The Latest Challenge to Free Play – Today’s Headlines

The Latest Challenge to Free Play – Today’s Headlines
By Kenneth S Kutska, Executive Director
International Playground Safety Institute, LLC
November 22, 2014

I signed up for Google Alerts on various topics of interest to me such as; Playground Safety, Playground Injuries and Playground Legislation It is amazing how many email notices I receive on just these three topics. It is a great way to stay in touch with what is going on around the country and within the media when it comes to playground issues. Just a view weeks ago I received an email alert about a 7 year old girl’s death on a playground in the State of Washington. This recent death of a young girl has once again placed our public playgrounds under the microscope of media scrutiny. I have a concern with how the media and public playground owners are reacting to this story. Some public agency governing boards and administrators have already taken action even though the facts of the case are still under investigation. Here is what we know based on the media stories to date.

Recent Newspaper Headlines
The KOIN 6 News Staff of Seattle Washington published the following story October 3, 2014 at 4:03 pm and it was updated October 3, 2014 at 11:19 pm.

October 1st a Seven Year old girl dies from traumatic brain injury from a fall of a swing at a Vancouver Washington Elementary School.

A student at Fisher’s Landing Elementary School died Friday morning at an area hospital, following an incident on the playground that may have precipitated the child’s brain injury.

According to Evergreen Public Schools, the student, who was later identified only as a 7-year-old girl, was taken to a hospital Wednesday evening after telling her family about an incident on the playground earlier in the day. However, the district said no one at the school witnessed the incident nor did the student report it to anyone at the school.

Jennifer Allen, a parent of another student who attends the elementary school, said she was devastated when her daughter told her the news.

“My daughter told me that her friend came to her upset that one of her friends was swinging on the swing set and that she swung back a little bit too hard and fell of the swing set and hit her head,” explained Allen.
Evergreen Public Schools released a statement on the matter, saying they immediately began an investigation that included calling in a third party investigator. The investigation will include a review of the weekly playground inspection reports and interviews with staff.

A letter informing school families of the student’s death was sent home Friday.

“It’s just something you don’t really expect, but how do you take a precaution? I mean, at some point, kids playing at any manner, you know, somebody is going to get hurt at some point,” said parent Rolf Vellek.
The district said they continue to support the family, students and staff at Fisher’s Landing. The district’s grief counselors are on site and will be in place for as long as needed.

A teddy bear sits outside the chained-link fence at Fisher’s Landing Elementary School in Vancouver, Oct. 3, 2014. (KOIN 6)

The story was updated 5:32 AM – Girl, 7, who died following Fisher’s Landing playground accident identified and the following story was reported by Emily Gillespie, Columbian breaking news reporter and published October 6, 2014 at 7:49 AM

The 7-year-old girl who died Friday, two days after she reportedly sustained a head injury on the Fisher’s Landing Elementary School playground, has been identified.

Stormy Solis died of a closed head injury, according to the Multnomah County Medical Examiner’s Office.
A family member of Solis told KATU-TV that the girl walked home from school Wednesday and told them there had been an accident on a swing set and that she felt dizzy.

When her brother went to check on her later, the TV station reported, he found her sick in her bedroom. The family called an ambulance, and the girl was transported to a PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center, where she was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, according to KATU. She was eventually transported to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, and doctors took her off life support Friday morning.
Grief counselors were at the school on Friday and Monday and will return again as needed, Evergreen Public Schools spokeswoman Gail Spolar said.

The school district said Friday that no one at the east Vancouver school saw the incident and that the student didn’t tell anyone about it. It said the district and a third-party investigator are in the process of an investigation that includes interviews with staff and a review of the weekly playground inspection reports
So what went wrong? Who was watching the children on the playground? Was the playground in good condition? Was the playground surface compliant with the current safety recommendations?

The authorities are going through the investigative process answering these questions and many more. It may take months to gather and analyze all the information. In the meantime, stories continue to come out in the media. There is enough finger pointing going on with each of the involved parties that will make this investigative process take even longer. This incident is truly a tragedy for all concerned however maybe, just maybe, this tragedy was just an unfortunate tragic accident which cannot be easily put aside.

What is next?
Only time will tell but the process is well underway. One thing is certain. Children’s play and free play opportunities are once again under attack. Once this incident became public the press was all over this story. Obviously this was how I heard about it through my Google Alert notifications. The first press release I read that was not about the details of the incident was;

School District Phasing Out Swings On Playgrounds Due To Liability Issue October 7, 2014 9:07 AM

“RICHLAND, Wash. –Many playgrounds have replaced cement with cedar or rubber surfacing. The cement was just too dangerous. Now, swings are in the line of fire.”

Swings are being phased out of Richland schools. The district says pressure from insurance companies over the liability is part of the issue. Swings are blamed for the most injuries of any play equipment. Richland School District already removed them from some campuses and will phase them out of the rest.

