pm #

    @Andrew – actually, there is evidence that children may play differently – they may take more risks – when there are safety measures in place. This should not be too much of a surprise – just watch how kids throw themselves around on a bouncy castle, for instance. There is also evidence that some forms of hi-tech rubber safety surfacing may lead to more broken arms and legs than other forms. So it’s complicated. Which is why we need a review.
    @Nicole – I agree that we look out for commercial interests here. It is obvious to me that, with such a complicated issue, what is needed is an impartial review. This means bringing in different points of view and different types of expertise. So far, this has not happened.

  12. Tanya March 1, 2015 at 5:15 pm #

    Why bother resurfacing when parents aren’t allowed or too afraid to just drop their kids off or send them to play on their own because of the “do-gooders” and the legal consequences!

  13. Reader March 1, 2015 at 6:22 pm #

    Is this stuff really safer than the old-fashioned woodchip mulch? When I was a kid there was always woodchip mulch and I fell onto that stuff from quite a height at least once and was okay. These new rubberised surfaces may look “neater” but they probably require more upfront cost AND maintenance than woodchips, and I doubt they’re even as safe, let alone safer.

  14. Reader March 1, 2015 at 6:24 pm #

    Also, if this is really made of recycled car tyres, that is WAY more of a health issue! Car tyres often have heavy metals in them. Woodchips or sand are much safer from that point of view as well.

  15. Michelle March 1, 2015 at 7:03 pm #

    Andrew, my concern is that something like this is going to cost us some playgrounds. You wonder if a different surface will affect how kids play – how will having the playground removed affect them?

    When we moved to this neighborhood eight years ago, we had three playgrounds. Since then, one has been torn down entirely and one has been losing pieces of equipment one after another, all because it’s too expensive to maintain. If suddenly the two remaining playgrounds have to be completely resurfaced, there’s a good chance we’ll just lose them.

  16. Jenny Islander March 1, 2015 at 7:29 pm #

    @K: For several years during my childhood, the largest local playground was surfaced with this springy brick-red stuff. In the summer it was too hot to walk on barefoot (or crawl on, for the little ones in families that came to play) and emitted a hot-asphalt stench that made me sick at my stomach and gave me a headache; I stuck to the patch of woods near the playground instead. In the winter it cracked in the subarctic cold and came away in chunks. Eventually the city tore it out and started buying sawdust from the local mill instead, the way they had used to. But I remember that stink. Ugh.

    On the other hand, the playground equipment of my school years was mostly metal, which was either blazing hot due to the way the sun rolls slowly along at about head level for much of the year, beaming heat at the same side of the equipment for hours, or burning cold because we’re in the Subarctic Zone. The heavy-duty plastic and resin stuff they use now doesn’t emit stinks, doesn’t peel off paint, and doesn’t turn ouchy six months of the year.

  17. Buffy March 1, 2015 at 7:54 pm #

    I don’t understand when a child getting hurt because the worst thing that could ever happen – I’m talking about from a parent’s point of view, not someone who could get sued. I know we don’t want our kids to get badly injured, of course, but I sure don’t recall my mom freaking out over skinned knees, or a fall off my bike (onto, horrors, a cement sidewalk). My daughter broke her wrist and my son has needed stitches a few times, and while none of that was initially fun for either of them, they survived and weren’t emotionally scarred by getting hurt. My daughter was back on the same monkey bars that she fell from as soon as her cast was off!

  18. tz March 1, 2015 at 9:00 pm #

    Park as padded cell?

    Though it isn’t ASTM. First, it is the lawyers that will sue the cities when tragedies happen. If there is “an act of god”, apparently everyone is jointly and severally liable for not preventing it. Perhaps there is a witch left unburned somewhere.

  19. hineata March 1, 2015 at 9:31 pm #

    Meanwhile in Malaysia children play on slides etc over solid concrete. Not a fan of that particularly, though you didn’t hear about brain injuries…..

  20. BL March 1, 2015 at 9:59 pm #

    @bsolar
    “that might be the safest thing, but not necessarily the best. The whole point of “beneficial risk” is realising that children need to take risks when they play as part of their growth and trying to find the best balance so that a controlled, acceptable level of risk is offered.”

