Carefree playground days are thing of the past now

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

July 29, 1994|By Penny Roberts | Penny Roberts,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- In Lake Villa, Ill., a newly installed 10-foot metal slide was removed from Sherwood Park two weeks ago after parents, armed with a petition, complained to the Village Board that it was too dangerous.

In Chicago, the Park District sent workers to its 562 playgrounds this month to remove every tire swing, out of fear that children might be injured.

Playgrounds aren't what they used to be.

The days of daring metal slides descending to a worn patch of dirt, merry-go-rounds spinning fast enough to bring butterflies to the stomach, jungle gyms looming high over asphalt and bouncing wooden seesaws are gone.

They have been replaced by short, stationary structures with properly coated chains, strategically placed safety bars, well-sanded edges and, in case none of that works, a cushy place to land.

This new era of safety-consciousness, experts say, has been brought on by two driving forces in American society: the growing propensity for litigation and a growing effort among parents to make the environment safer for their children, particularly since most parents have less time to supervise them.

This fall, the National Playground Safety Institute will offer its first course to train individuals to become certified playground inspectors.

Some say parents and park officials are overreacting to minor injuries, but others believe such vigilance is necessary to prevent serious injuries. "Injuries will occur; that's the nature of 11 play," said Ken Kutska of Wheaton, Ill., president-elect of the National Recreation and Parks Association. "What we're trying to do is eliminate the known hazards so that nothing serious happens."

Playground safety hit the spotlight in 1991, when the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued its first comprehensive guidelines for playgrounds. Last year, the American Society For Testing Materials came out with its first set of standards for equipment manufacturers.

Nearly 170,000 children are injured in playground accidents each year that require emergency room treatment, and about 17 of them die, according to a study issued this summer by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the Consumer Federation of America.

The majority of accidents -- 75 percent -- were caused by falls from the equipment. An estimated 92 percent of playgrounds nationwide lack adequate surface protection or have equipment that is considered unsafe, the study found.

There are no statistics that show whether the new playgrounds are safer, and some industry experts believe parents and park districts have overreacted to the safety concerns. Many of the problems could be avoided, they say, if children were better supervised and if they used the equipment as it was intended.

"It's not in the public's best interest for us to suddenly remove everything that isn't in compliance," because some parks would have virtually no play equipment, said Kevin Hoffman, director of the Park District Risk Management Agency, a insurance group carrier for area park districts. "It's something that ought to be addressed in a deliberate plan."

Playgrounds developed in the United States in the 19th century as industrial cities were growing, creating the need for outdoor recreational areas for urban dwellers.

By today's standards, those first playgrounds were perilous. Slides and jungle gyms sometimes towered 12 to 14 feet high and lacked safety bars. Much of the equipment had moving parts: merry-go-rounds, seesaws and swinging metal animals. And surface areas were usually just grass and dirt, or, worse, concrete.

But in the last decade, a wave of personal-injury litigation has swept the country. While public entities are shielded from some liability, they can be sued if they are proven to have been aware of the danger but done nothing about it.

There have been a number of highly publicized incidents, such as the 5-year-old Michigan girl who was strangled on a slide in January when the drawstring from her coat became tangled in one of its bars. In 1988, a 10-year-old Washington, D.C., boy suffered brain damage after falling from an 8-foot climber onto the asphalt below. He was awarded $15 million -- believed to be the largest settlement of its kind.

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