“As schools get modernized or renovated or as we’re doing work on the playground equipment, we’ll take out the swings, it’s just really a safety issue, swings have been determined to be the most unsafe of all the playground equipment on a playground,” said Richland School District’s Steve Aagard.

Each year, about 200,000 children go to the emergency room for injuries that happened on a playground.

Muge Kaineoz’s daughter will be starting school next year. She’s in favor of the decision to remove swings.

“When she starts elementary school, those swings can get crazy!”

While there are many ways that children can get hurt on a swing set, sitting on the actual swing isn’t the most dangerous thing. More injuries come from walking in front of or behind a swing.

“I actually witnessed an accident with my own eyes one time,” said Muge.

Muge saw a toddler walk right in front of a swing.

“By the time you could do something about it she was knocked out,” said Muge.

Other parents see swings as a regular part of being a kid, danger or not.

“They were our great joy and we all played on them, I truly can’t remember anyone being hurt,” said Richland resident Gail Thorricellas.

Richland doesn’t plan to take that risk as the swing sets are removed from elementary schools. We tried to check with the city of Richland to see if this is a citywide decision that could result in swings being removed from city parks and we never heard back.”

This is not what the statistics show in the 2003 School Playground Safety Guidelines for Vancouver Washington Educational Service District 112 when it comes to playground injuries.

The National Injury Foundation statistics show playgrounds as the most injury-intensive activity in primary schools. Up to 80% of all primary school injuries occurred on the playground.

Accidents on and around the playground account for a statistically significant percentage (around 15% in many districts in Washington State) of injuries to all children in school. Six years of school injury data (from a northwest Washington State school cooperative) show that the top five causes of injury on the playgrounds are as follows:
• Falls from equipment 25%
• Athletic participation (in a game) 17%
• Slip, trip, or fall 16%
• Struck against object 13%
• Struck by object 11%
• All others 18%

In almost half of the playground injuries, equipment was involved. The types of equipment most frequently involved in school playground injuries are as follows:
• Bars 29%
• Balls, bats, racquets 23%
• (tetherballs, baseball bats)
• Composite structures 14%
• Climbing apparatus 10%
• Non-play equipment 8%
• (such as poles & posts)
• Swings (including tire swings) 7%
• Slides 5%
• Other play equipment 3%
• Tires & tire climbers 1%

The most severe school playground claims involve falls from equipment and being hit with balls.

The fact that 25% of all school injuries involve falls from equipment and almost half of those injuries sustained on the playground involve equipment with swing related injuries, including tire swings, accounting for 7% of those playground injuries; one would wonder why bars at 29%, composite structures at 14%, climbers at 10% and even slides at 5% should also be removed from the school playground.

Have we forgot what it was like to be a child? I fear we are going too far in the direction of injury avoidance when we look at public policy related to free play related injury prevention.

What can we do to curtail or fend off this knee jerk reaction and public relations nightmare?
There is a need for a comprehensive public awareness and education campaign on the benefits of play on a child’s development versus the risk of harm to that very same child. This type of media campaign and ensuing public discussion is the missing link to educating and training both the general public, policy makers, and public play area managers.

We need an open discussion with legislators and policy makers on the harm of over-reacting to injuries that create sensational headlines to these tragic events. Accidents do happen regardless of how compliant a play area is to current public playground equipment and protective surfacing safety recommendations. We all know a child can suffer a very serious permanent debilitating injury or even die anywhere and anytime during the course of their day. Yes, these tragedies do occur in the most secure safety compliant environment. Why does the injured party and their family feel victimized? Why do we always have to find someone responsible for the incident? Fortunately very few children die while playing in their neighborhood school or park playground. Nobody wants to see a child seriously injured or die. That being said Society cannot protect each and every person from their own actions. Everyone agrees these types of injuries are shocking. They each have profound impacts to the injured party and their family. Thousands of people die needlessly from common every day occurrences. While nobody wants to see a child seriously injured we all cannot lose sight of the function and purpose of the play area. Playgrounds provide a child critical developmental benefits derived from these free play experiences. The intended playground users learn and experience very important life lessons within these challenging fun environments. The goal of the owner/operator and designer of these play environments is to provide new stimulating and challenging experiences and learning opportunities for every user based on their developmental needs. Such a play environment will provide opportunities for the user to conduct their own personal risk assessment and learn from this experience. This assessment process requires the user to consider their perceived readiness to take the risk of their own actions based upon their physical abilities, current life experiences and cognitive readiness. Someone once told me a child cannot learn to walk without falling down. Likewise a child cannot learn and grow without trying many different thing and experiencing failure in the process. By trying new and different things we begin to solve our own problems from different approaches. Do kids always slide down a slide sitting face forward? Do kids ever run up the slide? To we ever swing the seat standing up? We are all different? We all develop at our own pace. We learn to walk and talk at different times. There is no set date when we utter our first word however there are several developmental milestone or points of reference that child development experts consider within the normal range. It for this reason we must embrace our differences and understand there is no right or wrong answer here but there remains the need to allow for this individuality and understand that children will make mistakes in judgment. Even though children need to fall to learn to walk do we always hold their hand? We realize sometimes the consequences of a fall may be severe. What we cannot do is protect a child from all the consequences of falling. My son did not learn that the stove was hot because I said so. He first needed to understand what the word “hot” meant. Once he experienced what hot was he had a frame of reference which allowed him to move on and learn why he should have listened to me and not placed his hand on the frying pan. This learning experience was carried through into other circumstances he encountered in other indoor and outdoor environments.