    Well, that’s the sort of surface the playground of my youth had, and it would be considered a deathtrap to 21st century mentalities. The playground equipment was mostly metal with some wood. A big tall, long slide. Monkey bars. A merry-go-round (that one was mostly wood). A teeter-totter (quite high). Swings you could swing so high on, then launch yourself into the air.

    Not to mention a good climbing tree.

    And I don’t remember anyone getting any injury worse than a boo-boo.

    So quite risky by 2015 standards. Why would you have had us play on a rougher surface of some sort?

  21. Pophouse March 1, 2015 at 10:12 pm #

    I hate those playgrounds with the ground up tires. Sure, they are bouncy but they stink like crazy. Now, I for one am not hoping that miscreant teenagers discover that they can close a park for a summer by setting it on fire … but if it did happen I would more blame the morons that put that material in for no good reason than the teenagers.

  22. Emily March 2, 2015 at 12:57 am #

    @BL–Most of the playgrounds that I remember from my youth, were just as you described. They were made of mostly wood and metal and old tires, except for the odd (fully enclosed) plastic tunnel, the swings, slides, monkey bars, and whatnot were actually high enough to be challenging for kids of all ages, and we had real teeter-totters; sometimes cushioned with tires embedded halfway in the ground, to break your fall if the other person “cherry bombed” you. Mind you, the play areas were cushioned with sand, so there was no danger of anyone falling on asphalt, and serious injuries were few and far between, but most of these playgrounds fell victim to increasingly stringent (a.k.a. wimpy) safety standards, all because of a mentality of “If it saves one child…..” The only problem is, I can finish that sentence right now: If it saves one child, then many, many more children will abandon the playground altogether, in favour of sedentary screen-based entertainment. I bet a revival of the old playgrounds, that were actually challenging and fun, could save at least “one child” from obesity and its related complications.

  23. matteo March 2, 2015 at 4:28 am #

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  24. Crystal March 2, 2015 at 8:03 am #

    Could someone post a sample e-mail for us to use?

  25. Roberta March 2, 2015 at 9:02 am #

    Do they take risks like exposure to toxic chemicals into account?

  26. ChicagoDad March 2, 2015 at 9:05 am #

    This is an interesting topic. I tried to read up on it to form a cogent opinion, but the technical articles were a little dense. I would like to know how the change in the ASTM standards would affect the types and cost of playground surface materials used.

    From what I read, when the ASTM standards for playground surfaces were adopted 20+ years ago, the cost of playground surfaces went from about 10% of a park construction budget to around 50%, where it remains today. Also from what I read, to meet the current ASTM standards using “loose fill” surfaces (the stuff we grew up with: wood chips, sand, etc), the fill needs to be 9 to 12 inches deep (!) and consistently maintained. Presumably, this proposed 30% improvement in head injury rating would mean that more than half of a park construction budget would go toward surface material and traditional loose fill materials may not be useable.

    If what I read is true (and I’m no expert), then I think the new standards would make “code-compliant” playgrounds beyond the reach of poorer communities. I think it is more important to improve access to playgrounds (by making them affordable to build) than it is to improve the safety rating of the surfaces.

  27. Daniel March 2, 2015 at 9:46 am #

    Even if they do decide to change the standards they should make them not retrospective… All new playgrounds would need to have surfacing to the new standard, and existing playgrounds would only need upgrading when the surface is being renewed as part of routine works (ie when the old surface is worn out)

  28. Warren March 2, 2015 at 9:58 am #

    These changes are not brought about by overprotective parents, they are not brought about by studies or investigations. They are brought about by the companies that will profit from this, that have hired lobbyists to persuade the politicians into making the changes.

    Money, money money. That is all it is about.

  29. Warren March 2, 2015 at 10:10 am #

    There is no way in hell this material disperses the energy as well as good old sand.

  30. Rolf Huber March 2, 2015 at 1:54 pm #

    The current threshold for impact attenuation for children’s playgrounds is; not to exceed 200g and not to exceed 1000 HIC. The NFL studies show that concussions that will remove and NFL player from a game is 98g, if a car were to hit a brick wall at 25mph, the impact to the head of the person going through the windshield would be 100g. A US Marine Corps boxer punches at 52g. Long bone fractures start at approximately 100g and the risk of long bone fracture increase 2 to 3 times for impact values at 150-200g.

