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Building Challenging Spaces for People from the Perspective of Playground Equipment Risks

Macky Kato
Associate Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University

Children’s behavior and accidents when playing in the park

One of the aims of playground equipment is to allow children to enjoy physical play. Designers, who were once children themselves, make the playground equipment by focusing on how children play and enjoy themselves. However, children are still immature in terms of both physical abilities and judgment. Even when they use play equipment as intended, they sometimes fail to avoid risks and end up having accidents. What’s more, children continuously seek stimulation and try out interesting and fun things, and the children will often play in ways that adults could not even imagine. The flip side to them finding unexpected ways of playing is that they put themselves in danger as a result.

In the 1990s, cases went to court as a result of accidents in which children had fallen from box-type swings. One of the arguments here concerned the extent to which the designers and installers had predicted the risks. Their responsibility to provide the safe playground equipment to children was tested. There was later a succession of accidents involving box-type swings and many local authorities have now removed them. Other playground equipment with the potential for serious accidents, such as “revolving globes” and “monkey bars,” have been gradually removed in order to protect the physical safety of children.

Installation of playground equipment on the assumption that children will fall

According to statistics published by Tokyo Fire Department for the five-year period from 2007 to 2011, approximately 72% of the accidents involving children and playground equipment resulting in emergency medical transportation were caused by injuries associated with falling. Falls from slides accounted for 37% of accidents, and statistically this is currently the highest accident rate among types of playground equipment.

Playground equipment safety standard JPFA-SP-S: 2014, which is formulated by the Japan Park Facilities Association (JPFA), was revised this year. One of the proposals for preventing falling accidents was to lay sand in the vicinity of play equipment. My own research laboratory helped with the formulation of this standard. Among falling accidents, accidents that involve bumps to the head are the most serious. ASTM International’s standard F1292 uses two criteria to measure the risk of playground equipment—HIC (Head Injury Criterion) and G-max. When there is an impact to the head of 1,000 HIC or higher, or 200G G-max or higher, it is defined as a critical accident that poses the risk of death or serious injury. By carrying out experiments using these measures it has been shown that impact to the head can be significantly reduced by laying sand. The shock absorption effect reduces the risk of a critical accident and this allows children to fall “safely” from playground equipment. It may hurt a little and the children may cry, but it does not lead to a critical injury and they are likely to be more careful next time.

The “other” danger of measures to avoid risks

If we were to remove slides from parks in the same way as other risky playground equipment it is likely that the number of accidents would decrease and we would protect children from tragic accidents. However, let us consider the other dangers that result from such measures to avoid risks. The way children play when they are small has a big impact on their later development. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has published the results of a survey into childhood physical abilities and exercise performance over recent years. Overall, children’s abilities are rising, but while an improvement in children’s leg-related abilities was recognized, a deterioration was also noted in children’s arm-related abilities. This is thought to be the result of changes in the way children play. In the same way that different ways of playing can affect the development of physical capabilities, differences in the way children play can also be thought to affect the development of judgment skills as a cognitive function. For example, in order to foster the ability to detect danger it is necessary to learn about danger. However, in spaces from which all causes of physical danger have been removed, such as playground equipment, it would be extremely difficult to learn about danger in the first place. Learning that there is a risk of tumbling or falling when you lose your balance high up helps to foster the ability to avoid danger in the future.

Building challenging living spaces

On the other hand, we can think about this issue from the perspective of the elderly. In 1995 the Ministry of Construction, the current Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism, recommended a move to barrier-free homes as part of its guidelines on the design of homes capable of handling an aged society. Since this time, slow but steady progress has been made and living spaces could be described as having become “friendly” for people. On the other hand, for elderly people who spend long periods of the day at home there have risk of lifestyle related diseases and a declining exercise performance caused by a lack of exercise. Declining exercise performance is one cause of tumbles and falls. While reforming the health insurance system for the elderly has become an important task in recent years, the most effective method of reducing treatment costs is for people to lead healthy and safe lives. Giving people a challenging living space that places an appropriate exercise burden on them in their daily lives is likely to help maintain exercise performance and prevent future accidents, although the conditions will differ from person to person.

Allow me to change the topic slightly and turn the discussion to university students. Let us imagine there is a university student who is performing poorly and is unlikely to obtain the required credits. The university and his parents might point this out to him/her and warn him/her to improve his/her attitude to study. Others would suggest that he/she should foster a sense of independence, and respond to and resolve the situation on his/her own initiative. The first suggestion aims to prevent the risk of the student having to repeat a class or leave university, whereas the second suggestion aims to foster the ability of the student to handle a crisis. The second suggestion places a greater burden on the student as a result, and is likely to make his time as a student more challenging. Opinions on which method of education is correct differ depending on your perspective.

In any case, while a safe living environment from which the risks have been removed in advance may remove the risk of a critical accident, it also carries the risk of people losing the ability to protect themselves in the future. I believe we should expect living spaces to be appropriately challenging for people so that we can meet the need to prevent critical accidents at the same time as fostering the ability of people to ensure their own safety.

Macky Kato
Associate Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Kato graduated from the Faculty of Human Science, Waseda University in 1992, and completed a master’s degree at the Graduate School of Science and Engineering, Waseda University in 1994. Before appointment to his current position in 2013, he worked as a part-time staff at Waseda Research Institute for Science and Engineering, as an assistant on the Department of Nursing and Social Welfare, Kyushu University of Nursing and Social Welfare, and as an associate professor on the Department of Life Sciences, Nagano Prefectural College. He has a Ph.D. (Human Science). His Discipline is Ergonomics and Human Factors Engineering. Memberships of associations include the Japan Ergonomics Society, the Japan Industrial Management Association, and the Human Ergology Society.