Does the bureaucratic process guarantee safety on U.S. playgrounds?

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American playgrounds are not becoming safer with the preoccupation of safety taking precedence. Accidents still occur. The compensation culture in the United States has gone over board. The heightened scrutiny on child safety and the bureaucratic maze in playground accidents redirect the interests of the child’s development to the value judgments of the adult—parent and administrator. Safety guidelines serve as a support to the litigation to track the error and rationalize accountability of an accident. The outcome of lawsuits should improve the type of environments that children will play on. Instead, litigation for the child’s sake misguides the decisions of administrators and playground manufacturers. Safe play should not reduce and remove the spontaneity in child’s play and compromise their ability to learn independently. The landscape of playgrounds has significantly transformed into a more complicated space for a child to freely explore and challenge itself.

Safety is a basic concern in children’s experience to learn, explore, and invent on their own. The purpose of playground safety guidelines serves to avoid obvious hazards, improve on faulty technical issues, and minimize risks. As early as 1940, a document was released to California recreation workers called “Safety Versus Lawsuits” that consisted of recommendations for constructing playgrounds and to avoid lawsuits. One such recommendation suggested to test equipment out to assure its safety because it would be “impossible to convince a court or jury that a playground device is safe when injuries are proven to have occurred frequently upon it” (Jacobson, 1940, p. 34).

Liability issues are the forefront of change, improvement, and an obstacle for playgrounds as sites of growth and challenge for children. The increase of lawsuits and accidents occurring in playgrounds prompted the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 1981, to publish the first “Handbook for Public Playground Safety.” Since then, the guidelines grew more complex from the first version consisting of 13 pages, then increasing to 43 pages in 1997, and then to 81 pages in 2006 (American Journal of Play, 2008, p. 148). Along with each provision, more specifications to the equipment and maintenance of the playground space were added and justly revised. These safety guidelines and standards also influence and provide additional fuel for litigation involving playground accidents.

The lack of wide-ranging research data about playground safety initiated different groups to conduct research from their respective fields. In the Seventies, there were studies conducted by the National Electronic Injury Survey System (NEISS), the United States Food and Drug Administrations’ Bureau of Product Safety, and the Accident Prevention of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The latter group issued a statement for safety standards for children’s home playground equipment. The NEISS provided statistical estimates of the amount and severity of injuries in hospital emergency rooms that are connected to consumer products like playground equipment (NEISS, 1982). Over time, these studies would be instrumental to develop safety standards and further influence other studies that would look at problem areas, such as surfaces and size and materiality of equipment (Frost, 1986, p. 18). The studies concluded that the worst features of playgrounds are high heights, hard surfaces, head entrapment spaces, and loose equipment parts that children can get trapped in (American Journal of Play, 2008, p. 147).

The responsibility of the parks department is to maintain and regulate safety on playgrounds. Yet this past year, the New York Comptroller Office reported a rise in playground injury claims (Office of the New York City Comptroller, 2015). It is understandable if the parks department cannot always accomplish their maintenance duties, but if equipment consistently causes an injury, it should be improved. This was not the case in 2013, at a park in Park Slope, Brooklyn where five children on separate occasions suffered a broken leg injury from the same swing (NY Press, 2015). City Comptroller Scott Stringer emphasized that this data could be used to fix problems. As written in the report, “By analyzing claims in real time, we can identify potential weaknesses in our city’s playgrounds…” (Office of the New York City Comptroller, 2015, p. 8). The swing was installed too low to the ground and instead of responding to the accidents and adjusting the swing, the Parks department removed it entirely (NY Press, 2015). The loose parts of playgrounds require supervision that is inconvenient for adults, so manufactured equipment is more convenient because they are easier to maintain. Not all standardization reduces the child’s exploration and creativity, but actually keeps them protected and prevents more injuries to occur.

Roger Hart, professor of environmental psychology and the director of the Children’s Environments Research Group nostalgically recalls the role of “parkies” who, in the Forties and Fifties, provided the basic resources for children to play and watched over them in case there were fights or troubling issues. However, when there were budgetary cuts on the parks department, the first to go were the park supervisors. Hart comments how, in New York City, the donors of funded public works “want to see their money spent in visible form”(Hart, 2002, p. 141). They would rather see elaborate structures, shapes, and shiny surfaces than playground supervisors who would support the play environments. “The absence of caring adults in parks is a major reason why children are not allowed to play in public spaces anymore”(Hart, 2002, p. 144). Now, if a child wants to go to a playground, they need to be accompanied by an adult.

