Dr. Donna Thompson and her colleagues at the University of Northern Iowa’s National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) are turning the tables on America’s schools, and they’re looking for help.

She and her team of researchers have already visited more than 3,000 playgrounds around the country in an effort to gauge safety levels on America’s playgrounds. They’re grading school playgrounds and—to date—the results aren’t promising. Thirty-six states have received overall grades of C or below. The national average grade is just a straight C.

“To say that we are disappointed with the results would be an understatement,” remarked Dr. Thompson, as her group released their findings. “The children of America deserve an A playground; most of the factors that are preventing them from having the playground they deserve can be remedied.”

The challenge now is to take these general results and make specific improvements—and that’s where school-level volunteers come in.

Your Parent Group Can Help

While an overall state grade is a fine discussion starting point, it really says very little about the safety status of your school playground. And though Dr. Thompson’s minions covered much ground in their initial study, there’s no way they can give every playground the attention it deserves.

So what’s an Iowa think tank to do?

Look to the masses, of course. Below are some of the key measuring sticks of playground safety and introducing you to the NPPS’ blank report card designed to help school volunteers take an important look at their own playgrounds. Using the NPPS’ tools, concerned volunteers and school staff can determine where their playgrounds fall short and make necessary changes.

And it’s an important effort. Last year, more than 200,000 preschool and elementary aged children visited emergency rooms for playground-related injuries. A few minutes grading a local playground can save little ones from bumps and scratches and bruises and much, much worse.

SAFE

The NPPS rates playgrounds in four categories: Supervision, Age-Appropriate Design, Fall Surfacing, and Equipment Maintenance.

SUPERVISION: National Grade = B-

Fundamental principles are that adults should be present, and playgrounds should be designed so adults can watch well. For example, long crawl spaces should have Plexiglas or similar “windows” so adults can maintain a watchful eye.

“The equipment will not supervise the children,” says Dr. Thompson. “So it’s up to the adults to perform this important task.” Teacher-student ratio is important on the playground, just as it is important in the classroom.

AGE-APPROPRIATE DESIGN: National Grade = C

Big kids and little guys play differently, and their playground equipment should be designed differently. Perhaps more importantly, there should be clear separation between the two areas.

The NPPS separates the playgrounds designed for ages 2 to 5 from those designed for ages 5 to 12. Playground rules should ensure that children are using only equipment designed with them in mind.

Careful playground design also recognizes that children will often attempt to use equipment as it isn’t designed, perhaps climbing on the outside of a tunnel or on the bars above swings. Does your playground present these dangerous opportunities for children? Or are there protections in place to prevent this from happening?

FALL SURFACING: National Grade = C

Many of the most serious playground injuries result from falls from elevated playground equipment, and proper safety surfacing below your playground equipment is designed to reduce that risk. Improper surfacing is cited in 70% of playground accidents, according to the NPPS. Look for several key measures:

  • Cushioning material should extend at least 6 feet all directions from play equipment.
  • Typically, the material should be at least 12 inches deep.
  • You should not be able to see concrete footings around any equipment.
  • “ Proper” material should be used—grass, dirt, concrete and asphalt are trouble.

EQUIPMENT MAINTENANCE: National Grade = C+

Obviously, broken equipment presents a safety hazard and children should be kept clear until a fix can be arranged—but more subtle maintenance issues can be equally troubling.

A bolt that has come loose can catch children’s’ clothes or fingers or eyes. Small, unplanned gaps in aging equipment (say between the top of the slide and the ladder) can catch drawstrings and little fingers. Planned gaps between equipment (like a guardrail) need to be smaller than three and a half inches or greater than nine inches to avoid catching little heads. Generally, young people’s heads are larger than their bodies creating an entrapment risk factor.

Rust and splintering are common (though avoidable) hazards on older equipment.

How To Grade Your Playground

The NPPS has blank report cards and complete instructions available for volunteer use. Call the NPPS at 800-554-PLAY or visit the NPPS site.

Once you’ve rated your playground—or better yet, once several volunteers have completed individual rankings—share your findings with your principal and maintenance staff.

“Give people the opportunity to fix things first,” Dr. Thompson advised, while also cautioning that the most serious flaws should close a playground immediately. If problems are not addressed, take the issue to the superintendent, the school board or even the press.

Playgrounds are a wonderful part of a school experience, but they also require care and upkeep. A regular schedule of inspection and maintenance can prevent serious injuries.