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Make church playgrounds safe for learning & growth, expert counsels

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–While it is impossible to prevent all accidents on a church playground, leaders must give priority to safety in designing, building and maintaining grounds and equipment, Jim Dempsey said May 19 in a conference.

Dempsey, a partner in Grounds for Play Inc., Mansfield, Texas, led the session during the first Church Expo sponsored by LifeWay Christian Stores at LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Every year, approximately 200,000 children are injured seriously enough on playgrounds to be hospitalized or treated by a doctor. Approximately 15 children die each year from playground injuries, Dempsey said. The most serious injuries are caused when children get their heads trapped in a piece of equipment, an item of clothing gets caught on equipment during a fall or a child hits a protruding piece such as a bolt.

“We’re never going to prevent all injuries on a playground,” said Dempsey, who served on a committee that in 1991 developed national playground guidelines. “But we must do all we can to prevent serious injuries.”

A former teacher and a certified playground safety inspector, Dempsey emphasized that people of all ages learn by doing and “play is what children do. We study children’s play and have great respect for the value of play. Outdoors is the friendliest environment for play.”

As churches work with architects and equipment companies to design a playground, he said priority must be given to play surfaces. Approximately 60 percent of injuries are caused by falls.

Dempsey warned against use of asphalt, concrete or grass, favoring instead poured rubber or engineered wood fiber that are more flexible and absorb the energy of a fall. Grass, he said, wears and then the ground becomes hard and compacted.

Also, he said, equipment must be placed with a six-foot fall zone around it. While Dempsey personally favors the use of swings on a playground, he noted that they take up a lot of space and should be placed in a corner to minimize the likelihood that children will run in front of the swings. He urged the use of resilient materials such as plastic for seats rather than wood.

Dempsey said the guidelines require that only two swings be placed in a bay (space between uprights).

Also, elevated surfaces must be surrounded by rails. Hand grips must be sized for the age and height of children who will be using the equipment. And the playground area must be completely visible to workers.

Instead of designing their own playgrounds, Dempsey suggested churches work with a reputable company on the design. As a cost-saving measure, he noted that some companies will provide a supervisor to work with church members in building or setting up the equipment.

“The right way to install equipment is as important as the design and purchase of the equipment,” he said.

For churches to protect themselves, he suggested surrounding playgrounds with six-foot fences and posting signs specifying the age group for which the equipment is designed and stating the playground is not to be used without adult supervision.

Also, he suggested use of a frequent inspection form which Sunday school teachers or daycare workers are asked to fill out at least weekly. Any problems should be fixed immediately, with repairs documented.

“You are safer [from lawsuits] if you have proof of maintenance,” Dempsey said. He also suggested routine replacement of moving parts such as “S” hooks on swings.

In additional to traditional playground equipment, he urged providing large blocks or other items that can be moved around and used in building. Items for dramatic, imaginative play also should be included, he said.

While churches are not required to provide playgrounds that are accessible for the physically handicapped, Dempsey urged doing so.

“When you create a playground, you should build accessibility in. It’s the right thing to do,” he said.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: PLAYGROUND SAFETY.

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  • Linda Lawson