What role does the media have in this public debate?

We struggle to make the kinds of significant improvements in both quality and quantity of our public playspaces when it comes to giving children the kinds of environments they desire and need. Funding Issues have always been a major issue however we continue to fight the windmills of public opinion making play some kind of four letter word. Beyond the issue of funding there is the Liability Issue or the perceived fear of liability. We have to stop making settlement payments for every child that breaks an arm or leg while doing what children do at play. More of these types of tragic injuries occur in and around the home than in public school grounds and public parks. For every headline about some tragic incident on the playground I wish the press would give equal time to stories about the lack of play opportunities. What about the resulting negative outcomes on our children because of fewer play opportunities and the looming cost to society from generations of play deficient childhoods? What if our children never get a chance to swing? What if they never experienced that inner ear vestibular stimulation? Do these experiences help develop and even improve one’s balance? Would this limit their future growth in some way which in turn could limit their ultimate potential to succeed? There are too many questions which I cannot answer but from the things I have heard and read from people far smarter than I, it certainly appears the lack of play has had some very negative impacts on human development. So in conclusion the resulting Lack of Equitable Play Opportunity Issue poses a largest threat to our children’s development. What is really holding us back is the lack of the general public’s understanding of the whole of the Importance of Play Issue and how all the parts fit together.

The Lack of Funding Issue

Many Foundations and organizations who are promoting the benefits of free play and nature play continue to find money to fund these projects. Most of these projects impact public agencies that lack equal quality play opportunities in many of our major urban centers. I agree these facilities are much needed but as history has shown; they too will soon become underused because of improper or lack of maintenance. Facilities no longer functioning as intended pose conditions likely to cause serious injury. The current focus is to build more new facilities. While this is an easier sell when it comes to the Funding Issue and fundraising I would argue the focus should be towards maintaining what we already have. If we can learn to maintain these facilities as intended, throughout their intended life, we would make the best use of our limited financial resources. While well intended, this process of funding worthy causes ends up a bit short of its goal. Shortly after the initial positive community spirit and excitement generated during the construction of the new project the public support begins to wane. Without public support and enthusiasm for the playspace the general public’s enthusiasm will quickly wane. They will become apathetic about the place they created and the need to maintain a safe place for our children. Once the community becomes apathetic toward the playspce the condition of the play environment can quickly become less than desirable making the area unsafe for our children and a liability for the community and the people who are charged with its upkeep.

Do these words sound harsh? Yes they are. If the grantors and grantees of these much needed playspaces cannot commit the funds and manpower required to maintain and repair the playspace throughout their intended lifecycle we should stop funding and building the playspace until we can commit to the need for training those responsible for inspection, maintenance and repair of these very important playspaces. Failure to maintain our playspaces with trained professional staff can result in serious liability to the playground owner and worse yet result in a severe injury or even death.

Possible Solution

The well-intended grantors should build into the grant guidelines the requirement every grant recipient must demonstrate they already have or will secure the necessary knowledge and tools required to manage, inspect, maintain and repair their existing public playspaces and the proposed new playground as best practices for operating playground spaces already suggests.

What has the playground Industry done on behalf of minimizing potentially hazardous conditions – the Liability Issue?

The ASTM Standards for public playground equipment has created performance requirements for designers and manufacturers which have eliminated many of the causes of severe injuries and death on the public playground. Head entrapments, protrusions, crush/shear, and entanglement strangulation hazards have been effectively been addressed. Safety concerns related to impact of the playground user with various surfaces within the playground equipment use and clearance zones has been the leading cause of serious to severe playground injuries and a leading cause of death on the playground.

Just last week the F8.63 Subcommittee on playground surfacing systems upheld a vote to reduce the impact attenuation performance requirements from 1000 to 700 HIC however there is a challenge to this item being brought forward to the ASTM Committee on Standards. The hearing and results of this challenge should be known before the first of the year.

This is a big step towards reducing both Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI or concussion). It also has the potential for a lower incidence of long bone fractures. A reduction of the impact threshold to 700 HIC is likely to reduce the Gmax relationship from 200 to approximately 125g. Only over time and with good timely injury investigation and reporting system will we have the facts to support my assumptions. Who will step to the plate to assure these things are done?

This is where the media has the opportunity and responsibility do something positive on behalf of the benefits of play and child development even in the face of the loss of a child’s life.

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