Are adventure playgrounds safe?

One of the main concerns about adventure playgrounds is that they are potentially dangerous. As Clare Cooper Marcus, a landscape architect, notes:

It is true that the site is often rough, structures built by children may be hazardous, tools could be used in a dangerous way--but all available evidence indicates that the children are so absorbed in what they are doing, and so cautious in attempting anything beyond their present capacities, that the accident rate is in fact lower than that on conventional playgrounds with fixed equipment.

Conventional playgrounds are safe only if children use them in the way adults intend them to i.e. if children do not climb where they are not supposed to, stay behind railings, and don't climb on top of certain structures. Children do not necessarily abide by these rules and often get injured at conventional playgrounds.

"The safety record of adventure playgrounds in excellent," states Joe Frost, a professor of education. The Mountain Park adventure playground in Houston, Texas recorded few injuries. Only .014 percent of the 15,000 people attending the park during its first 4 months of operation sustained injuries and these were mostly skinned knees, scrapes, and hammered thumbs.

What type of supervision is there?

Adventure playgrounds are staffed, whereas conventional playgrounds often are not. Every adventure playground has staff called playworkers or playleaders to supervise the playground. The playworkers are well trained in child safety and remain constantly aware of what is happening at the playground. Because children are part of the process of building adventure playgrounds, they are more aware their surroundings.

Are there rules?

Ideally adventure playgrounds are unstructured spaces for children, but one must also provide a safe environment. Many adventure playgrounds deal with structuring a free environment by creating some basic guidelines and then letting the children do what they want within those set parameters. One of the ways to create order and safety in a playground is to have different areas of the playground designated for specific activities, for example, for fire building, so that fires are not lit near wooden forts and huts.

A few rules are more useful than a long list that children don't remember. If children are aware of all the rules at the playground and do not get into trouble for rules they don't know about, the playground functions smoothly and the children are barely aware that the rules exist.

What is the usual age of children attending?

Many playgrounds do not allow children under the age of five or six. Some allow younger children, but only if they are accompanied by adults. Children can come and go as they please. Adventure playgrounds are places children choose to go to, not a substitute for day care. Playgrounds that have smaller children have specific areas for those children that do not have older children or tools. At the Adventure Playground in Berkeley, California children six and older can be dropped off for a period of three hours at a time. Most playgrounds let children over five and six stay at the playground for the whole time the playground is open, sometimes for a fee. The playground usually has contact information for the parents of the children that attend. The playground does not take responsibility for keeping the children on the site.

How does the playground get insured?

In the U.S. liability is a major concern, in spite of the fact that the accident rate is lower at adventure playgrounds than it is at conventional playgrounds. Lawsuits are much more of a common practice in the U.S. than in other countries. The good news is that adventure playgrounds can be covered under the same insurance as any other part of a city parks or recreation program. The adventure playground in Berkeley, CA is covered in this way.

Roughly 3.5 million children ages 14 and under are treated for sports-related injuries each year in the U.S. More than 200,000 children are injured each year on playgrounds at childcare centers, parks, and schools. Falls onto playground surfaces are a contributing factor in 70 percent of injuries requiring hospital visits.

Many playgrounds in the U.S. are not supervised by trained staff. Adventure playgrounds have trained adults supervising the playground. They also do not have typical "playground surfaces;" they are usually covered in dirt, sand, and sometimes gravel to allow for vehicles to bring in supplies. Also, the majority of activity at an adventure playground involves building, construction, and talking. Children do climb to particular heights at adventure playgrounds but there is also a great deal of activity of interest happening on the ground level.