Because schools, park districts, and administrators are afraid of the legal consequences, they set up stricter rules for children to follow in the playgrounds. Many schools ban typical playground games that include physical contact and cut recreation time over fear that they will be hit with a lawsuit. An example of this was in Oklahoma, where the parents of Pocola Elementary School issued a collective complaint because the playground rules were too strict. Many of the rules prohibit most physical contact that children would have with equipment and each other. “No climbing up on slides, no jumping out of swings, no climbing on top of the monkey bars” (5News: KFSM, 2015). In addition, no balls are to be used and no games such as tag, football, and kickball will be permitted. One mother stated that she would not let her children attend the school claiming, “They can’t play tag, they can’t play kickball. I mean that’s what I grew up doing when I was a kid” (5News: KFSM, 2015). The change in childhood norms brings up a question about what have our children lost from the fears of child safety.

Changes in school curricula and parenting have drastically altered the priorities of the child. Recess is reduced and the child is not provided with the space to learn who they are and what they are capable of other than their academic performance levels. Parenting norms have changed for the parent to be hyper-involved in their child’s life. Kids cannot be by themselves anymore with the fear of someone taking them or the parents missing out on a moment in the child’s life. Parents do not want to take the risk of their child facing failure that they will hold their hand in every decision-making process of their life.

In 1978, the parents of a two-year-old child named Frank Nelson sued the Chicago Park District and the two manufacturing companies for Frank’s head injury falling off a handrail on a slide. Their son was left with permanent brain damage and speech and vision impairment. Strikingly, Frank’s mother was with her son as he was going up the twelve-foot slide. The lawsuit was settled seven years later for an estimated minimum of $9.5 million. As one reader who wrote to the newspaper said, “Who is responsible for a child in a park, the park district or the parent? How sterile an environment do we need or do we want?” (Chicago Tribune, 1985).

In the lawsuit, the park district and the manufacturing companies were charged with negligence. What is forgotten in this scenario is that Frank Nelson’s mother was with him in the playground (Chicago Tribune, 1985). How could she let her (two-year-old son at the time) go up a twelve-foot slide? Her judgment should be as equally called into question for the accident and permanent damages that her son received. In outdoor playgrounds, supervision is more based on the parent. In regards to city playgrounds, a child must request their parent or guardian to accompany them if they choose to go.

Recently, this past August, at an elementary school in Cedarville, Arkansas, seven-year-old Zach Moore was critically injured from a school playground accident. Zach suffered severe head trauma, but the family or hospital could not figure exactly what caused it. The incident report filed by the County Sheriff’s Office stated that Zach was locked under a metal bench. When the Moore family asked for the surveillance video that showed what happened and assist the doctors to treating their son, the school district denied their request. In schools, the teachers and school heads are placed with responsibility. The school district based their decision on the fact that there were other children in the video, according to documents (Rogers, 2015). More likely, they did not want to make themselves susceptible to the child’s injury. Eventually, a judge ordered the school district to release the video, which showed that the playground was still under construction. According to the parents’ attorney, the school district cannot be held liable because it was the construction company’s responsibility to make sure the site was safe (Sitek and Simon, 2015).

The manufactures and owners of playgrounds are at a legal disadvantage particularly with the inconsistency between national and state regulations. U.S. states can choose to make the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission guidelines as law. Currently, only sixteen states have adopted the guidelines (Playgroundsafety.org, 2015). In the relationship between state and town county, the state holds more legal power than the park districts, who directly manage every other aspect of playground safety including funding, production, and maintenance.

In America, there is more than one organization or agency that offers safety guidelines for playgrounds. These organizations work together to provide more specific guidelines towards the relevant groups that are part of the regulation of playground upkeep and safety. The International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) is a non-profit membership organization that corresponds to manufacturing of playground equipment and surfacing

(Ipema.org, 2015). The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission provides a comprehensive guidebook that offers safety tips for playgrounds. They hired the National Recreation and Park Association to develop playground safety standards in 1981. The American Society for Testing and Materials prepared more technical safety standards for manufacturers (American Journal of Play, 2008, p. 146).

In 2013, a Chicago playground that was left unfinished in Hyde Park became a hotbed for public drinking, sexual activity, and drug dealing. A member of the advisory council of the neighborhood recalled finding “underwear on the slides” and instructions for putting on a condom. The reason that the playground was left in its unfinished state was because of wrong equipment being ordered causing the contractor to back out of the project (Cholke, 2013). This site of play had become a site of illegal activity by the negligence of the park district and poor decision making of representatives. It has been sixteen years since the playground was originally to be fixed.

