Playgrounds are a common amenity at thousands of schools across the nation. But if the play area is not designed with safety in mind, or if the equipment provided puts children at risk, a playground can become a place of danger and potential tragedy.

The National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) at the University of Northern Iowa has conducted a risk factor survey with information from more than 3,000 school, child-care, and park playgrounds in the United States to assess the level of safety provided for children.

In its latest report card on playground safety, the organization gave school playgrounds a “C+” for safety in 2004, the same grade that schools received in 2000. Parks, childcare centers and U.S. playgrounds in general also received a “C+” on their report cards. (The NPPS also determined grades for individual states. Those can be viewed at www.playgroundsafety.org/reportcard/index.htm.)

The report card determined that several areas of school playground safety warranted a failing grade: too few school playgrounds had supervision rules posted; playgrounds were lacking separate areas for different age groups and signage identifying appropriate ages; and too much equipment was not free of splinters.

“Greater improvements need to be made in areas of supervision, age-appropriate design, fall surfacing and equipment maintenance in order to have ‘A’ playgrounds,” the report card says. “Specifically, the posting of rules, separating play spaces and maintaining the appropriate depth of loose-fill materials will improve the safety of playgrounds.”

The report card notes that the most common pieces of equipment found on school playgrounds are slides (93 percent), horizontal ladders (73 percent) and swings (57 percent). What all of those have in common is the risk of falling.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, falls are a factor in nearly 80 percent of playground injuries. It urges schools to make sure playgrounds have at least 9 inches of safe, shock-absorbing surface material to provide a cushion for children. The surface material should consist of wood chips, mulch, sand, pea gravel or mats made of safety-tested rubber.

Surfaces to avoid, the NPPS says, are concrete, asphalt, grass, blacktop, dirt or rocks.

The NPPS also urges schools to check equipment to make sure S-hooks are closed entirely and that no bolts are protruding that could catch on children's clothing.

NOTABLE

205,860

Estimated number of preschool- and elementary-age children that receive emergency care each year for injuries that occur on playground equipment.

45

Estimated percentage of playground-related injuries (in an average year) to children using public equipment at schools.

79

Percentage of playground-related injuries in which falling was a contributing factor.

147

From 1990 to 2000, the number of U.S. deaths of children younger than 15 that involved playground equipment.

Source: National Program for Playground Safety and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.