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Preventing Injuries on the Playground

By Heather M. Olsen, Susan D. Hudson, and Donna Thompson

If you ask young children, "What do you like most about school?" the majority will answer "recess!" Recess is a fundamental part of the elementary school curriculum because it enhances children physically, emotionally, socially, and intellectually. One of the most popular things to do at recess is to play on playground equipment. Unfortunately, unintentional playground injuries are the leading cause of all injuries for elementary children, according to Risks to Students in Schools, published by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment. In fact, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's Handbook for Public Playground Safety estimates that more than 200,000 children each year are injured on playground equipment. In order for the children to continue to have a positive and enriching experience, the playground must be a safe place for them to play.

As schools try to do more with less, many PTAs have stepped up to the plate to work with school officials to help improve the school environment. Playground safety is yet one more area where PTAs can have a positive influence. How can this be done?


Playground supervision duties

The National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) has advocated for years that one of the crucial elements in playground safety is supervision. It is estimated that nearly 40 percent of all the playground-related injuries each year can be attributed to inadequate supervision. The good news is that recent research studies have shown that with adequate training of adults and students, playground injuries can be substantially reduced.

In the school setting, there are many suggestions for adult supervisor-to-child ratios. NPPS recommends that the playground supervision ratio be equal to the indoor classroom ratio. However, a recent study in Iowa found that many supervisor-child ratios were extremely high compared to the recommendations. The largest ratio found the study was one supervisor to 125 children, and the most frequent ratio was one supervisor to 50 students. Two percent of the schools surveyed have parents volunteering to be supervisors.

PTAs can work with the school to set up a schedule for volunteers who can help with recess duties. However, it is recommended that adults have playground safety training so they understand supervisors' responsibilities and know the playground rules. Also, supervisors should be able to perform a daily check to make sure that the equipment is not broken, the surfacing is at the proper depth under the equipment, and that no trash is found on the ground. Reports of broken equipment, hazardous surroundings/surfaces, etc., should be brought to the attention of the school district so it can make repairs.


Teaching children about safety

Children assume that the playground environment is a safe place for them to play. However, they are unaware of all the hidden dangers that can occur on the playground. It is important that adults talk with children and teach them about appropriate play behavior. Children should understand the rules of the playground and be taught to avoid unsafe situations. They should be able to identify and report hazards, and should be taught which pieces of playground equipment are appropriate for their ability level.

Parents can be instrumental in preventing children from being injured on the playground. It is essential that PTAs continue to advocate for playground safety, and the best place to start is to contact your principal and inform him or her that your PTA is willing to become involved with this crucial issue.


Heather M. Olsen is project coordinator at the National Program for Playground Safety, University of Northern Iowa, School of Health, Physical Education, and Leisure Services, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Susan D. Hudson, Ph.D., is education director, and Donna Thompson, Ph.D., is director. They may be reached at (800)554-7529, or visit