Eliminate Playgrounds? You Must Be Nuts!

By James A. Peterson

James A. Peterson is professor emeritus in the Department of Recreation and Park Administration at Indiana University.

Reprinted from the April 2002 issue of Parks & Recreation. Copyright 2002 National Recreation and Park Association.

Just think: If we could eliminate all public playgrounds, we would no longer have to worry about accidents or having enough money to purchase or replace equipment. There would be no need for maintenance or costly repairs. No more lawsuits. Our lives as park and recreation professionals would be a whole lot easier. Of course, hundreds of thousands of families would be without playgrounds, but that would be their worry.

Actually, we do have a problem of major proportions with our public playgrounds. There is a serious playground accident happening every two-and-a-half minutes.

  • Do we know where these accidents are happening?
  • Do we know who is getting injured?
  • Do we know how and why these accidents are happening?
  • Do we know how to identify and eliminate hazards on the playground?
  • Do we know how to prevent playground accidents in the future?
    Well, maybe
  • Can we reduce most of the serious accidents?
    Probably, with a lot of help from readers like you.

There is no such thing as a 100-percent safe playground given the unpredictability of children, yet we should not consider taking away the opportunities playgrounds afford just because we can't guarantee no one will ever get hurt. The thought of doing away with playgrounds is not as far-fetched as you might think. I recently heard of a state that is discussing the end of playgrounds and recess in their public schools. In my opinion, it would be a grievous error and a dismal day if play were eradicated. Think of telling 40 million American children that there is no more recess on the playground. Right.

Besides a kid's right to fun, some neuroscientists believe that playgrounds are a valuable benefit for developing children. While we think primarily of the physical attributes of play -- running, skipping, sliding, jumping, swinging and hopping -- there is much more to it than that. Scientists at The Children's Institute for Research and Development emphasize how play experiences benefit the cognitive, social and emotional development in children. Children's games actually program the brain for language, art, math and science, as well as build interpersonal abilities and intelligence. Kinesthetics is the perception of movement through nerves in the muscles, tendons and joints. This process is enhanced with continued physical activity at an early age. A Baylor University College of Medicine study reported that children who do not play develop brains that are 20% to 30% smaller than normal for their age.

Is there any doubt that children need the physical, social and multi-sensory experiences that take place during play? What our children don't need, however, are playgrounds with hidden hazards that could lead to broken bones, skinned arms and legs, concussions, and even, on occasion, death.

Eliminate Hazards

The National Playground Safety Institute (NPSI) spends a great deal of time identifying the difference between a risk and a hazard. A risk is something we as individuals are willing to take. It implies the voluntary taking of a chance. An adult can look down the black diamond run of a ski slope and decide to go for it. It is his choice, a risk he is willing to take. It may be hazardous to his health if he misjudges and ends up in the hospital, but he's making that choice. Likewise, if a four-year-old looks down an eight-foot slide and decides it is worth the risk and goes for it, it is his choice to try the slide. It is our responsibility to make certain the experience is as free of hazards as possible.

A playground hazard is something that is hidden, an unforeseen or unexpected danger to the unsuspecting. Hazards can cause bodily injury. Hazards are the professional's responsibility; we in the field of leisure services need to be aware of a protruding bolt or space on the platform that might catch a shoulder strap or jacket cord and strangle an unsuspecting child. Playground hazards are the responsibility of owners, operators, designers, manufacturers, and all others responsible for children on the playground. Those who are responsible for playgrounds and child safety must eliminate hazards. Children, in their enthusiasm to play, cannot be expected to recognize hazards.

One of the easiest ways you may be able to cope with the risk management skills needed for safer playgrounds is to become acutely aware of how to identify hazards. That is the thrust of the National Playground Safety Institute, which is sponsored by the National Recreation and Park Association in cooperation with state affiliates. Currently, over 8,000 individuals have taken a course and become Certified Playground Inspectors. Why not add this certification to your list of professional skills?

Join the growing list of administrators, risk managers, landscape architects, maintenance foremen and crews, attorneys, parents, equipment manufacturers, sales reps, distributors, child-care personnel and military supervisors who have become better informed by enrolling in one of the NPSI institutes. They are offered about 40 times a year throughout the country.

In addition, there is a very informative brochure entitled "The Dirty Dozen" that is a great handout for parents, administrators and caretakers. It points out the 12 most serious hazards found on public playgrounds. You can order copies online at or by calling NRPA Publications Orders at 866.538.1926. Do your part in reducing playground hazards and help prevent those unnecessary accidents and deaths on our playgrounds.

Where, Who, How and Why?

On playgrounds, children are getting hurt mostly by falls. Statistics show that 79% of all playground accidents are due to falls. Most of these, 68%, are due to falls to the surface and 10% are from falls to the equipment. Just eliminate falls, and you solve almost 80% of the problem. Well, it's not quite that easy. Kids also get hurt from entanglement, head entrapment and impact with stationary or moving equipment.

Most injuries, about 56%, are happening to the five to nine age group. The next largest group injured is the two to four year olds (27%), with the rest scattered among the remaining ages. As for how and why they are being injured, there are several key reasons. Improper use of equipment and the lack of adult supervision account for 44% of injuries. Poor maintenance is responsible for one out of three accidents. The remainder are due to improper equipment, faulty installation and poor layout and design.