Tom Peeples has found some of the oddest things lurking in Colorado’s playgrounds.
He’s found drug paraphernalia. Sex toys. Broken glass. Cocaine. Needles. Once he actually found a bomb.
But what concerns him even more than these occasional unsettling discoveries are the far less spectacular but far more frequent dangers to children that he finds:
Hard surfaces. Cords or ropes that could entangle a child’s clothing. Loose screws. Unstable play equipment. Worn-out moving parts.
Peeples is a Certified Playground Safety Inspector, and it’s his job to help schools, parks departments and other organizations that have play areas for children figure out how to make them thrilling enough to be fun for kids but safe enough that nobody gets seriously hurt.
It’s not an easy balance to strike.
Risks versus hazards on the playground
“Children need risks,” said Peeples, who has 30 years experience in the parks and recreation industry. “They don’t need hazards.”
The difference is this: It’s delightfully scary to a child to climb to a height of 7 or 8 feet. That’s a risk. A hazard is if they fall and land on improper surfacing that leaves them injured.
“I need to remove the hazard, to improve the surfacing to accommodate for that inevitable fall,” said Peeples, of Arvada.
Every year, more than 200,000 children across the United States are injured in playground and play area accidents. Nationally, falls are the leading cause of emergency room visits for children under 15.
In Colorado, falls are also the leading cause of injury-related hospitalizations for children 1-14, and more than half are incurred on the playground or during sports or recreational activities, statistics from the state Department of Public Health and Environment show.
On average, about 120 youngsters in Colorado are hospitalized each year because of falls from playground equipment.
Public playgrounds began in Boston in 1885
The first recorded public playground in America was the Boston Sand Gardens, which opened in 1885.
The idea of setting aside public areas for children quickly caught on. Soon, equipment was being set up in these play areas to give kids a place to climb, slide and scamper.
It wasn’t until 1921 that the first warning about unsafe play equipment was issued. The National Recreation Association recommended that all Giant Strides be banned from public playgrounds for safety.
The Giant Stride was a gymnastic piece of equipment consisting of an upright pole with a revolving disk on top. Attached to the disk were hooked grips. Children could grab hold of a grip and be swung around in the air. It was sort of like a flying merry-go-round.
It was also extremely dangerous, as children were likely to be tossed off or smash into the center pole or one another.
Ninety years later, Peeples found a Giant Stride still in use in a municipal playground in Colorado.
“I go out to a lot of places and I am appalled,” he said.
“But for the majority of places, you see things changing. A lot of new playgrounds are being installed all over the state. That’s great. And there’s a lot more awareness of safety today than ever before. I’m seeing a lot of the old things coming out.”
Too safe = no fun
But if new playgrounds are safer than old ones, they also run the risk of being a lot more boring – and potentially damaging to children in other ways.
In a paper published last year in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, Norwegian researchers concluded that “risky play” is necessary to help young children learn to master their environments. Children who don’t challenge themselves with scary things to climb and ride appear to become more fearful later on than those who do – even those who slightly injure themselves in the process, they said.
That squares with what Peeples has found, and he bemoans the sterilization of some playgrounds.
“It represents the fear of lawsuits,” he said. “Sometimes, we make them so safe that after three minutes, a child is done. I see a lot of benefit to swinging, bouncing, crawling. But one of my favorites is imaginative play.”
Peeples recalls one particularly appealing piece of playground equipment he once installed. It was a 10-foot-long, 4 foot-wide fire truck. But it was just 6 inches high.
“There were a lot of kids waiting to play on this fire truck the day it opened,” he said. “I looked back and this little structure had 20 kids on it. I listened to them as they played, and it was amazing all the different things they were imagining. Some were on a fire truck but some were in a house. One child had a rock and was beating on the steering wheel. He was making the bell on the fire truck. Imaginative things like that are good.”
All in all, Colorado fares well its attention to playground safety. Across the state, schools and other public playgrounds are banishing old-fashioned surfacing in favor of new materials and better design.
“When I was a kid, we played on dirt over asphalt,” Peeples said. “And I hear that a lot. People say ‘When I was kid, we played on those things and I made it to adulthood.’ But there were so many injuries from that. If we know that children are being hurt or getting killed by playground equipment, we owe it to them to provide a safe place to play.”
Safety audits, regular inspections needed
Peeples advises schools that are overhauling old playgrounds to conduct a thorough safety audit on the new playground, then schedule regular maintenance inspections. The audit provides a baseline and ensures that the contractor who installed the new equipment met all the safety requirements. Sometimes they don’t, Peeples said.
Once an audit has been completed, school staff who are trained in playground maintenance should conduct regular inspections to look for vandalism, storm damage, litter, breakage or other hazards.
Tom Noyes, maintenance supervisor for Boulder County schools, sends out inspectors twice a year and teaches school custodians to do at least a monthly inspection of the playground.
“We expect to find things,” he said. “Let’s face it, there’s a lot of kids in our elementary schools, and the playground equipment gets pretty extensive use. We find things with just about every inspection.”
So far, he hasn’t found any bombs. But he did find some durable steel playground equipment sheared in half. “We still haven’t figure out how that happened,” he said.
Even well-designed, safety-conscious playgrounds can pose a hazard to children. Equipment gets used by adventuresome children in ways never intended. Or the little kids wind up on equipment meant for bigger kids. Or bigger kids take over equipment where little kids are playing and knock them around in the process.
That’s why supervision on a playground is so important, Peeples said. Adult playground supervisors need to be trained to spot hazards that may not at first be obvious. For example, drawstrings or scarves can become entangled in equipment, and loose clothing should be tucked in. Older kids may need just a loose eye kept on them, but children under 5 should always have nearby supervision.