Playgrounds: Obvious Fun – Hidden Dangers…

Every parent wants a neighborhood playground, but some are dangerous…

Swing sets, slides, monkey bars, are often what an active kid needs to unwind and burn off that ‘drive the parents crazy’ energy…. But what most of us don’t know, is that playgrounds, are often silent killers – 15 kids this year will be killed from falls in a playground. Every year 200,000 kids are injured, 90,000 seriously, and 15 die, from injuries at playgrounds, the overwhelming majority caused by falls.

Looks Like a Good Playground… Watch Out It’s Really Dangerous!

And this is not a problem confined to poor neighborhoods, or school districts without much money. Dangerously defective, and negligently maintained, playgrounds can be found everywhere, even in the richest areas in the country.

Recently my family went on vacation in California, staying with friends in Tustin, Orange County. This is an affluent area full of soccer moms and professionals. Red Hill Elementary is an award wining K-5 school, where our friends play soccer, the school has it’s own website, an active PTA, and even a fine arts program. Their playground is also dangerously, negligently, maintained…


PARENT STEP #1. Check to See That Falls Are Cushioned.

Nearly 70 percent of all playground injuries are related to falls to the surface. Acceptable surfaces include hardwood fiber/mulch, pea gravel, sand and synthetic materials such as poured-in-place, rubber mats or tiles. Playground surfaces should not be concrete, asphalt, grass, blacktop, packed dirt or rocks.  (NPPS Site).

At least 5″ of missing cushioning!

All loose fill material compacts; rubber the least, wet wood chips the most. For most playgrounds, with the common equipment, they should have about 9″ of loose fill material, because of compaction, they should be filled about 12″. Good design should have marks on the equipment that shows where the minimum fill line is, and it should be regularly checked and maintained to make sure that the minimum fill is present. Red Hill playground is missing about 5″ inches!

Parent Tip: It’s not possible to have too much loose fill material, but it’s dangerous to have too little. Advocate for more!

PARENT STEP #2. Check to See Equipment is Safe & Well Maintained.

Exposed Concrete Footing! -A Skull Cracker!

Check to make sure the equipment is anchored safely in the ground, all equipment pieces are in good working order, S-hooks are entirely closed, bolts are not protruding, there are no exposed footings, etc. (NPPS Site).

Look at this concrete footing. Imagine if your child fell, even if they landed on their feet, but they fell backwards and hit their head on this. That could be a fatal injury! This footing should be redone, and perhaps a permanent flexible absorbent mat attached to it, then buried in the loose fill cushioning.

Parent Tip: Don’t tolerate exposed concrete footings, they can kill a child!

PARENT STEP #3. Check the Swings.

Swings are a special danger. The current standards say that you should have double the swing height in free space (the use zone) before and after the swing. So if the swing bar (what the chain hooks too) is 6′ high, there should be a 12′ use zone in front and 12′ behind the swing.

Under the swing, the standards say that the best design should have a flexible mat, buried in the cushioning loose fill material. Swing ‘scoop outs’ should be raked back and the material ‘fluffed up’.

1″ Landscaping Rock Mixed With Bark Under the Swings – Click Photo

This is a dangerous swing area….

Pay Attention to the Drainage Layer. Notice how the bark has been scooped out by play? This has exposed and broken through the landscape fabric and worked into the layer of crushed drainage rock below. Crushed rock is now spread all over the area and mixed in with the wood chips. A better design would have been to use pea gravel for drainage because pea gravel is an approved surface cushioning material, so if the kids broke through the landscape fabric because of poor maintenance, then the underlying drainage layer would still be a safe surface. Of course this doesn’t excuse their negligent maintenance of the playground…

Parent Tip: Pay Special Attention to the Swing set areas, their use zone if often too small, and the ‘scoup outs’ are usually pretty bad. Get these fixed because kids coming off swings are moving at a high speed!

Video from NPPS on fall surfacing:

Keep Aware of the Danger’s! Kids are Dying!
Media Coverage of the Massive Problem in the LA parks system, including coverage of an 8yr old who died…

PARENT STEP #4. Read the Standards – Get Educated!

As part of your mission to improve your local park or school playground, get educated about the standards. Reading the handbook and digging through the website will take you 1-2 hrs, and prepare you to take on the school principal or the parks department.

When you read the standards, particularly the CPSC Public Playground Safety Handbook you will see there are Templates, Gauges, and Testing Tools you can make to test your local playground equipment. Try to enlist a handy friend, maybe in your PTA, to make a durable set, but almost anyone can make a set from some cardboard. Before you make a set of the templates, put together a small set of tools to inspect your local playground: Tape Measure, Ruler, Shovel, Rake, Notepad, Digital Camera; these tools will help you do 90% of the work inspecting your local playground.

Parent Tip: It’s pretty easy to check out the local playground, print the checklists, take your basic tools, and make some notes…Sean’s Combined Checklist

PARENT STEP #5. Write Letters

The most important word in the law is – Notice, so write letters to the responsible people, don’t call, write letters, because as we lawyers like to say – Paper doesn’t lie! Writing to the school principal, parks department, city mayor, and local newspaper, puts the school/park on notice that the problem exists, and should force them to fix it. If they don’t fix it, then they have actual notice (actual notice is a legal standard that says that the party has been informed that the problem exists and there is really no question that they will be liable for any injuries that happen as a result. In short, be the squeaky wheel, keep writing your letters, and get your playground fixed. Read the letter that I wrote to the school district, and principal of Red Hill Elementary: Ltr to Red Hill Elementary

In this letter I do 8 things.

  1. I put the school on notice of the violations
  2. I provide them with specific instances of violations found on their property
  3. I refer them to the appropriate safety standards
  4. I inform them that they must make the repairs necessary
  5. I inform them that they must maintain the property adequately
  6. I inform them that they will be liable for any injuries that result from their continued negligence.
  7. I demand that they index the letter as a public record
  8. I request written acknowledgment of the letter

With this letter they now have ACTUAL NOTICE of their violation of the safety standards. This is important because if a claim happens after this date, the school district will not be able to say they didn’t know about the problem, the standards, or the dangers. When you write your letters, follow the same format. If you speak orally with a school official follow up every conversation with a letter stating what the conversation was about. Follow this outlined letter to write about your playground: Sean’s Playground Ltr Outline

PARENT STEP #6. Take a rake and shovel to the playground every time.

Take your small set of playground tools to your local playground: Tape Measure, Ruler, Shovel, Rake, Notepad, Digital Camera; spend a few minutes raking back the loose fill material. Maintaining this stuff doesn’t take a lawyer’s brain, but it takes persistence, so spend a few minutes helping out…

PARENT STEP #7. Read and Check Out the Sites at the end for more information:

Update! 1/4/2013
As a result of my letters, and this blog coverage, my friend reports that Red Hill Elementary in Orange county, fixed the problems I documented! So write your letters, and be the squeaky wheel, it works! :)

I hope this helps you keep your kids safe,

Stay Safe, Get Smart, Take Care,


Legal Information That Will Change & Save Your Life…

READ THESE!: Links to the Safety Standards & Checklists:

Sean’s Combined Checklist

CPSC Public Playground Safety Handbook

CPSC Public Playground Safety Handbook (Español)

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Public Playground Safety Checklist

National Program for Playground Safety

National Program for Playground Safety Report Card (Checklist)