Children love playgrounds and most will try out any equipment that they are able to circumnavigate, whether or not it is entirely suitable for their age, size or abilities. Although it is expected that young children should always be supervised at playgrounds, even under supervision, accidents may occur. The greatest danger is falling, and injuries from falls are the most common accidents at playgrounds. Some injuries result from normal risks and natural play, but are sometimes caused by faulty or dangerous equipment or a lack of proper supervision.
The Canadian Paediatric Society report on playground accidents states that more than 29,000 children under 15 years of age are treated for playground injuries in Canadian hospitals every year. The highest risk of injury is for children aged five to nine. Not surprisingly, most playground injuries occur in the summer, followed by fall and spring.
Playground injuries can be lessened by improving playground design, for example, by lowering the height of playground equipment and through safe placement of various equipment. Other safety measures include using soft impact-absorbing surfaces under all surfaces to cushion a fall. Also, playgrounds should be constructed with enough room for safe physical activity. Another approach that is proven successful at reducing injuries is constructing age-appropriate equipment which may entail two play areas, one each for younger and older children.
Although the majority of playground injuries are caused by falling, children are also sometimes injured due to impacts with an obstacle; when cut, squeezed or crushed; and more rarely, by being entrapped. The most frequent injury that requires a child to be hospitalized is a fracture, usually of the arms, due to falls from climbing apparatus and less commonly, from a slide or swing. In a study of children hospitalized due to playground falls from 1994 to 2003, 81 per cent suffered a fracture, 14 per cent had a head injury and the remainder had other injuries such as dislocated joints and open wounds. In many cases, head injuries were caused by falls from a swing. The good news is that during the timeframe of this study, there was a 27 per cent decline in hospitalization for playground injuries, likely due to safety improvements in playground equipment and design.
Home playground equipment is responsible for about 20 per cent of playground-related injuries. At home or in a neighbour's backyard, it is children under the age of five who are most likely to be injured. Climbing apparatus or structures, swings and slides account for most of these injuries.
Strategies to reduce playground injuries
Regardless of the playground structure, it is always very important that children, particularly younger children, are actively and adequately supervised. This may entail proper supervision at a school or day care; during personal playtime, it means attentive supervision by parents or a babysitter.
Improvements to playground design can and have greatly reduced playground injuries, when implemented. Research has shown that the height and impact of a fall greatly influences the kind and severity of injuries. The Canadian Standards Association (CSA) has published a guide entitled Children’s Playspaces and Equipment (last revised in 2007), which provides detailed specifications on the design of each piece of equipment, playground layout, access to equipment, surfacing materials, equipment performance and strength requirements, and inspection and maintenance.
Some of the CSA recommendations are:
- designing equipment at lower heights
- age-appropriate equipment
- equipment with protective barriers or guardrails to prevent falls
- replace horizontal with vertical bars to discourage climbing
- loose fill such as wood chips, synthetic surfaces or pea gravel, to a minimum depth of 15 cm for preschool play areas and 30 cm for full-size equipment.
In the event that a child suffers an injury resulting from negligence, such as dangerous playground equipment or design, or inadequate school/child care supervision, parents are entitled to claim damages for their child's injury. If a child is injured in a backyard play accident, the homeowner may too be liable for the injury if there was a dangerous condition that led to the accident. Under the Occupiers’ Liability Act, the occupier of a property, including owners, tenants and parties who control the activities on a property, can be held negligent if they failed to keep anyone coming onto their property reasonably safe. The standard of care is generally held higher when children are the primary users of a property or are injured as a result of a dangerous condition.
In addition to designing and constructing playgrounds that are safe, municipalities and schools must ensure that their playgrounds are regularly (and adequately) inspected or maintained. If an inspection identifies degrading equipment, including broken or cracked surfaces, repairs need to be made in a reasonable and timely manner. Further, playground operators need to document their inspections and any repairs that were made, to protect against allegations that they did not take reasonable steps to fix a dangerous condition.