Free-Range Kids

New Playground Safety Requirements Are Absurd

The chances of a child dying or seriously hurting himself in a playground fall are infinitesimal.


Sergeyt / Dreamstime

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?

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  1. an intervention of this nature might have significant and unintended consequences for play provision with knock-on implications

    Emphasis added. Sheesh, please speak American.

    1. Knock up implications?

    2. You’d prefer “illegal forward pass”?

      But seriously, folks, padding the ground doesn’t make playgrounds less fun, but does cost more, and if not maintained well enough (like the Field Turf now at the site of the old Rice Stadium in Pelham Bay Park) make it easy to trip on loose seams. Padding other surfaces may or may not reduce fun.

  2. Cronyism at its best.

    1. This is just like the ObamaChair now found next to every hotel pool in America. Except that a debt-laden community is more likely to tear out a playground than a hotel would be to close its pool permanently.

    2. ASTM has been very trustworthy over many years. They wouldn’t maintain their reputation & respect (and hence voluntary adherence) if serious conflicts of interest came out.

  3. “[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.”

    The solution is obvious, of course. Just cover the entire planetary surface with liquid rubber and transform Earth into a single Bounce House!

  4. Are they talking about the crumb rubber stuff? I thought that people were starting to raise health concerns about that. They’re still pushing it?

    What happened to good old fashioned sand?

    1. “SAND”?! You mean that stuff CATS crap in?!

    2. Feral cat lobby is not as strong as rubber manufacturing lobby.

    3. We had asphalt and were happy to bleed all over its black soul.

      1. We played kickball on asphalt in 6th grade. I threw out a girl running from second to third by hitting her right in between the legs as she ran causing her to trip and scrape up her arms and knees.

        Good times.

  5. All the fun stuff is gone, but boy is what’s left non-lethal!

    3 weeks ago my wife and I took our kids and a friend of my oldest (both are 9 years old) to what we thought was a cool playground, with a set up that looks like a big choo-choo train and slides.

    They got bored after 30 minutes and wanted to go home. We’re quickly running out of options because most of the cool playgrounds are all more or less alike. I remember the cool playground of my infancy had the big metal slides and other cool stuff that was, yes, somewhat dangerous. But since we “all pay for healthcare” now…

    1. BB Guns

  6. 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.

    Actually, according to the CDC’s data from the 1st paragraph, the evidence is already pretty clear that the kids are seeking out fun (and dying) elsewhere.

    1. That’s the irony of assemblyman Benedetto’s bill to outlaw adult-organized football & soccer for children under 14 in NY: Kids’ll continue to play those sports, only without adult supervision.

      Don’t get me wrong, children should play sports & other activities unsup’v’d some of the time, but there are safety & other benefits from adult coaching.

  7. If it saves just one facility from being sued, it’s worth it

  8. Obviously the solution is *virtual* playgrounds.

  9. Seriously, isn’t the threat of death or injury part of the “fun”?

    I mean, when I was a kid, what made the big monkey-bar dome “fun” was the sheer terror of climbing to the top without falling. That was the WHOLE. GODDAMN. POINT. The kids that got to the top could taunt the other kids as cowards.

    Swings? Go as high as possible because tempting the edge of your tolerance for heights was FUN.

    Slides? Go as fast as possible, because the more danger the more exciting it is.

    No wonder kids find playgrounds boring.

    Fortunately, they cannot eliminate nature, and there are still plenty of spots for kids to go drown in a stream or fall off of rocks.

    1. There is a school next to the park by my house and I was surprised when they redid the playground, it actually looked like a playground and had things to climb on!

      That said, when I take my son to play there, he is usually the only one.

    2. Absolutely. Danger is important. And the danger posed by old-style playgrounds was still very small.

      The old school swings were awesome. The key is to get going as high as possible and then jump off.

      1. At my elementary school the swings were mind bogglingly set on top of a hill. If you jumped of at the high point of your swinging you got to “fly” an extra five or so feet down the slope. I remember laying on the ground with a twisted ankle thinking how awesomely far I got. The nun who came out to help me limp back inside was impressed too. That was the greatest playground of all time.

        1. at my elementary skool (publik), wheather your jump was long or short was determined by if you made it off the woodchips and landed on the asphalt, the record was set by a kid that made it his full body length into the asphalt and landed on his head.

  10. “Through this process, the government essentially requires submission to standards approved by non-government forces.”

    Sorry Lenore that statement isn’t the scare quote around here that you think it is.

    Better would be to have parents decide which non-government standards to follow.

    1. No, it is the scare quote she things it is, because the non-government forces are in cahoots with the government to generate money for the non-government forces. It’s not a legitimate standard, it’s an industry approved one that the government adopts FOR THE BENEFIT of the non-government forces. That is wrong.

  11. Any kid with an imagination will find scary things to do. My brother and I used to like jumping from high places such as off the garage roof or jumping into an abandoned quarry into the deep water below. I remember hanging from the monkey bars and getting pushed off, then landing on my feet catlike. Good times 🙂

    Hopefully kids will do stuff like this–it sure helped me keep fit as a kid.

    1. When my kids were growing up, any injury not involving running blood and/or broken bones was ignored, same as when I was growing up. The most gruesome thing I did as a child was step on a nail that went all the way through my foot and firmly attach the board that the nail was sticking out of to the bottom of my foot. My dad did pay attention to that, but he called me a Communist for interrupting his football watching.

  12. One of the most important lessons a child must learn is gravity works and the ground is HARD. If you deny them a chance to learn this when young, they’ll learn it later when the consequences are a hell lot more substantial than a skinned knee.

    1. Yes, but then they’ll have ObamaCare. Permission slip to do stupid dangerous stuff, because someone else will pay for it.

  13. Big Foam Rubber, lobbyist at work.

  14. This like every other regulation in the past 40 years is the result of progressives attempting to use the government to control the people. Kids are kids and all the regulations in the world will not keep them from doing stupid stuff. Growing up the “man” was Evel Knievel and ever one of us boys wanted to be like him. So what did we do, started building ramps with plywood and using our bikes to jump over metal trash cans. Accidents happen, but to try and have a regulation for every possible situation in life is insane. It amazes me that so many of us manage to live since if you were born before 1974, you rod in cars without seat belts, rode your bike without a helmet, played outside until dark without the police charging your parents with neglect, did get suspended for playing cops and robbers at school, no one called you a racist because you were
    shooting” you cap pistol at a friend wearing a head dress and shooting back at you with a bow and arrows. It seems as soon as kids find something fun to do, progressives have to have some rule to prevent or regulate it so it is no longer fun. Another article talks about how colleges are “infantizing” students. Found out yesterday my Alma Mater brings in “therapy dogs” and has chair massages to help students deal with stress of midterms and finals. WTF? I thought that is what beer and liquor were for… LMAO!!!

    1. At leas they get real dogs. Saw an article about a feminist conference where the “safe room” featured videos of cute puppies. I guess they didn’t want the trauma of puppy poop.

      We used to go just off campus to where the local theater would play an hour of Roadrunner cartoons. That would be way to violent these days.

  15. Do they even have these things anymore? Best toy on the playground AFAIC.

  16. When I was in the single digits of yrs., at any given time it was likely I had at least one bruise somewhere in some stage of development.

  17. So, there’s this old mining town we like to visit that is kind of caving in or sliding off the mountain…depending on where you are. The old play ground has metal everything. The kind that gets burning hot. TALL metal slide with no safety rails. Very fast-fly off the end and splat. Metal climbing thing that you can fall off of and smack your way down to the ground. Swings, etc. kids LOVED it. We would day trip it just for the play ground. Fun times.

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