    US automotive information, where the original data was derived, shows HIC 1000 is a 16% risk of AIS >4 (severe injury, life-threatening with survival probable). Changes to US automobiles in 2000 reduced the HIC for 6 year olds and up to 700 HIC and for 3 year olds to 570 HIC and babies 390 HIC. Children are currently safer riding to the playground in the car than at the playground where they are to test their abilities. The British Standards Institute public a Technical Report for Head Injury that shows an HIC of 1000 is a 10-15% probability of death.

    The US CDC reports 230,000 emergency room visits per year related to playgrounds. Of these there are 34,000 traumatic brain injuries (TBI). The US CPSC indicates that 72% of public playground injuries are falls to the surfaces under the playground.

    If Children were exposed to these forces anywhere else, the child abuse advocates and police would be involved.

    For those concerned with their current surface, if they are loose fill such as wood chips and 10-12″ deep, then they probably already comply. in any event ASTM standards go forward, therefore the changes is not retroactive, but parents might want to ask what their children are falling on.

    What more do we need.

  31. Nicole March 2, 2015 at 2:47 pm #

    I wish people would focus on making ALL playgrounds accessible! My six year old son is paralyzed from the waist down and uses a wheelchair. He cannot play on playgrounds that have woodchips, sand, rubber pellets, etc. His own elementary school playground is woodchips with wooden ties framing it – essentially blocking him from all access. Even if the surfacing was asphalt or rubber matting, there are no ramps on the playground, no way for him to access the equipment. We’re raising money to change that, but it’s slow going. The nearest playground to us with ramps and rubber matting is 45 minutes away – we go there maybe 2 or 3 times a year in the summer. At school, my son can sit on the blacktop in the warmer months during recess – maybe a few kids will play ball with him, but most run to the playground equipment and leave him behind. In the winter he is usually kept inside for recess, having to stay with an aide, not other children.
    So yeah, if resurfacing every playground is going to provide basic access for my son and other kids with physical limitations, then let’s do it.

  32. Emily March 2, 2015 at 2:49 pm #

    One small thing–I don’t agree with rolling out an expensive “solution” (like foul-smelling and possibly carcinogenic rubber as a playground safety surface instead of sand, mulch, or even just earth and grass), but given the choice, I think that resurfacing the playground is better than ripping it out altogether. Our YMCA used to have a small play structure for the preschool kids in the childcare (just a climber with stairs, a plastic “rock wall,” a tunnel, and a slide or two), but it was torn down years ago, for safety reasons. Now the preschool play area consists of a giant empty sandbox where the playground used to be, and around that is just asphalt, and a fence. So, the kids either play in the sand, or ride tricycles, scooters, and kiddie cars in circles around the sandbox.

  33. Becks March 2, 2015 at 6:28 pm #

    The crazy thing is that there are supposedly intelligent and educated people who are paid to come up with and implement ideas like this. it seems to me a complete waste of time and it’s focusing attention on the wrong thing. There are problems with poverty, addiction, ACTUAL child abuse where we need solutions and resources. In my life I’ve only known one person who broke an arm at a park and one who fell off a bike and broke an arm. A friends little boy fell off his sofa onto a carpet and broke his collar bone! Should we be making the living room more safe too?

    My 8yr old boy has been a keen climber pretty much since he could walk so I let him get on with it and although he’s had a few falls, he’s not had more than a graze or a bruise. Other adults at the park would say ‘oh how can you let him climb that high, I’d feel sick if that was my child’ He was at the top of a climbing frame not up a 50ft tree! I fully expected a few broken bones and was prepared that that’s just what can go along with having a fun and adventurous childhood but it wasn’t enough for me to stop him climbing.

    I heard something in the school playground today that made me sad and actually quite disillusioned – a little boy, maybe 7 yrs old was playing chases with his friend, and he ran down a stairscase of about 5 stairs. His dad gave him a row for running on the stairs and reminded him that he’d been warned before about running because he might fall.

