A combination of government regulations and free market innovation has created playgrounds that are incredibly safe for kids… except if they die of boredom. All the fun stuff is gone, but boy is what's left non-lethal!
The CDC reports that in the 10 years from 1990 to 2000, there were just 31 deaths from playground falls, and 70 percent of these were at playgrounds in someone's backyard. This means that on public playgrounds, there was an average of about one death per year from falling. With about 40,000,000 kids in America under age 10, that means the chances of a child dying or seriously hurting himself in a playground fall are infinitesimal.
Nevertheless, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) has proposed new standards that would revamp the surfacing materials on playgrounds. ASTM's stated mission is to prevent concussions and head injuries. But with the chances of these accidents already so low, you have to wonder about their true intentions.
The ASTM has established important standards in a range of areas throughout its 100-year history. It is a private organization, but local and state governments often require public areas to meet ASTM standards. Through this process, the government essentially requires submission to standards approved by non-government forces. The potential conflicts of interest in the ASTM are glaringly apparent since it is mostly made up of engineers and business owners, and that goes double when one considers the opaque process by which new playground surfacing standards become law.
Very soon—on or around April 1st—an electronic ballot will be opened to all committee members of what is less-than-felicitously called the "F08 on Sports Equipment, Playing Surfaces, and Facilities" task force, as well as "subcommittee F08.63 on Playground Surfacing Systems." Tim Gill, author of the blog Rethinking Childhood, says that even after several conversations with committee members, he still doesn't have a clear picture of what exactly the voting process entails and how proposals are approved. The ASTM does not make committee membership public. Likewise, committee papers and voting records are also hard to come by. And so, says Gill:
"I don't know for sure why the [surfacing] standards are being pushed so hard. It is clear that some committee members have a commercial interest in the topic (for instance, they have a financial interest in a supplier of playground surfacing that would meet the new standard, or in a surface-testing service). It may be that in some cases, their company would benefit from the change. In the absence of membership details, papers, voting records or public debate, it is hard to say too much more."
Even if all the members of the ASTM have only the best interests of kids in mind, it is still hard to say that these new standards would do anything to improve the safety of playgrounds. In fact, the case can be made that this attempt to make playgrounds safer may actually backfire and increase the risk of injury.
How's that? Consider the current concerns about extremely safe football helmets. The fear is that they may encourage adolescents and adults to lead with their heads when making a tackle, increasing the risk of brain injuries. Jay Beckwith, a playground expert, writes on his blog, "[Developmental physiologists] also are concerned that the lack of consequences when falling may retard the child's ability to form proper assessments of their skill, i.e. reduce their judgment."
David Ball at the Centre for Decision Analysis and Risk Management just published a paper called "Observations on Impact Attenuation Criteria for Playground Surfacing." That's a mouthful, but basically he wrote that even though the ASTM's proposed changes seem rational on the surface, there are potential negative ramifications that need to be taken more seriously:
"There is concern that an intervention of this nature might have significant and unintended consequences for play provision with knock-on implications for overall child welfare, because play is an essential constituent of growing up."
In other words: Kids need to play. If we have to shutter playgrounds because the local park district can't afford new surfacing—or new surfacing inspectors—kids will sit at home getting fat, depressed, and diabetic.
How much safer is that?