The day was filled with promise. It was sunny, and our family was off to the zoo: children, parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents.
But within five minutes of arriving, the outing ended abruptly, sorrowfully.
My 6-year-old nephew jogged over to a small playground, hoisted himself up on the monkey bars and lost his grip on bars too thick for his small hands. He plunged to the ground, landing on a thin layer of wood chips, his forearm badly broken and dangling at his side.
How is it that playgrounds, where children go to revel in all their youthful energy, too often become places of sadness for families?
More than half a million children are injured on playground equipment each year, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Roughly 150,000 of those injuries are serious, and an average of 15 children die each year in playground accidents.
Although some injuries are rare and freakish, the majority of the mishaps are linked to common playground elements: swings, climbing equipment and slides.
So commonplace are the hazards that a 1998 report by two consumer advocacy groups concluded that the majority of America's public playgrounds pose serious dangers to children.
Despite ample information about the elements of safer playgrounds, "we haven't seen the type of improvements we really need to reduce injuries," says Darrell Hammond, chief executive of Kaboom, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that promotes playground safety.
Only a handful of states--California, Michigan, New Jersey and Texas--have passed comprehensive playground safety laws. The California law, which goes into effect in October and is one of the most stringent, mandates playground inspections, upkeep and adherence to minimal safety standards.
Doctors are also playing a role in raising awareness of the issue. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons has launched a new public service campaign to promote appropriate playground behavior for children and parents.
Marcia Kerr, a spokeswoman for the federal Consumer Products Safety Commission, sees a "momentum to improve playgrounds." The California law, she says, has prompted a lot of inquiries from playground owners seeking to comply with the new rules.
While playground safety has been a topic of concern for decades, past attempts to improve conditions have been piecemeal, such as a federal regulation that banned unsafe teeter-totters, Hammond says.
Another group that is responding to safety concerns is playground manufacturers. They are introducing new playground structures aimed at reducing serious injuries and improving access to all children, including disabled children.
According to design experts, safe playgrounds today are notably different from the ones built in the 1970s or earlier. For example, themed playgrounds (such as a playground constructed to resemble a ship) and those with access for disabled children (such as one now under construction in Griffith Park) are gaining in popularity.
While swings and slides are still in demand, carousels and whirls have fallen out of favor due to high injury rates, says Kevin Owens, director of Fun New Stuff for Playworld Systems, a leading playground manufacturer in Lewisburg, Pa.
For a while in the 1990s, some playground owners began eliminating taller structures out of concern over injuries. But the Consumer Product Safety Commission has not issued a regulation on structure height, and designers today are not shying away from building towering play areas.
"Although it's fairly widely known that falls are the major source of injuries, that doesn't necessarily mean falls from great height," Owens says. "There wasn't [data] to back up a height regulation."
Safety concerns have also prompted playground designers to reduce the number of moving parts in equipment such as swings, merry-go-rounds and rocking horses. But some say that shorter structures and fewer moving parts could make playgrounds less inviting to children.
"I think we have to balance the needs of a safe playground without compromising a child's fun," Hammond says.
Owens agrees that children won't use a playground if it doesn't present some perceived physical challenge.
"In order to meet kids' needs for taking risks and facing challenges, you need to have a certain amount of height and the illusion of risk, even though there isn't really risk," Owens says.
The goal of communities should be to eliminate serious injuries while recognizing that minor accidents will happen when kids cut loose to play, Owens says.
Even more important than equipment design is the playground's surface. Among the surfaces considered safe are rubber tiles or loose fill, such as properly shredded mulch or shredded rubber. In most cases, loose-fill surfaces should be about 12 inches thick, depending on the height of the play structure, Owens says.