Playground Safety Interview: Dr. Donna Thompson

A fun day at the playground.

Dr. Donna Thompson, executive director of the National Program for Playground Safety, has more than 20 years experience in teaching, writing and researching playgrounds. She has served as a consultant on playground safety and has been an expert witness in this field as well. LoveToKnow Safety asked her about playground safety, and here is what she had to say:

LoveToKnow (LTK): How many children are injured on playgrounds each year?

Dr. Donna Thompson (DT): "On the average, over 200,000 children per year are injured on playgrounds. That is according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission."

LTK: Are there any older pieces of playground equipment that should not be on playgrounds any longer?

DT: "Yes. Any equipment that is older than those built before 1997 should be removed unless it has been updated to meet the CPSC Handbook for Public Playground Equipment for childcare centers, elementary schools or community parks, or the Playground Equipment Handbook for Home Use for residential areas. Beyond that, animal swings and real monkey bars (also known as jungle gyms) both of which are pictured on our website should be taken off the playgrounds. They are not safe and have caused not only injuries, but also deaths. The new CPSC Handbook will be coming out in 2008 - check our website for that announcement during National Playground Safety Week."

LTK: If a playground has any pressure treated wood on it, should it be removed?

DT: "Yes, that wood should be removed if it has chromated copper arsenate (CCA) in it. If not, pressure treated wood is OK to have on the playground."

LTK: What is National Playground Safety Week?

DT: "National Playground Safety Week is a week dedicated to paying attention to the safety of play areas for children at childcare centers, elementary schools, community parks, and residential areas. It is a time for elementary children to use the Kid Checker to see if their school playground is safe, parents to check their home playgrounds and adults to check the safety of any playground before they let their children use the equipment and the surfacing. It is a time for governors to proclaim that their state will observe National Playground Safety Week. Has your governor signed a proclamation? Will you ask him/her to do so? Check our website for information on how you can do this."

LTK: What is S.A.F.E.?

DT: "S.A.F.E. stands for Supervision, Age appropriate design, Fall surfacing and Equipment maintenance. A broader description of each of those topics may be found in a new book: S.A.F.E. Play Areas: Creation, Maintenance and Renovation. The book is written by the NPPS staff (Thompson, Hudson & Olsen) and has two chapters explaining each subject. It is a user-friendly, easy to read book."

LTK: Who determines the safety standards for playground equipment?

DT: "The federal government makes playground guidelines for playground equipment, via the Consumer Product Safety Commission's Handbooks. They are written in user-friendly terms and considered the standard of care in the courts. In addition, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) has made voluntary standards for playground equipment, surfacing and fencing for the manufacturers. Individuals should only purchase equipment that meets those standards. Neither group is an enforcer. However, those are the guidelines and voluntary standards that should be used."

LTK: How can kids get involved with improving the safety of their playgrounds?

DT: "Children can use the Kid Checker noted above to determine the safety of the playground. They can point out to adults places that they think are unsafe. Kids can obey the adult supervisor. Children can learn how to use the equipment properly. Check our website for information on teaching children how to fall safely on the playground."

LTK: What can parents do to help improve the safety of their local playgrounds?

DT: "Parents can take their children to appropriately designed playgrounds for the ages of their children. Play areas are designed for children ages six-23 months, two to five years old and five to 12 years old. Parents and other adults can refrain from putting children on equipment that is not the proper age level for their children. They can refrain from letting children play on playgrounds that do not have enough surfacing (NPPS recommends 12 inches if loose fill surfacing is used) and report to officials safety problems they observe. Also, they may want to participate in planning play areas for their children."

LTK: Can educators do anything to teach children in the schools about playground safety?

DT: "Yes. Children need to be taught how to use the equipment and they need to review how to use the equipment every year on the first day of school before they are allowed to use it. The physical education teacher is a good person to do that. Kids need to be taught how to fall and roll. Adults and children need to determine the rules for playground safety (three rules for Childcare and no more than five for elementary schools). Adults need to be taught how to supervise the playgrounds and how to maintain the playgrounds. They need to plan the play areas (it may take six-12 months). The nurse needs to take pictures of the individual play pieces and have an injury form to use, in case someone is injured. Be sure that children in Childcare centers located at elementary schools do not use school age equipment. It is the wrong size."

LTK: What is the best way to get individual states involved in National Playground Safety Week?

DT: "There are several ways. Many have been listed above.

  • Get the governor to sign a proclamation.
  • Assess the playground (NPPS also has assessment kits).
  • Make playground safety rules with your children.
  • Challenge the Childcare Centers to provide supervision kits for centers.
  • Challenge the Childcare Centers to provide assessment kits for centers.
  • Challenge PTA/PTO's to get the supervision kits for their schools.
  • Challenge the PTA/PTO's to get the assessment kits for their schools.
  • Have the Department of Education, local NAEYC or state PTA provide a scholarship for someone to attend the NPPS National Playground Safety School.
  • Nominate someone for the playground safety awards noted on the NPPS website; individuals or groups that have done an outstanding job providing playground safety for children.
  • Challenge the maintenance staff to assess the playground monthly.
  • Get someone to take individual pictures of pieces of equipment and put the correct name of the piece on it and make a notebook of the pictures.
  • Be sure an injury report form is available at each public site."

For more information on playground safety activities, playground safety inspection forms and details on how you can make a difference, please visit the National Program for Playground Safety website.

Playground Safety Interview: Dr. Donna Thompson