Defending Against Disaster

Each year, more than 200,000 children nationwide are hurt seriously enough on playgrounds to require emergency treatment or hospital admittance, according to the Virginia Department of Health. As startling as that statistic sounds, parents and caregivers still expect playgrounds to be safe.

As the manager of a playground, you have the responsibility to ensure that no child is hurt. You may assume it can’t happen because it’s just a playground--it doesn’t require helmets, safety pads or harnesses--yet the risk is there unless you manage it through properly installed equipment and continuous vigilance by you and your staff.

State governments and the Consumer Product Safety Commission provide extensive information on building playgrounds. This article focuses on equipping staff with the tools to maintain the safety of a playground once it is built according to specific standards.

You can keep the playground safe and avoid costly injuries by training staff to do a daily safety check. Here are seven essentials to watch for:

1. Assess the ground cover. Acceptable ground covers are composed of wood chips, mulch, sand or pea gravel at least 12 inches deep, or mats made of safety-tested rubber or rubber-like materials. Rain and use often wear away these ground covers, especially under swings, at the bottom of slides and in other high-traffic areas. The covering needs to be raked regularly, and new materials should be added as they are packed down and tracked away.

2. Do a ground search for trash and debris. Every day, users leave trash and debris at a playground--bottles, cans, candy wrappers and food. This litter must be picked up before it turns into hazards--broken glass, rusting cans or rodent magnets. Provide adequate trash cans for users, and post signs requesting help in keeping the playground clean. Staff must understand the importance of picking up the trash.

3. Watch out for tripping hazards. Check that nothing--playground borders or limbs from nearby trees--can snag or trip patrons. Border logs--around sandboxes, shaded areas and picnic tables--should be flush with the ground, but can work their way out over time with constant traffic. These should be hammered back into position as soon as they are noticed.

4. Check that guardrails are secure and that nails, screws and bolts are flush with the surface. Over time, nails, screws and bolts in playground equipment come loose. Gone unchecked, guardrails will not do their job of protecting children from falls, and the equipment overall will become unstable and wiggle. Loose nails and unprotected screws also present potential hazards for snags and cuts. Anything with sharp edges or points--even an open S-hook--can present a risk and needs to be tightened, hammered or replaced.

5. Survey the signage. Signs that describe safe use of equipment, age appropriateness, location of first-aid supplies and contact information for management should be clearly posted. Not only will signs relay important information, they can protect you from litigation if someone is injured. This is especially important if supervisors are not present during the hours the playground is open. Staff should take inventory to make sure the signs are not lost, stolen or damaged.

6. Confirm that drinking water is available. Access to drinking water is important to the safety of children as they play. Either a water fountain or a plastic container of water should be available when the playground is in use. If you have an unsupervised play yard, include a water fountain nearby; if you have a supervised playground and do not have a water fountain, make water available in a plastic container. Staff should be sure that the water is present and/or the fountain is in working order--especially when the weather is hot.

7. Be certain adequate staff is scheduled. If your playground does not have supervisors on duty, that information needs to be displayed on signs. If you do provide adult supervisors, the times they are present should be posted. Supervisors should be trained and scheduled in a way that offers a safe environment for children. For example, if five staff members are scheduled to work but only three members are present, portions of the playground should be closed until the proper staff-to-user ratio is reached. Also, staff should be trained to continually move around on the playground so areas are never out of sight and unsupervised.

Accidents can happen in an instant. Protect the children who use your playground, and fulfill the expectations of their parents and caregivers through daily evaluations of its safety. Train staff to value safety and equip them to maintain that level. Don’t let the agony of an injured child happen at your facility.

Maile Armstrong is a former camp director, and now operates Armstrong Unlimited in Montvale,Va., providing services for camps and youth programs. She specializes in staff training workshops, first aid and CPR, program development and risk-management as well as sales and placement of AEDs.

Nancy Ferguson is a church-camp professional living on the eastern shore of Virginia near ChincoteagueIsland. She creates resources for camp leaders and staff. She is the author of six books and a frequent workshop leader at camp conferences. Visit her Web site at:

For More Information On Playground Safety

· National Program for Playground Safety based at the University of Iowa:

· Consumer Product Safety Commission:· Virginia Department of Health: (Or visit your local government page.) Playground Safety Handbook is downloadable from its Web