Playground Equipment Hazards and Inspection

by Nick Gromicko, CMI®

Playgrounds should be enjoyable places where children -- and parents -- don't have to worry about safety issues presented by the place or the play equipment. But children who use defective playground equipment are placed in considerable jeopardy. Their safety can be maximized through some simple and common-sense strategies.

Facts and Figures
According to the Centers for Disease Control:Playground equipment can cause serious injury
  • Each year, more than 200,000 children in the U.S. are treated in emergency rooms for playground-related injuries.
  • About 75% of all non-fatal playground-related injuries occur on public playgrounds, mostly at schools and daycare centers.
  • Playground-related injuries cost an estimated $1.2 billion in 1995.
  • Girls are more prone to playground-related injuries than boys (55% to 45%, respectively).
  • The most at-risk age group for playground-related injuries are children ages 5 to 9.
  • Swings are responsible for the most injuries on home playgrounds, while climbing apparatus is the most dangerous equipment on public playgrounds.
  • Playgrounds in low-income areas in New York City have more maintenance-related hazards than those in high-income neighborhoods. For example, trash, rusty play equipment, and damaged fall surfaces were found to be more common in poorer communities than in wealthy areas.

Maintenance and Inspection 
The following equipment inspection and maintenance advice will reduce the incidence of playground-related injuries.

Ground Surfaces

  • Hard surfaces, such as asphalt, concrete and blacktop, are never truly safe. Packed-earth and grass can also be unsafe because wear and weather can reduce their ability to soften a child’s fall.  More acceptable surface materials include wood chips, mulch, shredded rubber, pea gravel, sand, and safety-tested rubber mats. Of these options, rubber mats and wood chips allow the best wheelchair accessibility. Even the best surface materials are unsafe for falls greater than 12 feet.
  • The cushioned ground surface must extend at least 6 feet beyond the perimeter of all equipment. Certain playground structures, such as swings and slides, may require an even greater protective perimeter.
  • Surfaces should be free from items and debris, such as toys, tree roots and rocks, which may cause a child to trip and fall. Standing water can also cause dangerous slips.
  • Playgrounds should be maintained to remove dangerous debris, such as broken glass, sharp sticks and twisted metal, which may injure a child if he falls on them.


  • At least 9 feet of spacing is required for playground equipment taller than 30 inches.
  • Equipment with moving parts, such as see-saws, merry-go-rounds and swings, should be located in a separate area of the playground. Such equipment should also be inspected for pinch points that may crush a child’s hand or finger.
  • Swings should be spaced at least 24 inches apart and at least 30 inches from the support frame.
  • Tot swings should have full-bucket seats and their own bay.
  • Beware of spaces that may allow entrapment of limbs. Ladder rungs, for instance, should be less than 3½ inches or greater than 9 inches apart.
  • Equipment designed for younger children should be clearly separated from equipment meant for older children. Older children may be injured when they try to fit into equipment intended for younger children, just as small children lack the physical proportions necessary to be protected while using equipment intended for larger, older children.

For All Equipment

  • No damaged parts should be observable. Inspect wooden equipment for splintering or cracking, and check for metal equipment for rust. Materials should be durable and resistant to weathering and abuse. If a part is loose, broken or in need of maintenance, designate the equipment off-limits and report the problem to whoever is responsible for maintaining the equipment.
  • The fence that separates the playground from nearby traffic should be in good condition, with no unintended openings.
  • There should be no protruding objects with sharp, unfinished or otherwise awkward edges, such as bolts or S-shaped hooks, that could cut a child or catch or become entangled with their clothing.
  • Surface material should be free from animal droppings. A cover can be used at night to prevent birds, cats and other animals from using a child’s sandbox as a litter box.
  • Protective barriers, such as guardrails or walls, should be installed on elevated surfaces, including ramps and platforms.
According to the Amplatz Children’s Hospital at the University of Minnesota, the following types of equipment are never safe on playgrounds:Children should never stand on swings
  • animal-figure swings. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, one specific model of animal-figure swing has lead to one fatality and seven serious head injuries due to its great weight and size;
  • glider swings that hold more than one child at a time;
  • free-swinging ropes, as they may unravel, fray or form a noose. Never let a child tie a leash, a jump rope or other type of rope to playground equipment;
  • exercise rings (the kind used in gymnastics) and trapeze bars;
  • monkey bars; and
  • trampolines.

While ensuring that the safety of playground equipment will mitigate the dangers they pose to children, the protection is only partial if safe behaviors and practices are ignored. Specifically, children should be monitored to never do the following on playgrounds:

  • roughhouse or push each other while on playground equipment;
  • misuse equipment, such as sliding head-first down a slide, climbing guardrails, or leaping from or standing on swings;
  • jump from equipment if another child is in the way;
  • leave backpacks, bikes or other items near equipment;
  • use equipment that is wet and slippery;
  • use equipment that is uncomfortably hot;
  • wear necklaces, purses or clothes with drawstrings, as they pose snag and strangulation hazards; or
  • play outside on a sunny day without sunscreen.
In summary, playgrounds should be enjoyable and safe havens for children and parents alike, but they can be dangerous places if equipment is poorly designed or inadequately maintained, and if basic safety practices are disregarded.