Playground dangers loom over children

Unsafe playgrounds: Too many injuries result from deteriorating, old equipment.

July 13, 1999

WITH MORE than 200,000 serious injuries to children each year, the nation's playgrounds belie their image as safe places to play. Outmoded, broken unsafe equipment is a major problem. Lack of common-sense parental supervision of younger kids is another. And so is the discouraging shadow of crime that hovers over many city playgrounds.

The reported injuries are not the Band-Aid type -- they are hospital emergency room statistics. And that figure represents less than 10 percent of the actual total, estimates Susan DeFrancesco of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Johns Hopkins University. Some 15 to 20 children die each year from playground injuries.

Hard surfaces contribute to three-quarters of the injuries -- although almost 20 years since the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission called for using wood chips, rubber matting or sand instead of asphalt, concrete and packed soil. The advisory is not law; officials favor hard surfaces for easy cleaning, despite the danger.

Other dangers for playground users are swing chains that can strangle children or sever fingers, hard seats that can cause serious impact injuries, equipment placed too high that increases the severity of falls, narrow gaps between rungs and rails that can entrap small heads.

Some places are doing something about it. Several Maryland counties recently received state grants to assess the safety of public playgrounds and to promote safety awareness. The evaluations will help to identify deficiencies in other playgrounds.

Playing Safe, a public-private partnership, rebuilt a model playground in the southwestern Mill Hill area of the city, driving out the drug trade that made the old facility a forbidding site for play. The project is raising money for model makeovers at 10 other city playgrounds, and pushing for a city-wide playground renewal program. Meanwhile, the state plans to fund playground improvements throughout Maryland in areas designated as high-crime centers.

The task in Baltimore is formidable, with $15 million needed for renovation. More than half the city's 300 school and park playgrounds have dangerous hard surfaces; many have older equipment in poor repair. Grounds are littered with drug needles, broken glass and trash. At current budget levels, it would take 20 years to do the work. (City voters will be asked on the November ballot to approve a special $1 million bond issue to renew 10 priority playgrounds.)

Parents and communities must be vigilant. Children at play must be carefully supervised, equipment inspected for safety defects and damaged equipment promptly repaired or replaced.

Pub Date: 7/13/99

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