Development of Safety Standards

The origin of public playgrounds was a response to the need to provide children with safer places to play. In the early twentieth century, reformers were concerned with the physical danger of playing on the streets as well as the moral implications of unfettered street life. Safety concerns have remained predominant in each generation of playground design. They have led to changes in materials from wood to steel, the development and use of safety surfacing, the redesign of enduring features such as swings or slides, decisions concerning the use of fencing as enclosures, and the changing role of play leaders (image 28).

Beginning in the 1970s, playground safety standards were codified. In 1972, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Act, and the following year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) was formed to study consumer products and identify safety risks. The CPSC subsequently developed the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), which tracks injuries in U.S. hospital emergency rooms. Based on the data collected, which demonstrated that many emergency room visits were a result of playground injuries, CPSC began to study playground equipment and published the Handbook for Public Playground Safety in 1981. Building on the work of the CPSC and responding to the need for more-technical information, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) established a subcommittee of design professionals and play equipment manufacturers in 1988 to develop industry standards for playground safety. Injury data collected by CPSC demonstrated that most playground injuries consisted of orthopedic and head injuries from falls. In response, ASTM published a standard for safety surfacing under, and around, play equipment. In 1993, they published a standard for playground equipment.

Similar to the many advances in fire-suppression systems or to the refinement of seat belt design, playground safety standards are the result of increased knowledge about safety through research about the factors that contribute to accidents and injuries. Many states, municipalities, and designers adopted these standards as guidelines for safer playground design. As the demand for public accountability requires that they focus on the realities of liability, municipalities increasingly relied on manufactured play equipment that ensures compliance with standards, shifting liability to the manufacturers. As a result, most playgrounds built or renovated from late 1980s through the 1990s consisted of post-and-platform systems loosely based on the interconnected features found in adventure-style playgrounds and echoed by TimberForm equipment. These modular systems typically include a series of decks linked by slides, bridges, and stairs, often brightly colored and sometimes designed with a theme. Their widespread proliferation eventually resulted in a backlash against the uniformity of playground equipment and criticism of unimaginative playground designs.