Category Archives: playground safety

Are Playground Injuries Really Where We’re Hurting Most?

Last week Canada’s national public broadcaster, CBC, aired an item on playground injuries. The lead pretty much summed it all up, a numbers story that fell short on broader context.

“More than 28,000 children are injured every year on playgrounds across Canada, and the rate of hospitalizations has gone up by eight per cent between 2007 and 2012, CBC News has learned.”

CBC Playground Injuries copy

One thing is sure, no one wants to see a child injured. I live in Halifax, Canada a city with more than 300 playgrounds. My kids and I have played at about 50. They’re well maintained, mostly of the predictable off the shelf variety that address safety concerns and are light on excitement. In the last few years, I don’t recall any media reports about serious injuries.

Now I’m sure we can make playgrounds safer. How about thick foam landing mats as ground covering like those that welcome pole vaulters as they fall earthward, or maybe getting kids suited up in protective gear? While I don’t want to make light of safety concerns, overzealousness on the safety scale reduces the ability of kids to experience and assess risk on their own. For a great resource on risk and play, read Tim Gill’s No Fear – Growing up in a risk averse society (free download).

I was disappointed in the CBC story and felt shortchanged. How many injuries occurr in homes, automobiles, skater parks? Where do playgrounds fit in the kid injury stats? Fortunately, others were thinking along the same lines including Chris Selley who shared her perspective in the National Post‘s Full Comment section of the paper.

“For 2010, the CIHI database of major injury hospitalizations contains 1,918 patients under the age of 20. Of those injuries, 387 (20%) were caused by falls. And of those 387 falls, just 12 (3%) involved playground equipment.”

The tenor of the CBC item may have left some parents alarmed, not to speak of cash strapped municipal governments whose capital budgets are the primary bankers for playground design, installation and maintenance.

DSC07730Halifax’s submarine playground, one of the few custom designs in the city

In truth though, the casualty here has to do with not reporting the bigger story – children are spending less and less time outdoors in self directed, independent play. It is not clear what long term repercussions will result from this societal shift that started taking place decades ago.

During the same week the CBC item was aired, two articles were published in the US. In the magazine aeon, Peter Gray wrote about the changing face of play in his article, The Play Deficit. He brings a researcher’s rigour to the subject.

“Over the same decades that children’s play has been declining, childhood mental disorders have been increasing.”

In The Atlantic Cities, writer Sarah Goodyear reflected on Gray’s article in her piece entitled Why our kids need play, now more than ever. Her conclusion is forceful.

“The problem is so deep and systemic that it must be addressed at all levels of society, beginning with the family. If you have kids, ask yourself if they are getting enough time to explore and run around.”

It was a great week for play in the US. This past weekend saw people gathering in Pennsylvania to promote and discuss The Philadelphia Declaration of Play. Click here if you would like to sign the Declaration or just find out more about this initiative.

Philly Declaration of PlaySome members of the Philadelphia Declaration of Play project

North America is not alone in the diminishing play scenario. The UK has a well documented challenge to contend with also. Take a look at Play England’s Love Outdoor Play campaign then ask yourself where the greater benefit lies. Is it in shining the light on the value of increasing independent play opportunities and addressing the root causes of its decline in the digital age, or is it in the relentless pursuit of safety at playgrounds?

With all due respect to those who have suffered playground injuries (and those who report on them), there is no doubt that safety issues are important, but we need to get at where we’re really hurting on a much more significant level – the shrinking role of play in our children’s lives.

Editor’s note – I was contacted by one of the reporters doing research for the national component of the CBC story. During a 20 to 30 minute conversation, I offered information on risk as it relates to play, suggested designers who provide alternatives to modular, ‘off the shelf’ playground equipment and pointed out other well established play traditions such as Europe’s adventure playgrounds that differ dramatically from the Canadian experience.

I followed up this conversation with an email that provided additional resources. Given that all my prior experiences speaking about play and playgrounds with CBC had been very positive, I was surprised that none of the background, particularly the linkages to risk as it relates to play, saw the light of day. I had been invited to do an on-air interview for the regional item coming out of Halifax but unfortunately this fell through due to scheduling conflicts.

I do hope there will be subsequent opportunities for CBC to examine the decline of independent play and its causes as well as the work that is being undertaken in Canada and around the world on behalf of kids to reverse this trend.

Are the Kids in Monterey, California Getting Railroaded?

The Dennis the Menace Playground in Monterey, California is stirring up passions again and community action is building up steam. The old Southern Pacific Company’s engine #1285 donated to the City and installed in the playground in 1956 is at the centre of all the fuss. It has the hallmarks of another case of safety zealotry run amok.

Photo credit – D&S McSpadden. Creative Commons – Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Is there a record of how many accidents have occurred since 1956? Has there been previous litigation against the City of Monterey? For over 50 years, kids have clambered, climbed, surefooted themselves across and over this workhorse from the days of steam.