    It’s a very sad life for a lot of kids these days and parents are, in my mind, neglecting mchildrenmany areas of their child’s development. I know 10yr olds who can’t cross the road alone.

  34. ChicagoDad March 2, 2015 at 7:12 pm #

    @Rolf Huber. Thank you for the added details, those are helpful for understanding the proposed changes. My understanding is that the ASTM is proposing to change the standard from an HIC <1000 & Gmax <200 to an HIC of <700 & Gmax <105. If that is right, then the proposed change doesn't put the impact attenuation threshold below the examples you gave.

    When I looked up the CDC TBI statistics, I found 16,000 instead of 34,000 per year: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6039a1.htm?s_cid=mm6039a1_w#tab2
    And my understanding is that there are very few fatalities from playground falls (in the single digits annually).

    So I wonder, does this change really accomplish the safety improvements that its supporters claim it does? Is there evidence that the current standard is inadequate? Is this improvement worth the added costs?

    Apparently, I'm not the only one with this question, some members of the ASTM subcommittee looking at these changes wondered the same thing:
    http://www.parksandrecreation.org/2014/December/New-Playground-Criteria-Adopted-Amid-Controversy/

  35. SC March 2, 2015 at 7:33 pm #

    You know, I’m old enough that the playgrounds I visited had nothing but sand underneath. And this was in the desert Southwest. And yet I never remember seriously burning myself in the 100-degree heat on the sand or on the metal play fixtures. Apparently, even as a kid, I was smart enough NOT to hurt myself through my own stupid choices.

    Some kids will always make stupid choices. They’ll jump off the swings Superman-style, or go down the slide head-first, or do any number of dumb activities that will leave them with a skinned knee or a broken arm. That’s the price to pay for a normal, experiential, childhood.

    The current generation of indoor kids is creepy and pale. I vote for normal kids any day.

  36. gina March 2, 2015 at 10:40 pm #

    Scene 1:1965: my three year old sister climbs to the top of a high slide on a New York City Public School playground (yes, you used to be able to use the playgrounds on weekends). She falls straight back, giving my grandpa quite a fright…hits her head on the CONCRETE. She cries and goes back up the slide. Fast forward to 2015, she is a lawyer and a judge. No lasting damage.
    Scene 2: 2001: my 10 year old daughter’s friend falls from the monkey bars in our backyard onto grass/mud. She breaks her wrist. Still no lasting damage, but definitely a more serious injury.

    I don’t advocate playgrounds on concrete, but my point is that kids fall and most of the time, there is no lasting damage…even on concrete.

  37. Jenn M March 2, 2015 at 11:21 pm #

    My goddaughter was playing on one of the new safe rubber playground surfaces with her cousins she was running she fell and slid on her face she was left with a what was basically a burn down the middle of her forehead and nose the worst part was this was the day before kindergarten so all her first day of school pictures have this in them. I don’t think this would have happened on sand or mulch.

  38. Emily March 3, 2015 at 9:28 am #

    @Gina–what do you mean, “used to be able to use school playgrounds on weekends?” Everywhere I’ve ever lived, school playgrounds have been open to the public when school wasn’t in session, or maybe even when they weren’t being actively used for recess. What do they do where you live? Do they lock up the schoolyards when the schools are closed?

  39. Will Thomas March 3, 2015 at 10:58 am #

    When I was in grade school the playground surface was sand so deep it was hard to run in. The swings had wooden seats hung with chain. If one kid jumped off a seesaw, the other dropped like a rock. I remember the slides being at least as tall as two kids, and we had a merry-go-round that would turn as fast as the kids could push.
    Nobody died.

  40. SanityAnyone? March 3, 2015 at 11:05 am #

    Where will we get enough memory foam, goose down and cashmere fluff to fulfill the twelve inch depth requirement? This could lead to the extinction of mommy kisses to cure playground injuries, thus severing important parent-child bonds.

  41. derfel cadarn March 11, 2015 at 11:29 pm #

    For 99. 9% of human existence children rolled around in the dirt while at play, accepted hygiene practices and food quality assurance were appalling and yet we have survived. The earth was good enough and safe enougfh before v why not now ?