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Preschool Education Articles

How Can We Provide Safe Playgrounds?

Outdoor playgrounds can be exciting places where children explore their environment while developing motor and social skills; however, they also can pose serious safety hazards. With the exception of those in California, no mandatory state or federal standards currently exist regarding the manufacture or installation of playground equipment or surfaces.

However, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) has established a voluntary industry standard for public playground safety (F 1487-93), and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has established voluntary guidelines. This brochure discusses common playground hazards and recommends actions that parents and others can take to increase playground safety.

What Makes a Playground Unsafe?

Each year hospital emergency rooms treat an estimated 200,000 children who have been injured in playground accidents. About 60 percent of these injuries are caused by children falling from playground equipment onto a hard and unyielding surface such as asphalt, concrete, or even the ground. Most playground injuries are caused by preventable hazards. These hazards include:

  • Inadequate fall zones under and spaces between playground equipment. The area under and around equipment should be covered with a minimum of 12 inches of protective, resilient surfacing material (such as wood chips, mulch, or rubber), extending a minimum of 6 feet in all directions. Fall zones around swings should extend twice the height of the swing hanger in front of and behind the swings. Swings should not be attached to play systems. There should be a minimum of 12 feet between play structures.

  • Absence of guard rails. Elevated surfaces such as platforms, ramps, and bridgeways should have guard rails to prevent accidental falls.

  • Dangerous protrusions and entanglements. Objects such as nails, screws, bolts, pipe ends, and sharp or pointed hardware can impale or cut children. Hooks or parts that catch strings and clothing can cause strangulation. Open S hooks allow swing seats to slip off their chains and can cause children to fall.

  • Hazardous entrapment areas. Openings between posts, ladder rungs, deck levels, or entryways are fine for foot-first entry, but they can also entrap children's heads. Ideally, openings on playground equipment should measure less than 3 inches or more than 9 inches.

  • Dangerous swing seats. Hard wood or metal swing seats can hit children passing too closely to or jumping off a swing. Heavy animal-type swings are particularly dangerous because they act as battering rams; bumpers attached to these swings do not reduce the risk of injury.

  • Other dangerous playground equipment. Equipment such as suspension bridges, merry-go-rounds, swinging gates, and seesaws (teeter-totters) may have moving parts that can pinch or crush children's fingers or other body parts.

  • Age-inappropriate equipment. It is important to ensure that playground equipment is appropriate to the age group using it. For example, equipment for children in preschool should have guard rails on elevated surfaces higher than 20 inches, and it should be separated from equipment for school-age children. Small children may not have the coordination and balance to climb on equipment designed for older children.

  • Inadequate supervision or lack of supervision. It is estimated that more than 40 percent of playground injuries are directly related to lack of proper supervision. Most children are unable to foresee danger.

Parents and school staff need to be alert to potential hazards.

How Can You Help Children Play Safely?

Proper supervision is essential to safe play. Parents and teachers should ensure that children observe the following rules:

  • Wear shoes, such as sneakers, that do not slide on wet surfaces. However, check for footwear rules at indoor play areas.

  • Do not play on slippery or wet equipment or force body parts through small spaces.

  • Do not play on hot metal surfaces, such as slides, that may cause third-degree burns.

  • Do not cross in front or behind moving swings.

  • Get off a seesaw only when your partner's feet are on the ground.

  • Do not push or pull others while playing on climbing equipment.

How Can an Unsafe Playground Be Made Safe?

If a playground is unsafe, it can be renovated by making these improvements:

  • Install a fall zone of appropriate materials that extends the correct distance in all directions under all equipment.

  • Modify unsafe equipment if it is economical; otherwise, unsafe equipment should be replaced.

  • Replace hard swing seats with softer ones and remove animal-type swings and multiple-occupancy glider swings.

  • Install guard or barrier walls on all elevated surfaces, close S hooks, and modify protrusions.

  • Space equipment appropriately and remove equipment with openings that can trap children's heads.

  • Remove hazards that children may trip over, such as exposed concrete footings, tree roots, stumps, or rocks; modify containment borders and abrupt changes in surface elevations.

  • Talk with contractors and equipment manufacturers to ensure that equipment complies with safety standards.


Most of the following references—those identified with an ED or EJ number—have been abstracted and are in the ERIC database.

Consumer Product Safety Commission. 1991. Handbook for Public Playground Safety. Washington, DC.  [1997 revised edition is available at]

Jambor, T., and S.D. Palmer. 1991. Playground Safety Manual. Birmingham, AL: Injury Control Research Center, University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Wallach, Frances. April 1995. Playground Safety: The Long Trail. Parks & Recreation. Arlington, VA: National Recreation and Park Association.

This brochure is based on the ERIC Digest Safer Playgrounds for Young Children by Charlotte M. Hendricks (ED 355 206) and The Dirty Dozen: Are They Hiding in Your Child's Playground? (available from the National Recreation and Park Association).

This publication was prepared by ACCESS ERIC with funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under Contract No. RR92024001. The opinions expressed in this brochure do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the U.S. Department of Education. This brochure is in the public domain. Authorization to reproduce it in whole or in part is granted.

(C) Copyright 1997-2019 by Preschool Education

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