Where’s the Merry-Go-Round!? Why Modern Playgrounds Don’t Look Like They Used To

Photo by Jessica Byrum / Stocksy United
Photo by Jessica Byrum / Stocksy United

You’ve probably noticed that playgrounds today don’t look a lot like the playgrounds from your childhood. There’s a reason for that: Today, we have a deeper understanding of the way kids of different abilities, sizes, and stages of development move; we also know a lot more about how to keep kids safe on playgrounds. According to the National Program for Playground Safety at the University of Northern Iowa, more than 200,000 people are sent to the emergency room with playground injuries each year.

Luckily, new equipment designs and more stringent regulations are making playgrounds safer all the time. So while you may be nostalgic for that old metal merry-go-round with the chipping paint, new playgrounds are doing a much better job of keeping your kids out of the ER.

Here are a few ways today’s modern playgrounds are keeping more kids injury-free.

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1. Modern Playgrounds Provide Softer Landings

Once upon a time, concrete, grass, and asphalt surfaces were commonplace on playgrounds, but newer materials like rubber matting, sand, and bark chips can cut injury rates in half. Falls are the No. 1 cause of playground injuries, according to the Children’s Safety Network, so many playground regulations address the material under and around the play area in order to cushion tumbles and drops.

Photo by David Hume Kennerly
Photo by David Hume Kennerly

2. Modern Playgrounds Are Built for Every Age

Gone are the days of the one-size-fits-all approach to playground design. According to the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Public Playground Safety Handbook, newer playgrounds are designed to create distinct play areas for toddlers, young children ages two to five, and older kids ages five to 12 that are appropriate for their different physical, social, and emotional stages of development.

Equipment for younger children, for example, encourages crawling, standing, exploration, and sensory discovery—without advanced features like balance walks, free-standing climbing walls, overhead rings, tall slides, and sliding poles.

3. Modern Playgrounds Are Made Better

What was your childhood playground made of? Chances are the answer is metal, lead-painted fixtures, and splinter-prone wood that was treated with arsenic. New guidelines for modern playgrounds advise using plastic, coated metal to avoid burns on hot days in addition to rot- and splinter-resistant wood. That’s good!

4. Modern Playgrounds Encourage Mindfulness

Yes, much has been written about the dawning of the age of helicopter parents, but active supervision is a major factor in preventing injuries. That’s why modern playgrounds make supervision easy with well-designed lines of sight that ensure all areas of the playground are visible from park benches and tables. Playgrounds have also started using clear plastic to create tubes or other crawl spaces so children are never out of sight.

5. Modern Playgrounds Nix Dangerous Equipment

According to the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, some formerly popular kinds of playground equipment just aren’t safe for public playgrounds because they are major contributors to injuries. That’s why you won’t see old-school merry-go-rounds, trampolines, seesaws without springs, or multiple-seat swings on new playgrounds.

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6. Some Modern Playgrounds Are Made for All

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 created new regulations for playground accessibility, many new playgrounds are still not fully accessible to children and parents with disabilities. In Portland, Oregon, an organization called Harper’s Playground has adapted local playgrounds to be more easily accessible for those with disabilities.

Harper’s Playground creates open, even surfaces and spaces for play that all children can enjoy and access regardless of their mobility, including gentle inclines that lead to slides (rather than stairs or ladders), larger and wider swings, and more spacious and gently sloping climbing walls. Check out pictures of Harper’s Playground here.

7. Bring Playground Safety to Your School

To help parents, communities, activists, and schools create safer playgrounds, the National Program for Playground Safety has designed a thorough report card to make sure local playgrounds are safe in several categories: supervision, age-appropriate design, fall protection, and equipment maintenance. If you find a way to improve your local playgrounds, contact your local parks department or school district to help make your community safer for everyone!

Have a play structure at your house? The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission offers a handbook and checklist for residential play areas to keep backyard fun as safe as public areas.

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