Recreation Management article on safety includes insight from Playworld Systems' Ian Proud
Playground safety has been a focus of both equipment manufacturers and regulators for decades. Yet injury numbers have changed little in recent years: More than 200,000 children ages 14 and younger visit emergency departments across the United States for playground injuries each year.
Given the nation's population increase, the fact that injury numbers have stayed steady reflects an overall increase in safety, if a marginal one. But many children are still being injured, and the majority in the same way. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, 79 percent of playground injuries are the result of falls.
As playground owners and operators struggle to straddle these considerations, many are also turning to hybrid surfaces that include a layer of loose fill material in bags underneath with a tile or carpeted surface on top of it. "Because it's still loose under the top surface, you don't have a hardening over time as the unitary surfaces have," said Ian Proud, market research manager for a Lewisburg, Penn., manufacturer of playground equipment. "The head impact criteria is maintained over time, and you have the kind of access for wheelchairs and mobility devices that you have on the unitary surface. That's the beauty of the hybrid."
Through equipment like these climbers, as well as other playground innovations such as zip-line-inspired attractions, combination swings that require children to work together and new electronic play equipment options, equipment manufacturers are striving to create greater engagement with children without compromising safety.
"We're competing against screens of all kinds, and the conventional wisdom is that the age group we can successfully appeal to has declined," Proud said. "We've got to move that dial back up. We've got to have greater engagement and do that without endangering children and to break that perceived correlation between safety and perceived boredom."
As Proud noted, childhood opportunities for free play have declined since the 1950s. The number of activities that children can do on their own that are perceived as safe has declined, and parents are starting their children in sports programs earlier.
"I would argue that sports are not a replacement for free play because the child is not determining how, when, why and what they do—it's being determined by an adult," Proud said. "The child is not growing in understanding their limits and understanding what risk is and what their own limits are when a parent is directing them."
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