Playing It Safe 2002

The Sixth Nationwide Safety Survey Of Public Playgrounds

The sixth nationwide investigation of public playgrounds by Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and the State Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) found that a majority of American playgrounds pose hidden threats to our nation’s youngsters.

U.S. PIRG Education Fund

The sixth nationwide investigation of public playgrounds by Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and the State Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) found that a majority of American playgrounds pose hidden threats to our nation’s youngsters.

Too many children are getting hurt and killed on our playgrounds. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), in 2001 almost 190,000 children were injured seriously enough on public playground equipment to require emergency room treatment. On average, 17 children die each year playing on playgrounds. Many of these deaths and injuries can be prevented if playgrounds — from equipment design to surfacing content to the playground’s layout — were designed with safety in mind.

In June 1998, CFA released the third edition of its “Report and Model Law on Public Play Equipment and Areas,” a blueprint for designing, building and maintaining public playgrounds. CFA’s blueprint details the hazards on playgrounds that lead to injuries and presents safety and design criteria that can reduce deaths and injuries. Since 1992, the State PIRGs and CFA have documented the threats posed to child safety on playgrounds by surveying playgrounds across the country and detailing the hazards posed by inadequate surfacing, equipment deficiencies, and other problems.

From March-May 2002, the State PIRGs and other CFA member organizations investigated 1,037 playgrounds in 36 states (Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin) and Washington, D.C. to determine the current safety conditions of our public playgrounds. The 2002 investigation focused on the hazards that cause the most serious playground injuries and found the following:

SURFACING: 75% of the 1,037 playgrounds surveyed lacked adequate protective surfacing, an improvement over the 80% found in 2000 without adequate protective surfacing. We are particularly encouraged by the decrease in the number of playgrounds with hard surfaces, the least forgiving with respect to injury. Protective surfacing is the most critical safety factor on playgrounds because approximately 80% of all injuries are caused by falls.


  • 28% of the playgrounds surveyed did not have an adequate fall zone under and around slides and climbing equipment. Other equipment and obstacles in the fall zone pose hazards to children if they fall.
  • 58% of playgrounds surveyed had climbers or slides where the height of the play equipment exceeded six feet, which is higher than necessary for play value and only serves to increase the risk of injury.


  • 30% of playgrounds surveyed with swings had inadequate fall zones surrounding the swing bay.
  • 55% of playgrounds surveyed with swings had swing bays with pivot points exceeding eight feet in height.
  • 49% of playgrounds surveyed with swings violated one or more recommended guideline for safety, such as swings made with heavy, rigid material, inadequate spacing between swings and supports, and placement of tot swings with traditional swings.

ENTRAPMENT: 34% of playgrounds surveyed had improperly sized openings in the play equipment, posing a head entrapment hazard that could lead to strangulation.

ENTANGLEMENT: 34% of playgrounds surveyed had small gaps, open S-hooks and other protrusions that pose clothing entanglement hazards.

HAZARDOUS EQUIPMENT: 29% of playgrounds surveyed had unacceptable dangerous equipment, such as chain or cable walks, animal swings, individual climbing ropes or swinging exercise rings.


  • 46% of all playgrounds surveyed had peeling, chipping or cracking paint on equipment surfaces.
  • 14% of all playgrounds surveyed were made of wood that may be pressure treated. Some pressure treated wood contains chromium copper arsenate.

Overall, this year’s survey shows improvements, in particular, a continued decline in the number of playgrounds with hard surfaces under and around all play equipment. In 1992, fully 31% of playgrounds surveyed had cement, packed dirt, asphalt or other hard surfaces; this percentage declined to 13% in 1994; 9% in 1996; 8% in 1998; 5% in 2000; and 4.5% this year. However, as in previous surveys, many playgrounds have mixed surfacing, with loose-fill, absorbent materials like hardwood chips under some equipment and unsafe hard surfaces like soil and grass under other equipment.

Surveyors continue to note the gradual replacement of old, unsafe playgrounds with new, modern playgrounds. Yet changes move slowly and, with budget constraints, many local governments may not prioritize playground safety unless parents and advocates make it a key issue. Local authorities should make public playgrounds safer. To improve playground safety, CFA and PIRG offer the following recommendations:

• States and local governments should adopt CFA’s “Model Law on Public Play Equipment and Areas.”

• Parents, school administrators, childcare providers and parks personnel should evaluate their local playgrounds and work to make each playground safer.