Is Your Church's Playground as Safe as It Can Be?

The benefits of a playground certainly should not be eliminated, but steps need to be taken to reduce the risk of injury. (Photo by Myles Tan on Unsplash)

There are few things more enjoyable than seeing a group of children having the time of their lives at a playground. Unfortunately, many of these scenes end with a child being injured – sometimes seriously – because safety hazards were not dealt with or supervision was lacking.

According to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 500,000 children receive medical treatment each year due to a playground injury. More than 200,000 of those injuries demand emergency room treatment, which means a serious injury happens at a playground every 2.5 minutes.

Despite these sobering statistics, the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) points out that challenges found in a well-designed play area are important for the emotional, social and intellectual development of a child. And for many, this is their first social experience.

The benefits of a playground certainly should not be eliminated, but steps need to be taken to reduce the risk of injury.

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Planning a New Playground

Designing a new playground can be an exciting time for adults and children alike, and the process should include both. The first step in planning a playground is to define requirements. Factors to consider include the size of the playground, location, age of users and activities taking place.

Selecting the correct equipment for those using the playground provides the foundation on which all safety measures are built.

Knowing playgrounds should be built for two different age groups, two- to five-year-olds and five- to 12-year-olds, Trinity Lutheran School in Merrill, Wisconsin planned accordingly.

"Our preschool playground is fenced in to create a safer environment for our younger students," said Kathy Yahr, administrator at Trinity Lutheran School. "The equipment itself is lower to the ground and geared toward their smaller bodies and different interests."

Supervision

As with all events involving children, supervision at your playground is a requirement that cannot be overlooked. More than 40 percent of playground injuries at schools are related to inadequate supervision.

NPPS recommends following the ABCs of proper supervision.

Anticipate. This refers to both potential site hazards and problems that could occur because of group dynamics or the behavior of individual students.

Behavior. This refers to the behavior of both adults and students. The adult needs to follow good supervision practices, which means moving, actively observing and interacting with the students. Meanwhile, students need to know which behaviors are and are not acceptable on the playground.

Context. Consistency is critical to playground safety. You should have a supervision plan that addresses a sensible child/adult ratio (never fewer than two adults), an injury management and reporting system, and discipline plan.

Maintenance

Similar to any other building, system or equipment, playground equipment, components and surface fill materials do break and require periodic maintenance to prevent component failure and ensure effectiveness. In fact, more than 30 percent of playground injuries are related to inadequate or inappropriate maintenance. Regular playground inspections should be included as part of an on-going preventative maintenance plan.

"At the end of winter and during the summer months, our maintenance staff inspects the playground. They physically handle, access and move the different equipment to simulate a child's use," said Yahr. "We're looking for physical wear and tear, whether the extreme temperature fluctuations in Wisconsin have caused any components to break down or if there has been any accidental damage."

During these inspections, Trinity Lutheran School often finds things that are easy to fix, such as improper depth of surfacing materials, loose fasteners, worn hardware, deteriorated rubber and plastic components or exposed concrete footings.

Some simple steps can help make your play area safer for the children in your care. If you are considering major playground upgrades, you can contact a Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI) to conduct a playground audit. An audit looks at what pieces are on the playground, their condition and how they measure up to nationally recognized standards. An audit can also form the basis for your planned upgrades. Most organizations can rarely afford to make all changes and upgrades at once, so the audit will prioritize the changes that need to be made to remove, repair or replace equipment.

Author's Note: The information contained in this article is intended solely to provide general guidance on topics that may be of interest to you. While we have made reasonable efforts to present accurate and reliable information, Church Mutual Insurance Company disclaims all liability for any errors or omissions, or for any actions you take or fail to take based on these recommendations. The information provided may not apply to your particular facts or circumstances; therefore, you should seek professional advice prior to relying on any information that may be found in this article.

Brad Tischendorf is a risk control analyst for Church Mutual Insurance Company. He has held numerous consultative discussions with Church Mutual policyholders regarding playground safety topics. Visit churchmutual.com for more information.

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