Drive for safer play sets may reach into backyards

By Julian Barnes

The New York Times

During the past decade, recommendations from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission have transformed public playgrounds. The asphalt and packed dirt that once surrounded swings and slides have been replaced with soft rubber mats. Steel monkey bars have yielded to cheery-colored plastic. Teeter-totters are endangered and fears of arsenic poisoning may do in some pressure-treated wood climbing structures, splinters and all.

Now, with a commission report released last week that showed that more children are injured in home play set accidents than in public playgrounds, the drive to add padding to play may soon reach into the nation’s backyards.

The report states that at least 90 children have died on backyard equipment over the past 10 years, compared with 57 on public playgrounds, and that 20 percent of the roughly 200,000 playground injuries in 1999 occurred on backyard play sets.

With those numbers in mind, the commission now recommends that parents build better guard rails to prevent falls, lay down shock-absorbing surfaces to cushion falls, anchor ropes to the ground to prevent accidental hangings, and make sure that the spaces between rungs are either more than 9 inches apart or less than 1/2inches, to prevent heads from getting trapped.

Few backyards live up to such standards. The government estimates, for instance, that just 9 percent of homes have the right material installed beneath jungle gyms: wood chips, mulch or rubber laid 9 inches deep and spread 6 feet around equipment, which should not be more than 7 feet high. (Sand will substitute for play sets that are just 5 feet high.)

Not everyone plans to get out the tape measure.

Paul Friedberg, who has designed playgrounds since the 1960s, just finished building a treehouse for his 7-year-old daughter at his East Hampton, N.Y., home. To help her climb in, he installed a dangling rope. The only sand nearby is in a box, meant for playing, not falling.

Swinging ropes are fun and rubber mats are ugly, Friedberg said, adding that making backyards too safe carries risks of its own because children may not learn how to handle dangerous situations.

“Danger is something we have to deal with in life,” he said. “To a large extent, the Consumer Product Safety Commission goes overboard to justify their role. Give them responsibility for safety, and they see everything as unsafe.”

The numbers can be misleading. The safety commission reports that among products intended for children under 5, home playground equipment is the fourth leading source of injury. But it is important to keep that fact, and the 90 deaths over the last decade, in perspective. Between 1990 and 1998, 15,507 children ages 1 to 10 died in car accidents, 6,966 drowned, and 637 died from firearms, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and prevention.

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