Only two of ten switch engines made in the 1920s by Ohio’s Lima Locomotive Works for the Southern Pacific Company’s Pacific Lines have escaped the scrap yard. Only one, #1285, has brought so much joy, excitement and imagination powered adventure to so many kids. It has done so since the playground’s opening day but this could be about to change.

This YouTube video posted by the City to celebrate over 50 years of the Dennis the Menace Playground displays archival photos from the Monterey Public Library’s California History Room. The arrival and placement af steam locomotive #1285 was a key event back in the day.

Now the City Council is considering options which include a complete fencing off of #1285 so there is no access whatsoever for kids, or removal of the steam locomotive from the site altogether. Many in the community, and further afield, are up in arms and are organizing to keep the train in situ.

On August 23, the new Save The Train at Dennis The Menace Playground Facebook Page got up and running and continues to pick up speed with nearly 6,500 likes and almost 8,500 people ‘talking about’ the page.

In response to a letter from a citizen, the City Manager responded as follows.

Thank you for voicing your concerns regarding restricting public access to the steam engine at Dennis the Menace Park. I heartily agree that the train is a Monterey legacy and a favorite feature of the park enjoyed by generations of children.

Unfortunately, because there have been several incidences in which children have sustained injuries, we were compelled to review the safety aspects of retaining the train as a play structure. The result of the review is that the steam engine does not comply with current laws and regulations that have been established by the State of California. In other words, the play structure (steam engine) is not safe to play on. That fact can’t be disputed and is reinforced by the many comments we received that mentioned “mastering the climb on the steam engine without a fall” as something to be proud of. Frankly, falling from a 20′ high steam engine and getting severely injured is not something that this generation of parents and grandparents will tolerate.

Not only is the City obligated to comply with current mandatory play equipment standards, we also feel a strong responsibility to the public to do our very best to ensure their safety. We must seriously consider whether continuing the tradition of allowing access to the train outweighs the risk to the welfare of park visitors. After careful deliberation, staff is recommending to the City Council that erecting permanent fencing around the train is a solution that would allow us to keep the train as a historic feature of the park while ensuring that park visitors maintain a safe distance from the structure. Other options for the Council to decide among include keeping the steam engine accessible for future generations (and being liable for future claims stemming from falls of the engine) or, the Council could decide to remove the steam engine altogether and locate it elsewhere in our City or County, thus clearly distinguishing it as a historic monument and not a play structure.

These recommendations will be presented at the August 21, 2012 City Council meeting. No decision has been made as of yet. If you feel strongly that there is another solution to this issue, please come to the meeting to voice your opinion. We welcome any and all suggestions you may have.

Once again, thank you for your concern. I am very happy that you have enjoyed your visits to Dennis the Menace Park in the past and hope that you will continue to frequent our local parks.

Fred Meurer
City Manager

Dania King Ketcham Ranes, daughter of Dennis the Menace creator and playground benefactor, Hank Ketcham, has also posted her thoughts on the matter to Facebook.

To the Mayor and City Council,

My name is Dania Ketcham-Rhames and I am writing to ask that the train at Dennis the Menace park stay open for children to explore. The train has been there for the past 56 years, and now all of a sudden it’s going to become just a museum piece? I understand that this is a serious piece of equipment, but so are all the other play structures.

As children we learn how to play on these structures by climbing, sliding and exploring, I feel that the train is no different. My father was a very instrumental part of bringing this park together, the train being his idea, and it would be a sad day to see his vision fade away. The train, the bridge, the tunnels and the maze are the only original parts left of the park that I remember from my childhood.

Please don’t take this away. I know there have been accidents on the train but children fall and hurt themselves daily on bikes, skateboards, climbing trees etc… We all had to LEARN how to play on the train, and I believe it’s part of growing up in Monterey!

People come from all over to play at this park because it’s like no other, and I would really like it to stay that way. The train is an important piece of Monterey, and as a parent myself I want my child to be able to explore it when she is big enough. In the mean time I follow her on every piece of equipment there until I’m sure she can do it without me. It’s MY responsibility to make sure she is safe, as it should be of every parent. Dennis the Menace park is a special place to learn and grow for everyone, young and old.

Source: Save The Train at Dennis the Menace Playground Facebook Page

Traditional media are also weighing in as this editorial from Joseph W. Heston, KSBW President and General Manager illustrates.

Locomotive not loco parentis

We all know what a special place the Central Coast is to call home: rich with renowned beaches and “must see” family attractions, an international destination of unique activities and places to visit.

For over two generations now, one of those landmarks has been Monterey’s Dennis the Menace Park and the famous locomotive that was gifted to the city in the 1950s.

Over the years, that train engine’s served as a depot of sorts for the special memories built together by so many parents, grandparents, and children. But now, like Amtrak, that train’s in trouble!

You’ve likely seen or heard about the city’s temporary fence around the locomotive — and in September it will consider permanently sealing it off from the children with an iron fence like this one.