The process of having a city park in a neighborhood largely depends on who is backing the project. In the case of this Chicago Park district, a volunteer council needed to raise one-third of the cost for the Park district to consider the proposal. If there were aldermen who would support the project, it would increase the funding and interest of the Chicago Park District to cover the rest of the costs. The park district representative could not confirm when the playground equipment would be installed (Cora, 2012). This incident highlights the role that funding plays in the construction and maintenance of playgrounds, including safety guidelines.

In Los Angeles during the 1950s, the increase of injuries and deaths influenced the school superintendent and the Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Playground Surfaces conducted their own separate reports on playground surfaces (Frost, 1986, p. 17). The superintendent’s report supported the use of blacktop surfaces, while the Citizens’ Advisory Committee report summarized that durable material be placed under equipment and that more studies conducted on the resiliency of surface materials, supervision, and instruction be enforced. They also made the conclusion that the way in which the body hits the surface, not the type of surface, affects the kind of injury. Their conclusion influenced a case against the city of Los Angeles involving the deaths of two children after falling on hard surfaced areas. The city’s defense that won the case stated, “How you land is more significant than what you fall on, in determining the severity of injury…” (Recreation, 1952, p. 324). This group of related events around the Los Angeles public schools prompted the city’s school’s district to install rubber surfacing under equipment, and one school in Pasadena installed eight inches of sand under equipment (Recreation, 1952, p. 325).

We need to open up a space for children to take on an active role in their play. After World War II, loose play spaces called adventure playgrounds popped up all over Europe. In the U.S., the culture of fear and drive towards a risk-averse society does not create a thriving place for adventure playgrounds to exist. One of the few adventure playgrounds in the U.S. is in Berkeley, California. In a National Public Radio (NPR) interview, the playground manager, Denise Brown, said that there are fewer injuries in this playground because there are “no hidden risks.” A child can get an impression that this is not a typical, standard playground. “There are sticks and boards and nails and rocks and things they need to watch out for” (Wiederholt, 2006). Interestingly, the city’s parks and recreation department ran the playground. The docking fees from Berkeley marina nearby mostly fund the playground (Westervelt, 2014). Next year, the Berkeley adventure playground will start charging small entrance fees (Official Website of the City of Berkeley, CA, 2015). In a society that spends so much money to eliminate risk, it is worth it to use some money to put back risk into play.

In New York City, there are over 100 playgrounds in the tri-state area, but not all of them are accessible for children (Official Website of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, 2015). In some upper class neighborhoods, a key is required to enter the playground premises. High crime rates and maintenance negligence in low-income neighborhoods do not make the playgrounds easily accessible. Recent efforts to revitalize the spirit of play spaces highlights the contemporary nuances and mutual cooperation to extend farther than play and kids. Spaces of play do not have to be playgrounds. In 2010, local streets in New York neighborhoods of East Harlem and the South Bronx were closed off for a two-month period and re-allocated as “play streets.” Seven civic groups worked with the police and other city agencies during certain periods of the day to invite and encourage the children in the neighborhoods to participate in various games and activities such as yoga, running, tennis, and rugby. The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene assisted in managing the project (Appelbaum, 2011).

The success of the first “play streets” led the Department to continue and expand the program to twelve play streets in the following year. They were also deliberately placed near neglected parks and school playgrounds to remind kids and local residents of their neighborhood park facilities (Appelbaum, 2011). The hope is that the city’s parks department will be urged to maintain the parks and perform their duties more frequently in these areas. Now, it has become a long-term program that runs during certain times of the year and varies from residential blocks to schools (The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 2015). Even in a densely urban environment like New York City, the “play spaces” not only reminds kids, but all neighborhood residents, of the resources available right outside their doors.

Safety guidelines directly serve the manufacturers and playground owners to prevent risks, but they cannot eliminate all contingencies. The dialogue between safety and play can only benefit the child when parent, administrator, and manufacturer are in mutual agreement. Cases like Berkeley’s adventure playground and New York City’s “play streets” are alternative solutions to change where and how play occur. The risk in both spaces is part of the challenge that is more productive than harmful in the child’s play experience. The role of safety serves a stronger purpose when the child is included in the decision-making process and their ability to act consciously on their own.

 

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