How Safe Is Junior at Play? (cont.)

Teetering Between Safety and Fun

Although playgrounds like the one described above may be state of the art with their soft surfaces and other safety touches, design alone can't guarantee safety. Experts say that more adult supervision is needed to lower injury rates, as well. "Manufacturers can't create a completely injury-proof play system," says John Preston, chief engineer for children's products at CPSC until last year.

In fact, building a totally safe piece of equipment isn't just impossible, it's unrealistic as well. "Safety is a paramount concern," says Mike Hayward, director of Little Tikes Commercial Play Systems, one of the largest manufacturers of playground equipment in the United States. "But if the equipment does not hold sufficient challenge for kids, they'll simply find the challenge elsewhere -- usually by climbing a nearby fence or tree."

So playground planners have to walk a fine line -- offering sufficient stimulation and fun for kids, while keeping the likelihood of injuries down. "We want kids on playgrounds," says Laura Tosi, MD, chairwoman of pediatric orthopedic surgery at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "We don't want them seeking adventure elsewhere."

Surface Matters

A prerequisite for a successful playground, it seems, is something to climb on -- and what goes up must come down. More than 70% of equipment-related injuries treated in emergency rooms in 1998 were the result of falls, according to the CPSC. Swings lead the way for kids ages 0 to 4, according to the NPPS, closely followed by climbers -- which can be anything from old-style monkey bars to modern, elevated bridges and curlicue towers. Climbing equipment caused the most injuries for kids ages 5 to 14.

That's where the new playground surfaces come into play, literally. "It's not so much the distance kids fall, it's what they land on that's crucial," explains Tosi. A fall to a hard surface -- such as packed dirt (whose shock absorption changes with the seasons) or concrete -- is more likely to cause a serious head injury, the most frequent cause of playground deaths, say experts. In fact, "surface covering is the single biggest factor that determines the severity of a playground injury," says Tosi. As a result, many manufacturers now offer soft surfacing materials such as mulch, wood chips, or rubber-like materials to accompany the new play systems.

Keeping Close Watch

Efforts have also been made to keep kids closer to the ground. According to voluntary CPSC guidelines (established in 1991 and updated in 1997), the maximum height of climbers has been set at 84 inches for school-aged children and 60 inches for preschoolers. It's also suggested that ladders have steps instead of rungs, promoting greater stability. And, of course, the guidelines offer a list of other simple corrections that can save children from injury -- nuts and bolts that are smooth and inset, so children can't scrape themselves or catch their clothing, for instance.

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