What a shame it is that we’ve come to this. To be fair, the city may be legally exposed because the locomotive doesn’t meet state minimum safety standards for playgrounds. Lawyers advise that signs cautioning parents of their need to supervise their children likely don’t go far enough.

But taking that to its logical conclusion, where do we draw the line? Do we chop down any and all trees in the park to keep little climbers from taking big falls? What about the climbing wall and monkey bars? Do we require all children who enter the park to wear a helmet to protect them from a child-endangering foul ball from that pesky baseball diamond next door? Of course not.

Bottom line: there’s no substitute for adult supervision, whether in the home or at the park. Ultimately that should be the solution. And we urge city leaders to find a creative and gutsy way to balance risk and benefit.

Don’t derail Monterey’s playground locomotive, simply hiding behind an argument that we want to keep children safe.

City Council is currently scheduled to have the train on the agenda for their October 2 meeting which begins at 7:00 p.m.

Southern Pacific’s old locomotive #1285 at The Dennis the Menace Playground is mobilizing public opinion about reasonable balance vis à vis safety issues. Let the kids play – have they changed that much since 1956 when the park was opened? It was a wilder, funner, more adrenalin charged place then. We could do with a bit more edge, more in keeping with the original type Dennis Playground and Europe’s Adventure Playgrounds and less with the bubblewrap, all contingencies covered, litigation free, antiseptic playspaces.

You may also be interested in reading:

Dennis is Dead, Long Live Dennis
Newsreel-Upside Down at Dennis The Menace Park
Dennis the Menace and Burning Man

For the story of California neighbours who reversed a City Hall decision, based partly on safety issues, to have a playground destroyed:

Monster Mash – Conservation Wins the Day in San Gabriel, California

Popular Mechanics on the Playground Beat

I remember Popular Mechanics as a boy growing up in the 1960s. One of the trademarks was a small font size. They also had wondrous plans, superb graphics and fine photos. Until I stumbled across an old issue, I had never considered it as a resource for playground research. At the turn of the last century, Popular Mechanics had started chronicling the playground world in the United States. Who knew?

Nearly 500 cities now have public playgrounds and about half of them receive municipal support. In 257 cities last year over $2,500,000 was spent on 1,543 playgrounds, and 4,132 attendants were hired.

Popular Mechanics – October 1913

“Providing play under intelligent direction,” was a primary motivator in the development of playgrounds as stated in the October 1913 issue of the magazine (see below). At the time, playgrounds were a relatively new phenomenon. The article comments on a governance shift moving responsibility for playgrounds from the oversight of private citizens to municipal governments.

The same article also relates the story of a New Orleans fly swatting contest. Nearly 4.5 million flies were dispatched in a two week period by 32 boys. Had Guinness been around surely they would have had a record on their hands.

Over the ensuing decades, the publication continued to print articles on do-it-yourself playgrounds, innovative playground design, and the latest trends occasionally going beyond America’s shores in search of examples and stories.

The October, 1924 issue featured a drawing of a revolving barrel worthy of inclusion in any lumberjack competition. It looks like a lot of fun but it’s not the type of equipment that would pass muster by today’s playground safety standards.

In the early 1930s, the magazine offered a do-it-yourself article for a backyard playground with a kid-powered mini Ferris wheel, a roller coaster simulation and a treadmill. In spite of what looks to be a lot of fun on paper, none of these apparently had the staying power to become part of the conventional playground canon.

In their September 1953 issue, Popular Mechanics published a one-page item entitled Junk-Yard Playground.

This photo taken in Copenhagen is an early example of an adventure playground. The concept of a space that is forever being tinkered with, a kinetic design and build studio for kids, went on to become popular in selected communities around the world. The build it approach fit right in with Popular Mechanic’s do-it-yourself focus.

Currently, adventure playgrounds are relatively few in number and in some instances under threat but the passion of their supporters is legendary. A recent example of citizen engagement that saved one adventure playground from possible destruction is in Irvine, California.

In 1956, the publication explored playgrounds with ‘imagination’. Primary examples of this new departure in playground design and equipment were drawn from California – specifically Oakland and San Francisco. It’s a time of experimentation, a time when designs embrace aesthetics and functionality.

Rounding out this PM retrospective is the ‘taking the hurt out of play’ piece from the September 1963 issue. It’s all about safety and reducing the risk of injury.

A half century of playground commentary starting nearly 100 years ago and many of the issues remain in play today. Around the world there is still inadequate space and resources being dedicated to playgrounds. Individuals, community groups and international organizations in North America and beyond are advocating to improve this situation. Design is ever evolving and will continue to bring to light new and imaginative structures and spaces. Witness this year’s inaugural Playable10 competition out of Atlanta. And of course there is the perennial debate around safety.

There are a few more gems left from my Popular Mechanics archival searches. There are some other publications that have printed interesting playground articles over the years too. Stay tuned to read more about them in a future post.

All images and all articles – Popular Mechanics.

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