Swings, Slides and Safety

This archived article is from April 2005. Although every effort has been made to make sure the information presented is accurate, please note that it may contain information that is out-of-date.

As soon as the warm weather arrives, children head for the playground. Outdoor play helps youngsters develop physical coordination, social skills, and a healthy, active lifestyle, all while they have fun.

Canadians should not be willing to accept playground injuries as a rite of passage for their children.

When it comes to playground design, equipment height and surfacing are critical factors for safety. As the height increases, so should the amount of protective surfacing underneath it. There is a much higher risk of serious injury if the equipment is more than two metres high.

Roughnecks and daredevils can also be a problem. Nothing replaces adult supervision to prevent them from harming themselves or others.

CSA Standard

In July 2003, Canadian Standards Association (CSA) published the third edition of its standard on Children’s Playspaces and Equipment  (CAN/CSA-Z614). The standard serves as a guide to the proper design and maintenance of public playspaces and equipment for children aged 18 months to 12 years.

The standard applies to new playspace equipment, as well as additions to and replacement parts for existing playspaces and equipment. It is not retroactive. Compliance is voluntary unless mandated in government legislation or enforced by local authorities.

Simple measures, such as surfacing to cushion falls, reduce the chances of an injury without taking away from the fun. The standard specifies the types of protective surfacing material that may be used. These include: bark mulch, wood chips, engineered wood fibre, sand, gravel, shredded tires, rubber mats or tiles or poured-in-place materials. The depth of the fill depends on the material used.

Life threatening and debilitating injuries are rare and highly preventable. Some of the worst have been due to drawstring entanglements and head entrapments. Since 1982, strangulations from a rope, strap or drawstring becoming entangled in playground equipment led to 17 fatalities. To prevent such mishaps, the standard provides a procedure for measuring any openings to ensure they are safe.

Updates in the 2003 edition of the standard include: installer's responsibilities, exemptions for equipment designed for ground-level play, new guidelines for climbing net structures, additional guidelines on record keeping. The revision also more clearly specifies the energy absorbency of surface materials and provides more guidance in choosing surfacing materials.

Finally, the standard requires the playground owner or operator to have a comprehensive maintenance program, and to inspect the equipment regularly for potential hazards.

Profile of Playground Injuries

Falls from equipment account for about two-thirds of the injuries, and fractures are the most common type of injury.

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) playground injuries made up 8,698 of the emergency room visits in Ontario in 2002-2003. Almost half of the injuries (44 percent) occurred during the summer months of June, July and August. About seven percent, including severe fractures and head injuries, were serious enough to require at least one night in hospital.

Playground injuries have remained stable since 1998. If the rate of injury in Ontario is similar across Canada, an estimated 25,000 children nation-wide receive emergency treatment every year due to injuries in playgrounds.

Not surprisingly, over half (56 percent) of the children in the CIHI report were five to nine years old. In this age group, children are the most likely to play on the equipment, and are also starting to test their limits. Although they are becoming more confident in their physical skills, capabilities such as depth perception are not yet fully developed.

What Parents Can Do

With youngsters under four, parents tend to be very vigilant. They may catch the child at the bottom of the slide, push the swing and help out on the climbing apparatus. Five- to nine-year-olds are more likely to want to do things on their own.

The Canada Safety Council recommends that children should always be supervised by an adult and avoid clothes with drawstrings or scarves that can get caught in equipment.

When assessing a playground, parents should make sure the equipment is age-appropriate for their child. In addition, they should check that structures are in good repair, and that surfaces around any equipment from which a child could fall can absorb the impact of a fall; grass, dirt, asphalt or concrete are not acceptable.